They moved to Hamilton in search of a better life. Then the pandemic hit

·5 min read

In December 2019, Javier Rumie and his family boarded an international flight from Colombia and landed in Toronto, where they were greeted by the bitter and comparatively glacial weather of a typical Canadian winter.

It was their first time up north. Rumie first heard the words “Hamilton, Ontario” only a year prior while researching academic programs tailored to international students from non-English countries. Now, along with his wife and two kids, he was boarding a bus that would take them to their rented house in the city’s downtown.

Sandra Velasquez, Rumie’s wife, had recently accepted a work permit from the federal government. She enrolled their children in local elementary schools and made arrangements to buy a car after they settled in.

“It was so different, coming here. The weather, the culture, the food. It took us time to get comfortable,” she said.

Little did they know about the coming pandemic.

Years earlier, the couple had made a conscious decision to save enough money to leave Bogota in search of a safer city to raise children. A relative of theirs, who’d left the Latin American country for Waterloo, Ont., suggested they look at some of the community colleges in the GTA, where cost of living was cheaper and a brief certificate program could open doors for well-paying employment.

They decided on Hamilton after Rumie enrolled in Mohawk College’s program for global business management. Tuition wasn’t cheap — at Mohawk, the rate for international students is roughly triple the amount for domestic students — but the couple had saved enough in previous years to make an investment.

Less than a month had passed since they arrived in Hamilton when Canada announced its first case of COVID-19. In only a matter of weeks, the virus had spread through the GTA, slowly at first, until suddenly shops were being shuttered and schools put on lockdown.

Rumie and the family entered a two-month quarantine marred by uncertainty. “At first it was stressful for health reasons, but then it became stressful because of money,” he said.

They’d kept their savings in Colombian banks, where the effects of the pandemic had devastated the economy and rapidly lowered the value of its currency. Ineligible for most government aid offered to Canadian citizens, the couple soon found themselves struggling to pay bills.

Rumie took a part-time job in sanitation, first working as a cleaner in a downtown bank office and then as a janitor in a nearby grocery store.

He worked on the weekends and sometimes in the early mornings, finding time between class, while Velasquez looked after the kids.

They sought help from non-profits and programs through Mohawk College — taking advantage of the school’s grocery-delivery service, Helping Hampers.

Anxious for their future in Canada, the family found themselves in a situation far from what they’d expected when they left their country of origin.

Their experience is not uncommon to international students enrolled in Hamilton universities this year, says Jamie Wang, head of Hamilton International Students.

“When the pandemic hit, international students did not qualify for the vast majority of government aid,” he told The Spectator.

The Canadian Emergency Student Benefit applied only to domestic students; the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit applied only to citizens.

Canadian post-secondary schools have become a shortcut for immigration, as Ottawa puts more emphasis on Canadian education and work experience while selecting new citizens.

Graduates of Canadian colleges and universities are given a postgraduate work permit that can last between one and three years, depending on the length of the academic program.

Citizenship candidates need at least one year of Canadian work experience before their permits expire to get bonus points for their applications.

International students are often perceived as coming from wealthy families who could easily navigate the economic turbulence of a pandemic, said Wang, but this isn’t true for everyone.

“For many of them, they’re using their life’s savings and this is their one shot to make it in Canada. With the pandemic, they’re losing part-time jobs and they’re losing networking opportunities.”

In April, Mohawk College launched the Helping Hampers program to address the needs of international students and their families for food and personal care items. The program relies on grants from local foundations and a group of volunteers to deliver groceries to registered students.

According to Natalie Hughes, academic manager of Mohawk’s international program, the program helped 445 students between May and November, delivering more than 1,200 bags of groceries across the city.

But as the city prepares for winter and a second wave of COVID-19, the program is scheduled to shut down in November due to a lack of funding, though Hughes says they’ve applied for more grants.

“These programs are really important to have right now. Many of our international students have really sacrificed to join us from all around the world, and have worked for years to save enough to study with us,” Hughes said.

“A lot of them may have exhausted their life savings to help qualify for an education here. A lot of them rely on part-time work to make ends meet, yet the employment impacts of the pandemic, and the prospect of a difficult winter, have put some of those plans in jeopardy.”

At times, Rumie and Velasquez considered setting aside academia and turning to full-time work. Velasquez briefly considered returning to Colombia, where she’d retained a position at a university.

“But it’s too big a loss to stop now,” said Rumie.

“If we stop now, we lose what we spent on our studies, we lose the opportunity to keep learning the language and culture here. Now, fortunately, with some help, we’re in a better situation. It was difficult for a while, but I think it’s getting better.”

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator