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International Students Deserve Safety. And Better Support

Far from home, women are especially vulnerable. A new documentary calls for action and compassion.

Jeevan Sangha 19 Jun 2024The Tyee

Jeevan Sangha is the 2024 Hummingbird journalism fellow with The Tyee. She has written for CBC Music, Billboard Canada and Shado Magazine.

Jenny Francis has been an immigration researcher in Canada for years, but it wasn’t until she started teaching geography at Langara College in Vancouver that she came face to face with the struggles of international students in British Columbia.

When she started teaching in Langara’s department of geography and geology in 2015, Francis was surprised by how many South Asian international students were struggling in class. Still newly learning the language, students had difficulty understanding English course materials.

Many were exhausted and worn down from working long hours in addition to juggling student responsibilities, and often sent a good chunk of money to their families back home.

After class, students sometimes stuck around to chat with Francis about how hard it was to provide for themselves and learn how to manage living alone for the first time in a new country.

Still, they wouldn’t dream of telling their families what life in Canada was really like, they told her. After all, studying in Canada was a big deal, and the result of years of hard work and significant financial investment. Many felt immense pressure to make good on the sacrifices their families made to get them here.

“I became much more sympathetic towards international students learning about all the educational, employment and immigration challenges [they face],” she said.

Francis’s experiences teaching international students and witnessing their struggles altered the trajectory of her research and advocacy work. She recently completed a three-year study of employment and immigration outcomes of current and former international students in B.C. Over half of the respondents were South Asian.

“The system is working well for a lot of people,” she acknowledges. But she’s dedicated herself to closing the gap between the extraordinary experiences of international students and the general post-secondary student population. “How do we make it work better for international students?”

‘She had no place to go’

What Francis saw and heard in her classrooms is echoed in a new short documentary film by Vancouver’s Kahani Pictures called Listen: The Struggles of Female South Asian International Students, which sheds light on the unique experiences of female international students in Canada.

The film will be available for streaming on YouTube after a public screening and panel discussion to mark its B.C. premiere tonight at Surrey City Hall.

The Surrey screening sold out days in advance. It’s a reflection, perhaps, of widespread local community interest in what the film is surfacing — challenging, underreported struggles that are unique to the experiences of young, racialized newcomer women.

Filmed across Metro Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area, Listen explores accounts of emotional, physical and sexual harassment and exploitation, substance use and mental illness through the eyes of current and former international students and the representatives of community organizations working to help them.

“People who hurt you are the ones who are the [closest] to you,” said Himanshi in the film. She is a young Indian immigrant who has seen predatory dynamics play out with her friends who are international students.

Himanshi recalls excitedly running into a friend on the street, only to notice that something was off.

Not long after, Himanshi’s friend confided that she was struggling to cover her college fees and was offered help by a trusted friend and co-worker who later sexually abused her.

“She had no place to go,” Himanshi said in the film.

“He told her, ‘There’s nothing that you can do. You are an international student and I’m a citizen here. Nothing’s going to happen.’”

Watch the trailer for Listen: The Struggles of Female South Asian International Students. Trailer via Kahani Pictures.

The creators hope Listen will dispel common misconceptions about international students by offering a humanizing, nuanced portrait of their daily realities and struggles.

The film is also a call to action: to extend compassion towards and advocate for the safety of female international students in Canada.

“Hopefully, what this film is going to do is leverage the power of community,” said Kahani Pictures founder Inder Nirwan.

As he prepares for the screening at Surrey City Hall tonight, he hopes the documentary will “bring people together to talk about this issue in a constructive way.”

Five times domestic tuition, and few formal supports

The film is part of an ongoing body of work, like Francis’s Langara research and that of local community organizations, that aims to raise awareness about the structural barriers that international students face.

International student tuition far exceeds that of their domestic counterparts in the same programs. International students pay five times more tuition than domestic students in B.C. in order to replace funding that used to come from the provincial government.

Between 2000 and 2016, the proportion of provincial funding in B.C. post-secondary schools has decreased by 24 per cent. Post-secondaries in B.C. today are receiving over 90 per cent less provincial government funding than they were in the 1970s.

International fees provide crucial funding for post-secondary institutions, but Francis notes the schools themselves don’t provide much in return to meaningfully support international students in navigating key elements of life in Canada: finding housing, securing employment and navigating pathways towards immigration.

As of January of this year, there are more than 175,000 international post-secondary students in B.C., and India is currently Canada’s top source country. They are classified as temporary residents by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

While the provincial government has some programs to aid in settlement such as BC Settlement and Integration Services with peer support and educational workshops, Francis says most services prioritize refugee claimants and other groups.

Without established support networks, international students are vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of employers, landlords and immigration consultants.

One international student, who maintained anonymity in the film for safety reasons, disclosed her experience with harassment while working as a security guard.

Without concrete social support, she felt that her experience wouldn’t be taken seriously by authorities.

“I was feeling very depressed at that time,” she said. “We come to Canada and try so hard. But even one incident... it can ruin our lives.”

To fill the gaps, community groups step in

Listen tracks well-established business owners, predominantly men, who prey upon female international students’ fear of deportation and family disappointment. Those fears make the students more vulnerable to unequal power dynamics at work, including abuse and exploitation.

Baldev Mutta of Punjabi Community Health Services said in the film he has heard of employers using intimidation tactics and threats to immigration status in order to assert power over young students.

Feeling helpless, students don’t know who to trust to help them, he said.

An older man with medium skin and a grey beard wears a cream-coloured corduroy blazer and matching cream-coloured turban. He is seated against a blue background and wears a serious expression mid-speech.
Baldev Mutta, former CEO of Punjabi Community Health Services, is a fierce advocate for the safety of South Asian international students. Film still via Kahani Pictures.

In addition to Punjabi Community Health Services, a range of community groups including the humanitarian organization Khalsa Aid, One Voice Canada and the South Asian Legal Clinic of BC work together to support international students across Metro Vancouver.

Baljit Kamoh, the Metro Vancouver director for Khalsa Aid, says the demand for international student support has been steadily increasing since the pandemic.

Kamoh highlighted how the challenges of South Asian students can be traced to the work of academic recruitment agents visiting their home countries.

Those recruiters, Kamoh says, present prospective students with false narratives about a romantic life in Canada for their own profit. In turn, this results in many families mortgaging their homes or going into debt to finance a chance at a new life.

“They paint this rosy picture,” she said, “[that] they’ll be handed a job, and it’s easy to make cash here. That’s just not the case, and unfortunately they have to learn the hard way.”

Back at Langara College, Francis’s research reflects other difficulties. In the interviews she conducted for her three-year study, students noted difficulties securing employment in their field of study. And she noticed a gap between what international students hoped for themselves and how the Canadian government had structured their time here.

While she found most international students wanted to become Canadian citizens and obtain permanent residency, she said international student programs seem to be structured towards a different outcome: for students to complete their education in Canada, then return home.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes about immigrants that get recycled,” Francis said. Those stereotypes, she added, are well-worn. Popular misconceptions used to discriminate against refugee newcomers are also used against international students, such as the idea that all international students are wealthy, that they’re “here to take advantage of our system,” or “here to take our jobs.”

“All of that is not true,” Francis said.

“We need young people. Let’s help them integrate and be as successful as they can.”  [Tyee]

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