Life in Melbourne was going well for Tiyon Novaidin and his wife.
Key points:International students and casual workers have become vulnerable to food insecurityMany lost their jobs in the hospitality and cleaning services industriesSome survived by receiving free groceries from not-for-profit organisations
They both had steady jobs and he was completing his masters in accounting.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and upended their lives.
Mr Novaidin’s wife lost her full-time cleaning job because of the restrictions in Victoria, and Mr Novaidin was struggling to pay rent and put food on the table with just his part-time cleaning job.
“Everything happened so suddenly,” he said.
“We had to rely on my income [as a part-timer] to survive. Other than that, we received help from our friends who cared for us and understood our condition.”
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Mr Novaidin came to Melbourne as an international student in July 2017. His wife came two months later with their nine-year-old daughter and gave birth to their son the following year.
He was worried that if lockdown had continued, it would have affected both his and his daughter’s education.
“We had anticipated asking for help from our family in Indonesia at the time, but because almost every country in the world is affected by the pandemic … they were affected too,” he said.
“At one point we did inform them about our condition, but we still managed to survive until now.”
As an international student, Mr Novaidin has to pay for his own tuition fee and support his family.(Supplied)
Mr Novaidin’s young family received groceries and other help from not-for-profit organisations as well as a family friend to fulfill their daily needs during the lockdown.
He said it was thanks to temporary changes to Victoria’s rental laws and State Government support that they managed to keep a roof over their heads.
This week his wife has also started a new job at a restaurant.
Food insecurity for a new group of Victorians International students lining up for free food in Melbourne.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
International students have been one of the hardest hit groups during the pandemic, with many losing their jobs and unable to return home.
A recent Foodbank Hunger report found international students and casual workers have become vulnerable to food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.
To meet this growing need, Foodbank Victoria opened a pop-up store for international students, where they could collect fresh produce and staple items for free.
The store opened on October 21 and has been visited by about 500 students per day.
Alexa Viani says there is a “real need” to support international students in Australia.(ABC News: Natasya Salim)
Alexa Viani, marketing and communications manager at Foodbank Victoria, said international students were one of the groups most affected by the lockdown.
“A lot of the industries they worked at [hospitality and cleaning services] were closed down. There was no income coming in,” she told the ABC.
Ms Viani said there was “a real need” to support international students, who were unable to travel back to their families and were isolated, unemployed and had no support network.
“We wanted to provide dignity and choice for students who were really feeling trapped and struggling,” Ms Viani said.
“International students are part of the vibrancy of the Melbourne CBD so we just wanted to show them that we are here for them.”
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David Nocua, a student from Colombia who has visited the store three times, said the initiative was helpful, especially when he was jobless for three to four months.
“[It helps us with] a few basics [because] we are not able to get any income from our countries or here [since] everything was closed and we were unable to work,” said Mr Nocua, who has recently found a job in hospitality.
No money for a ticket home Sri Dila Riwu (second from right) is worried about not having enough money to buy tickets to Indonesia.(Supplied)
Sri Dila Riwu said she had a dream that one day her husband and children in Indonesia would join her in Australia, after living in Melbourne by herself for a year.
But when it came true, the pandemic hit and sent the family into lockdown in their Brunswick home.
“I got stressed when my family came because it was during the lockdown,” she said.
Her husband’s initial plan to work and support the family was dashed by a lack of job opportunities.
Ms Riwu, who is studying a masters in laboratory medicine at RMIT University, said she was devastated.
“I had a hard time taking care of everything. But at least my husband was there to help because he was always at home,” she said.
The family could only rely on Ms Riwu’s scholarship allowance and free groceries supplied by community groups.
They also applied for a rent reduction to keep their home.
Some international students have been relying on charities to fulfill their daily needs during lockdown in Melbourne.(ABC News: Natasya Salim)
Ms Riwu said she felt grateful that her husband found a job working on a farm in Cobram in regional Victoria last month.
However, she is still worried that her husband’s income won’t be enough to pay for their flights back to Indonesia next month.
“I’ve got my ticket covered by the scholarship program, but we still need to pay for four more tickets, and the tickets to Kupang are pretty expensive,” she said.
“And I don’t have any savings to pay for that.”
International students living in ‘packed houses’
In Melbourne’s suburban areas, international students are facing similar difficulties.
Susan Hendra, vice-president of not-for-profit charity 300 Blankets, said she had received many inquiries from international students — mainly in Melbourne’s western and northern suburbs — about their care packages.
Every week, the organisation delivers care packages containing perishables such as milk, cereal, spreads, fresh fruits, bread, and eggs.
Most international students that 300 Blankets has helped live in “packed” houses.(Supplied)
The households that have requested assistance were usually occupied by two to six people, but Ms Hendra said there could be more because she “got a sense that the students were not forthcoming” about the number of people in the household.
“But you can see that it’s very, very packed houses. All of these international students are either from India or Nepal. That’s the ones that we’ve been getting,” she said.
Susan Hendra (right) has been delivering care packages to international students in Melbourne’s suburban areas.(Supplied)
But daily needs are not the only problem that international students are facing.
“I think because of that lockdown time, people crave social connection,” she told the ABC.
“They were happy to see other people. Really, really happy.
“So we try to use the same lot of volunteers to go on similar routes so they can establish and maintain relationships.”
International students contribute $40 billion annually to the Australian economy and support 250,000 jobs.
Much of that contribution is seen in Victoria, with international education generating $12.6 billion revenue for the state last financial year and supporting around 79,000 jobs.
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Earlier this year, the Federal Government announced it had made five visa changes to ensure international students are not worse off due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This includes allowing students studying online outside Australia due to COVID-19 to use that study to count towards the Australian study requirement for a post-study work visa.
“We are a welcoming nation with a world-class education system and some of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the world,” Acting Minister for Immigration Alan Tudge said in a statement from July.
“Students want to study here and we want to welcome them back in a safe and measured way when it is safe to do so.”
While the Victorian Government has announced support for international students, including allocating funding to organisations to provide free meals and groceries, Ms Hendra believes more could be done.
A Government spokesperson told the ABC international students were an important part of the education sector and made a significant contribution to the wider community.
“That’s why we’ve provided support through the $45 million International Student Emergency Relief Fund,” the spokesperson said.
“We’ve also commissioned the Red Cross to provide financial assistance, information and referrals as part of a $50 million program to support Victoria’s most vulnerable — including international students.”
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