International students are a particularly vulnerable demographic during the pandemic, but there are businesses, like Loveon Café, that are doing their part to help. (Image Source: supplied by Manali)

By Malvika Hemanth

Imagine being alone in a foreign land, receiving news that a dozen of your family members had passed away in your home country, and being unable to return home for an indefinite period of time.

This is the reality for Manali Manali, 24, an Indian international student who has been studying in Adelaide since July 2019.

Manali has lost over a dozen family members to COVID-19, the most recent in late April 2021. The student of a Masters in Wine Business degree at the University of Adelaide said that COVID-19 has placed her in a tug-of-war between her studies and returning home to be with family.

She had always dreamt of studying overseas as an international student, but when news broke about the COVID-19 situation in India, border closures and then the loss of her relatives, Manali began experiencing panic attacks.

“I can’t do anything sitting here. I can support them financially, but I can’t be there with them emotionally or physically,” she said.

“I would be getting ready for uni and start having panic attacks in the shower and after watching the news.”

Manali said the loss of her grandmother and aunty, who died within the same week, has impacted her the most.

Image description: Manali’s last photo with her grandmother in 2019.

Like many international students, Manali keeps in regular contact with her family back home, making at least four to five calls per day.  However, when she woke up to 10 missed calls from her brother, she felt uneasy.

“I just got that intuition that something was wrong because my brother doesn’t call me 10 times,” Manali said.

The news of the death of her grandmother, who passed the night before, left her questioning her decision to study and remain in Australia.

“It left me asking myself what the hell am I doing with my life? I lost my family member in front of me, I’m seeing their dead body and I can’t even touch them,” she said.

“I had to watch her funeral and cremation on video call. The worst thing was that everyone was beside her and I was the only unfortunate member in my family that wasn’t there,” she said.

Manali was confronted with the weighty decision of returning home and forgoing her studies in Australia.

“It’s either you go or either you stay, but if you leave you can’t come back because your future is gone, and if you stay you’ve lost,” she said.

Manali decided to stay and pursue her Masters, now in its second trimester, but it makes her apprehensive.

“I always have this fear whenever I am sleeping now because I don’t know what the news will be in the morning.”

Indians in Australia, including Loveon Café’s Head Chef and Co-owner Rohit Thakur, are trying to lessen the plight faced by international students in Australia, and for those in India.

When COVID-19 hit Australia in March 2020, Rohit and his team at Loveon Café realised the impact this would have on international students in Australia and, as a café, they knew their power was in food.

This power led them to running a promotion which offered all international students free meals which included a serving of rice, dhal, flat bread and pickles from March 2020 until May 2020.

Image description: Mayra Inchiglema Solorzano, an international student studying a Bachelor of Business (Marketing) at Torrens University, who took advantage of Loveon Café’s free meals promotion when she lost her waitressing job.

Since this campaign, the situation in India worsened, seeing daily COVID-19 cases of over 400,000 at one point, making Rohit feel like he could be doing more for his country of origin.

His family back in Delhi, including his mother, father and brother, had COVID-19 but they were fortunate to recover, enduring only a mild fever.

Many in Delhi and across India were less fortunate. Prompted by a willingness to help COVID-19-ravaged India, and an initiative started by his childhood friend Amrinder back in Delhi, Rohit once again used food to help his homeland.

“I saw Amrinder’s Facebook and I saw that he was doing free meals for all the COVID positive patients in Delhi, and I was sitting at home thinking how could I support him for his cause, and I thought let’s do a fundraising dinner,” Rohit said.

The fundraising dinner, which was held on May 1 2021, saw 55 people pack into the quaint Mile End café for a three-course dinner. Unlike many fundraisers, which only see a proportion of the proceeds going to their designated cause, Loveon’s fundraiser had all proceeds go directly to Amrinder to assist him in his restaurant, Khalsa Parivar, to feed COVID-19 patients in Delhi.

“We told customers it’s completely, 100 per cent on us, and whatever they feel comfortable donating for the cause it’s up to them,” Rohit said.

 Loveon Café raised a “phenomenal” $2800 that night.

“Everyone knew how hard India had been hit and they were all really happy to support the cause.”

Indians in Australia, like Manali and Rohit, are satisfied by both the Australian and Indian governments’ efforts to assist each other.

Rohit said Australia and India are doing their best but wishes both nations would fast track their vaccination processes. Conversely, Manali wishes that the Australian government would allow some easing of border restrictions for temporary visa holders that would like to visit their homeland and then return to Australia.

The pair, however, remain hopeful that in time they will be able to return to India since their last visits in 2019.