International student facing the pandemic

photo of Ehsan leaning against a railing with a mountainous background.

For international students, the pandemic has completely redefined the experience of studying abroad. It even changed the life plan of some.

Ehsan Mamakani planned his move to Toronto for a long time. But he didn’t expect that his life would take such a drastic turn just a few months after his arrival. As a Kurd from Iran, he has always thought of going abroad to study and work. And it is not the first time that his plans have to change suddenly.

“At 19, I moved to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to continue my studies in computer engineering. I graduated in 2015 when the war with ISIS started. So my first job as a computer engineering graduate was in… journalism,” Mamakani recalls.

With the whole world suddenly focusing on the region, he started working as a journalist and a fixer, a local who helps foreign journalists in their work. He also covered Kurdish independence movements, but even if he enjoyed the job, he decided to stop after it became too dangerous.

“The government started to threaten my family in Iran. I love journalism, but at some point, I thought that for my family that cannot get out of the country, it would be selfish to follow something that puts their lives in danger,” he explains.

Headshot of international student Ehsan Mamakani
Photo courtesy of Ehsan Mamakani

The economy in the region started to tank and Mamakani decided that it was time to move. After considering several international cities, he decided to apply for a data analytics program in Toronto. He got accepted and flew to Toronto at the end of December 2020.

“It took a while for the visa office to give me a confirmation, but when I received it I thought: this is the best time of my life!” he says with a smile.

Everything went well for his first months. He studied, made friends and managed to get 2 different jobs, one in sales and another in tutoring. These jobs were were essential to keep him afloat financially. But when the pandemic hit, he almost immediately lost both his sources of income and had to take a hard decision.

“Suddenly I got stuck in a room in a basement. I didn’t know anybody in the country and couldn’t meet anybody. It was very stressful for a couple of months, until I had to drop out from university,” Mamakani says.

As the National Executive Representative of the Canadian Federation of Students Kayla Weiler notes, foreign students have had little to no help from the government during the pandemic.

“The government completely left out international students from any support program. They’re not able to apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit or the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit. It’s really shameful to see,” Weiler says.

Thankfully, Mamakani is resourceful and remains optimistic.

“Now I’m a residential painter. I’m teaching myself artificial intelligence, and after I finish my painting work I read a book about machine learning. I also try to get my hands on coding. Maybe when the pandemic is over I can meet some machine learning engineers so I can learn from their experience,” Mamakani explains.

He didn’t give up on his original goal to study in Canada, and hopes he can integrate a challenging program at a prestigious university in Toronto.

“I’m very optimistic, I think there is no better time to be alive!”

To hear more,  listen to the interview below. This is the final instalment of a four-part series exploring the experience of newcomers to Canada navigating the pandemic.