News / Edmonton

'It was horrible': International student faced hunger, homelessness to pay tuition

The Council of Alberta University Students released a policy paper this week highlighting challenges faced by international students

Akram Hammami is an international student from Tunisia. Hammani found himself homeless for a week in Edmonton due to struggling with tuition costs.

Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

Akram Hammami is an international student from Tunisia. Hammani found himself homeless for a week in Edmonton due to struggling with tuition costs.

An international student in Edmonton has battled hunger, homelessness and 15-hour work days to keep up with tuition fees.

The Council of Alberta University Students released a policy paper this week highlighting challenges faced by international students, and it found school is 3.6 times more expensive for international than domestic students on average.

That has made things hard on students like Akram Hammami, who decided to study abroad in 2014 after his family came under threat in his native Tunisia, and found himself homeless for a week during his next summer in Edmonton.

“It was not the best time of my life,” Hammami said.  

“I worked as a dishwasher at a catering company from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then I worked at Sears Kingsway from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. I did that the entire summer. It was horrible. But, I don’t know, I managed.”

After work, Hammami would sleep in parks or near malls.

His brother has since made his way to Edmonton and the two now share an apartment, but Hammami still struggles to afford groceries and frequently accesses the university food bank.

Researchers found many international students struggle to find housing and employment, due in part to federal and provincial restrictions on where international students can work.

Fees for international students have increased every year, based either on Consumer Price Index or Academic Price Index, and Hammami said that’s something he never expected when he enrolled.

“There is no information given by the university saying that the tuition will be changing every year, that’s the misleading part,” he said.

“So international students come with an idea that they have a budget, that for four years they’re good to go, but the thing is every year it changes.”

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Hammami said international students struggle to have a social life or take on leadership opportunities because of the higher costs, and that being unable to afford groceries has affected his physical and mental health.

Being in an unfamiliar country on top of that adds to the challenges.

“You have to make friends, have to have a new support system, to build your life from scratch again. It’s really difficult for an international student to do that,” he said. “If there’s a language barrier, if you don’t know anyone, you don’t have any support.”

Council of Alberta University Students Chair Reed Larsen said food bank usage among international students went up 30 per cent the last time tuition jumped three per cent at the U of A.

The council is calling for several changes, including an immediate freeze on tuition for international undergraduate students.

While the province has frozen tuition for domestic students two years in a row, Larsen said he is “out of patience” when it comes to waiting for the Alberta government’s fee review that promises a long-term, predictable funding model.

Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt has said the review is coming in Spring 2018.

“At this point, it’s quite ridiculous,” Larsen said.

“I personally know international students who go hungry every day because they can’t afford, or can’t realistically plan for the cost of their education.”

Schmidt said in an e-mailed statement that he thanks the council for its advocacy on behalf of students and the province prides itself on being inclusive.

"Encouraging bright and inquisitive minds from across Alberta, Canada, and around the globe to study in Alberta enriches our province," he said. "Costs to attend these institutions shouldn’t be a barrier to a good education, and we are working with institutions to ensure greater access to affordable high-quality education."

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