As many as 75,000 Indian students could be stranded in the US according to the North American Association of Indian Students, with some being made homeless and unable to afford food.
NAAIS explained that lockdown rules in the country have meant that students have lost part-time jobs that they depended on for additional income, which has resulted in students facing severe financial problems.
“There should be a safety net provided by the sponsoring country as well as the host country”
“What happened when Covid-19 hit is that universities shut down, and they asked people to leave all of a sudden. The entire hospitality industry [which employed many] shut down,” executive director of NAAIS Sudhanshu Kaushik, told The PIE News.
“The people who could afford the last minute flights before India went into lockdown, left. Now in the US, we estimate 75,000 students might be stuck.”
Kaushik explained that NAAIS is having to provide support for students who are no longer able to work for additional income.
“We are seeing people who are sleeping hungry at night, and NAAIS is providing them with groceries. We have seen people who are homeless. We had a J-1 student living in a garage before we got him a home in Florida,” he said.
“Imagine having to live in a garage, or not having to eat for two-three days and living off expired food?”
The US government has not provided students with a hardship fund, and instead, individual universities have been tasked with managing a response.
Organisations such as the Institute of International Education have also been answering to call to help international students.
The IIE is currently in the process of distributing $1 million to aid 300 students in the US in dire need of support, having already committed $1m to help hundreds of international students caught in the crossfire of the pandemic.
But Kaushik pointed out that there should be a safety net provided by the sponsoring country as well as the host country.
“And that isn’t there,” he continued. “When it comes to the safety net, the government is saying that it is a university issue, but the universities are saying that once this [pandemic] happened, they were woefully unprepared.
“Students pay health insurance; they pay all these fees to ensure a basic safety net and not to be asked to leave their dorm at university all of a sudden. Yet now, they have had to.”
Students in the US on J-1 visas are particularly vulnerable when it comes to support, according to Kaushik.
He said that many students on J-1 visas are mostly from lower middle-class or middle-class backgrounds and don’t have much disposable income.
According to Kaushik, while J-1 sponsors are supposed to help students, in many cases, they do not.
“[Students] were fired, some companies terminated contracts and said ‘we don’t owe you anything’. That is morally wrong, and it is also a gross misuse of the system,” he added.
Kumbhari said that it is the visa sponsors’ responsibility to monitor their J-1 students’ wellbeing during their programs.
The PIE asked Elizabeth Kumbhari, vice president of professional exchange programs and legal counsel at nonprofit exchange organisation Cultural Vistas what was being done to support stranded students who were doing internships on J-1 visas.
“Fortunately, of the thousands of participants from across the globe in the US during the time of Covid-19, the vast majority have been able to continue training remotely, or despite travel complications, have been able to return to their home country,” said Kumbhari.
“Students… pay all these fees to ensure a basic safety net”
“During these difficult times, we are in communication with exchange visitors monthly, if not weekly or daily, depending on the individuals’ circumstance. And we are available to them 24-hours a day, through an emergency phone line.
“Cultural Vistas maintains on-going communication with the host companies to solicit any additional local support, such as availability of continued training or compensation, local resources for affordable food and housing, and colleagues who can support in any way,” she added.
However, the situation of Indian international students struggling in their host country as a result of the pandemic is not unique to the US.
In a recent PIE Perspectives video, The PIE spoke with “cash-strapped” students, parents and community groups about the issue of Indian students who are stranded in the UK.
“We [have been] dealing with thousands and thousands of queries from stranded students who want to go home,” explained Sanam Arora, founder and chairperson of the UK’s National Indian Students and Alumni Union.