By the time Foodbank opens the doors to its CBD pantry in Melbourne, the line of international students stretches hundreds of metres.
Most are hospitality workers who have lost their jobs each lockdown and are now struggling to keep up with rent or even fill their pantries. Most wait quietly in the queue on Wednesday morning but, among the hundreds of young people in need, there are pockets of cheery conversation and laughter.
Kush Chandarana, Meghna Ganesh and Kanishka Chaudhray are making the best of the wait time. As much as they don’t want to be here, they say their weekly trips to the food support centre are one of their only chances to socialise.
“It just keeps us going. It’s a way for us to get out of our homes,” Ganesh says. “I was really looking forward to having those networking opportunities through the uni, but we didn’t get that chance. So yeah, this is the only thing we are getting.”
The group jokes about going from “online” to “in-line” socialising, but coming to terms with needing to access the Foodbank’s services just to make ends meet has been extremely tough for them.
“We didn’t even tell our families initially that this is what we’re doing because it would make them feel bad,” Ganesh says.
Failing to make it in Australia has implications for their families back home.
“If it doesn’t work for one, then the younger sibling or the others in the family are also discouraged to take that step in the future,” Ganesh says. It doesn’t just kill the dreams of one but it affects the whole household.
“My younger brother was also planning on coming here for his bachelor [degree], but he’s dropped that plan for now.”
In the last 18 months, Chandarana says he’s seen friends drain the last of their savings, with no choice but to return home. With the restrictions on national arrival caps still in place, this often means forfeiting their degrees.
“The only decision they had was to drop the college, drop what their dreams were and go back home,” he says. “I mean, I thought I would be helping my family, but it’s the other way around. They are helping me.”
Foodbank’s chief executive, Dave McNamara, says it is a common misconception among Australians that all international students are cashed up.
“I think there’s a great misconception actually that these kids are all getting sent money from back home,” he says. “But that’s actually only about 5% who are wealthy. The majority of them send money back home so, when they’ve lost their jobs, their families at home are suffering as well.”
During Melbourne’s second wave, international students weren’t eligible for jobkeeper. With more than a year of the pandemic draining many people’s savings, it was a huge relief when the commonwealth government announced that anyone with a visa that gives them the right to work would be eligible for the new individual disaster payments.
Sammi Lai lost her part-time wait staff job during the fifth lockdown and was eligible for the $450 a week in supports. She says it’s enough to cover rent but there isn’t much left over for things like fresh fruit and vegetables, so she’s been relying on food relief to get by.
“When I lost my job I was like, ‘Oh, we are in trouble.’ It’s been really tough,” she says.
Italian international students Laura and Arianna, who asked for their last names not to be included, say they are extremely worried at the prospect of the federal government beginning to wind up the payments once vaccination rates reach 70% of the adult population, when Melbourne will still be under strict Covid-19 restrictions.
“These payments, we have them for a couple more weeks and then we are going to be by ourselves,” Arianna says. “Sure, we can start working again, but it’s gonna be a few hours and it’s not enough.
“It would be great if the government would just open their eyes … Melbourne is a very expensive city and we already pay taxes, more than Australians pay. School for us is more expensive. We are a big, big share of Victoria’s income, so it’s just not fair.
“Once the lockdown is over, we’re just not being taken care of at all … It’s just not fair that we pay more but when it comes to receiving, we receive almost nothing.”
Laura says many students are now considering moving state to avoid being stuck without income once again.
“Most of the people we know are already planning to go to Queensland or Western Australia as soon as they can. They’ve got a different approach to dealing with this, you know? It’s better for work.”
Foodbank has been running the CBD pop-up pantry for nearly a year now and McNamara says the line isn’t showing any signs of shrinking.
“We’re doing over 600 students every day [we operate], just in a four-hour period. And that’s been consistent since we opened in October …
“We expected to be supporting students from around the CBD, but we have had people coming from Frankston, from Mernda, from Truganina. People are needing help from all over.”
Demand for all of Foodbank’s services has been increasing in 2021. “Since jobkeeper and jobseeker finished, the demand has just been steadily rising,” he says.
“We started doing drive-through hampers … in lockdown six, we did 450 cars in the first hour. The police had to shut it down for public safety because the queues were going back kilometres and even over the West Gate Bridge.
“That really just drove home to us that this is just not something that we’re going to recover quickly from.”