This team of international students are the heroes we need during COVID-19
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This team of international students are the heroes we need during COVID-19

This team of international students are the heroes we need during COVID-19

At the University of Oklahoma, Youssef Kamel is currently in self-isolation. For the past week, the 21-year-old college student – who usually has full days of classes and club meetings – has only gone out three times to get his essentials. He’s set to graduate this semester, but for him, and millions of others around the world, all of that has been postponed due to recent world events. 

Youssef is a diabetic, he usually gets his insulin supply when he goes back to Egypt, where he was born and raised. Not willing to take the risk and leave his dorm, he’s also unable to get back home to get a refill on his life-saving medication: Egypt is barring air travelers from entering until March 31, and by the looks of it, this could be extended even longer. 

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Passengers, wearing masks, depart Aswan International Airport in the Egyptian city, some 920 kms south of the capital Cairo, on February 2, 2020. Source: Khaled Desouki/AFP

Buying them in the US means having to fork over US$100 for just a month’s supply. This would be in addition to the US$40 he already pays monthly for his glucose metre, a necessary piece of equipment he uses to check his blood sugar daily. Without it, Youssef’s unchecked levels could see him slip into a diabetic coma, and even mean death. 

It’s a difficult time for the international student, but Youssef is still smiling.

Youssef’s smile is unflappable, and he’s optimistic about the future. Just weeks into the COVID-19 outbreak, he helped set up a  GoFundMe campaign to raise money for international students impacted by the virus outbreak. They have since collected US$3,497.

Speaking from his dorm in Oklahoma on Zoom, the college student told Study International that the response has been “amazing.”

“Staff and faculty members are the majority of our donors, followed by local concerned citizens. There are 75 donors so far, with an average of US$45 per person and some even up to US$250.” 

“People have been helping in many ways.”

The group behind the campaign has set a target of US$5,000 to help international students at OU with groceries, medicine and housing.

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Many students in universities across the US have been asked to move out of campus in short notice. Source: Sandy Huffaker/AFP

Donors can be rest assured the money would go to those who need it most, with Youssef telling SI that he is using data collection to assess the needs of international students on campus.

Using the results of a recent survey of around 500 students who qualify for relief, he will assess the results along with the other members of the International Advisory Committee, where he is head.

On-campus housing at OU is still open for international and low-income students who cannot go home. University staff is ensuring that food, though limited, remains available to these individuals. But the survey findings show international students are still in need of other crucial support.

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Source: University of Oklahoma’s International Advisory Committee

When asked of the survey’s findings, the co-ed revealed that 50 percent of international students are physically unable to go home because their countries have shut down their borders. Most questioned confirmed that if they were allowed back home, they fear being barred from re-entering the US to continue their studies. In recent days, the US has closed their borders to nations within the Schengen area, the UK, Ireland and Canada.

A large number stand to lose their jobs or have their work hours reduced. Survey data shows a large number of employees who worked 15-20 hours, appropriate to their needs, have migrated to the 0-5 hours category. As they are on F1 visa, these students aren’t able to get jobs off-campus, even if they are available. 

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Source: University of Oklahoma’s International Advisory Committee

One student said: “Because I cannot work currently, and my family in China also has financial problems to support me, I need money for buying the food and other life essentials. Also, I’m trying to buy the air ticket, but the ticket price all goes up which affects my budget a lot.”

Without a job, online classes would not be possible, another said.

“[I need it for a] flight home and financial help for the time I would be there. I pay the internet and electricity bills and I wouldn’t be able to continue paying it without a job here. Taking online classes would then prove to be difficult.”

Much of this is the same for millions of students around the world. There is no question that students everywhere are impacted by everything from course disruptions to financial problems. 

But there are more difficulties for international students as they deal with unanswered questions about their study visas, post-study work opportunities, ability to return home and racism. The last one is particularly distressing, with a Singaporean student in London reportedly assaulted while being told “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country” and scores of others reporting similar discrimination.

Which is why Yousef’s GoFundMe campaign makes for an inspiring story in this dire time. Yousef insists it’s no solitary effort, giving full credit instead to the International Advisory Committee.

The campaign has brought out the best of the Committee, the university and surrounding community, with much-needed financial help on its way to partially, if not fully, relieve his fellow students at OU. 

“We will try to help as much as possible,” Youssef said.

“International students just need to fill up a form on our website. The International Advisory Committee together with the international programme co-ordinator will review and assess how much each case can receive.”

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There are 2,155 international students at OU from 135 different countries, all with different border restrictions caused by COVID-19. Source: University of Oklahoma’s International Advisory Committee

Not every hero wears a cape or looks like Henry Cavill. In Oklahoma, it’s a team effort led by an Egyptian in an International Relations course and one hell of a campus and surrounding community.

More importantly, it’s a timely reminder of community and that we will get through this crisis together.

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