Last week, 5X Press and the Brampton-based organization Laadliyan, co-presented a panel discussion in Surrey titled: “The struggles of international students is an open secret.” 

Sparked by anecdotes and stories in community spaces about the widespread discrimination and exploitation faced by international students in the South Asian community, the event aimed to raise awareness about the issue and explore pathways for support. 

The panel featured Manvir Bhangu, Baljit Lally, and Gurkirat Singh. The discussion was moderated by 5X Press editor-in-chief, Jeevan Sangha. 

Bhangu is the founder of Laadliyan, which works for empowering South Asian women, primarily in the Greater Toronto Area, and does significant work with the international student community of that area. She discussed her experiences and stories of working with women who come from India to Canada as international students. 

Lally is the team coordinator of Metro Vancouver branch of Khalsa Aid, which provides support to the people of the lower mainland who live in precarious situations. She shared her experiences of providing assistance, or seva, to the international students in distress.

Singh, who himself came to Canada as an international student in 2015, is the community outreach director at One Voice Canada, an organization which addresses the pervasive abuse and exploitation international students and vulnerable migrant workers face and works to connect them with necessary social services here in Canada. Singh is also the founder of SOUDA (Students Overcoming Substance Use Disorder & Addictions). He mostly shared his own personal experiences and that of other fellow international students he has witnessed during his studies and now during his work.

The event opened with a spoken word performance by Robyn Sandhu, who also came to Canada as an international student from Sri Ganganagar in 2017. While narrating the incidents of hatred and discrimination he and other international students faced at the hands of members of the South Asian community, Sandhu asked: “What is the difference between the people who want to send back international students today and people who sent away Komagata Maru a century ago? Only that this time, it is the people of our own community.”  

Based on true events, his poetry narrated the story of a young international student in Canada who was exploited by an employer from his own community. The poem ended on a disheartening reflection, “What goes around comes around. I used to believe this quote when I was a kid but my belief is slowly fading away watching people get away with it,” Sandhu said. 

The panel started off by discussing the big, powerful industry of immigration consulting and education recruitment agents in India who sell false promises of a better life in Canada to lure young people from Punjab. It is only when these young people land here, with eyes full of unrealistic dreams, that they discover the lie. By then, it is often too late to go back; their parents have already spent their lifelong savings to pay the hefty fees of a Canadian college.      

The panelists then went on to explore how colleges and universities earn huge profits from this lucrative business. Lally shared statistics about how in the 2018-19 academic year, universities and colleges in B.C. earned a 340 million dollar surplus off the backs of their international students. 

The majority of this revenue came from the fees paid by international students and yet these institutions refuse to use this surplus to support their welfare. Bhangu shared how these colleges and universities continue to grant admission to high numbers of international students while lacking the space and resources to support them. Singh further emphasized that these educational institutes cannot treat these international students as mere cash cows and must take responsibility for helping these students adjust to life in Canada, just as they would help any first-year student adjust to their new way of living. 

On the issue of adjusting to life in Canada, the discussion revealed how most international students that the panelists have worked with have never lived independently before. Now all of a sudden, they are expected to manage their studies, work, food and finances in a foreign country. 

Speaking from his own experience, Singh explained how students live under constant pressure to earn enough money to pay for the rent, food and a hefty semester fee which hangs like a sword over their heads. Additionally, some of them are also expected to send financial support to their families back home in India. Sometimes working for as long as 30 hours a week along with studies can also not be sufficient to meet these various expenses.

Then there are members of our own South Asian community who the international students look up to for help but they take advantage of the vulnerability of students’ situations, exploit them and scam them further as their employers, landlords and consultants.  

The absence of any support from educational institutes, community members and the government, coupled with the lack of awareness about available rights and services as an international student in Canada can leave newcomers in a very precarious position. 

In addition to the many layered struggles of international students, Bhangu highlighted the unique experiences of female-identifying international students that Laadliyan works with. 

She shared Laadliyan’s experience of reaching out to female international students and recording their experiences last year. “In a room full of 30, 35 women, there was hardly anyone who did not carry the trauma of being sexually harassed by people of the community, landlords, husbands, boyfriends, random strangers on the streets.”

Bhangu said many women  are too fearful and timid to report these incidents to police, friends or their educational institutes.   

All of these stressful experiences play into the rise of mental health issues and overdose deaths among international students in Surrey. “Still, there is no data available about the number of international students who have died by suicide in the last few years. I emailed BC Coroners Services about it, but never heard back from them” said Singh.   

The panelists also talked about the limitations of their respective organizations, lack of resources and funds to help out the international students in distress. They requested the government, better-funded NGOs and community members to share this responsibility with them.

The non-judgemental, safe space created by this discussion encouraged the former international students in the audience, including myself, to reflect back upon our own personal experiences and struggles in adjusting to life in Canada.

One audience member shared how she would not buy a food grinder during her early days as an international student because she was not sure if she belonged to this place. Buying a grinder could have been one way for her to make this place her home, but she saved the money of the grinder for her tuition fees instead.

Another former international student recognized the fear of getting deported and the role media, especially radio shows, play in throwing international students under the bus. He asked about how we can embolden our current and future generations of international students against such fears.

When I landed in Canada as an international student in early 2021, I did not know anyone here. The pandemic, cultural and language barriers, and more made it difficult for me to reach out to people. I suddenly found myself alone in a country thousands of miles away from my home with no one to turn to. 

I missed my friends and family in Pakistan. When I would talk to them on the phone, they would start complaining about life in Pakistan and tell me how lucky I was to be living in Canada. Some of them would even ask me for guidance about how they too can come to Canada. I didn’t have the heart to tell them about what the experience was truly like. 

Over time, I forcefully taught myself to be happy about my new reality, to be brave about all the difficulties, and to be in a state of denial about them. Hearing about the experiences of other international students through this panel discussion made me realize that I was not alone. There have been other international students like me who have suffered and stayed silent because they felt like they had no other choice. 

The frustration of how we are exploited and helpless at the hands of our educational institutions and community members continues to boil within us and affects us as human beings. 

The result of this is illustrated by the international student in Sandhu’s poetry, who stopped believing in a just world, and Lally’s discussion about how people who were exploited when they first came here now consider it their right to exploit newcomers today. 

No one deserves to go through such life experiences. No one deserves to be harmed; physically, emotionally, or mentally.  

In their concluding remarks, the panelists emphasized the need to apply pressure to the government and educational institutions around introducing more regulations and policies to battle the exploitation of international students. We can all play a part. We can use our social media platforms to amplify and encourage the voices of international students and we must not remain silent when we see them getting exploited around us.

It’s time to stop looking away. 

About the author

Hammad Abdullah

Hamad came from Pakistan to Canada as an international student and recently completed his masters in history from UBC. He is interested in issues related to South Asian cultures, histories, and colonialism. When not reading and writing (or thinking about reading and writing), he can be seen playing cricket.

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5X Press is a forum for opinions, conversations, & experiences, powered by South Asian youth. The views expressed here are not representative of those of 5X Festival.