By Asher Imtiaz
Editor’s note: This essay is reposted by permission of the author and the original host, The Living Church. All images featured are courtesy of Asher Imtiaz.
Shortly after I arrived in the United States, I came across some statistics about international students that remain worth sharing. Approximately 40 percent of these students never make an American friend and 75 percent will never visit an American home during their time in the U.S.
My experience as a student was different. I quickly learned about an American couple living a block from my university in Milwaukee who had been hosting international students for dinners every Friday night for years. Joining them were volunteer helpers from their local church. They simply provided friendships, free food, and a place to feel welcomed every week. In other words, a home away from home. I became a regular attendee.
I remember one conversation with a fellow international student in particular. She was from South Korea. I asked her one of the typical questions an international or immigrant would ask another: “When did you come to the U.S.?” She replied: “A year ago.” And when I asked what she did and what places she visited in the city that year, she responded that she had not been anywhere except her dorm, her classrooms, and grocery stores. Perhaps hers was an extreme case, but still one that resonated with other international students.
Learning the statistics and meeting students like these prompted me to join the same local church group to welcome international students. We connect with them in their first few weeks in the U.S. by giving them personal tours of the city, inviting them to Thanksgiving meals at American homes, providing them with furniture, and even taking them for driving tests.
All that was before COVID-19. Now, with universities closing and everyone being asked to leave dorms and campus housing, almost all who remain on campus are international students. With the “stay at home” order in place, they are one of the loneliest groups of people in the city. Because of uncertainty, financial limitations, or travel restrictions, many are feeling afraid and stressed. Some Asian students have even had anti-Asian sentiments expressed to them. Many recent graduates who would like to remain in the U.S. are anxious about getting jobs. Social life has been minimized greatly, if not stopped for those living in dorms or other housing near campus.
How can the Church enter the lives of international students in new ways, to show them they haven’t been forgotten? Is there a way to create intimate spaces into which we can invite them and share life together despite the walls separating us? That’s what I tried to do recently when I invited my friends to allow me into their rooms via webcam, so I could photograph them. During those encounters, we got to know each other on an even deeper level as we talked about how we’re feeling and what we’re doing in quarantine.
Ismael, from Niger, is a Fulbright Scholar pursuing a master’s in economics. He is graduating this year in May and will be looking for job opportunities. He says “given the current situation the job market is not really promising.” International students are eligible for temporary employment for up to 12 months.
Paulo, from Brazil, came to the U.S. to study economics in fall 2016. Since then he hasn’t visited home and was planning to visit this summer but with this situation all the plans have come to a halt. He hopes that this stay-at-home order ends soon and has minimum effect on his employment.
Mahitha, from India, recently graduated and is working in the IT industry. Speaking of her desire to live in the U.S., she reflects “I mean every time there’s a new hurdle. The first is to get admitted into a university, get a visa, graduate, get a job, maintain immigration status etc. Honestly, there’s very little I can do. I can do everything right, but still there’s no guarantee I can stay in the country (given the immigration rules). Only thing I can do is to trust God and move ahead with persistent faith.”
Abhay, from India, is in his last year of study for a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. He says “I don’t have a family here, but I have a large circle of friends that I love to spend time with and now I am not meeting anyone which is a little depressing. Even my roommate went to India in February and got stuck there as he cannot travel back to the U.S. because of travel restrictions.”
Yang, from China, is pursuing a master’s in computer science and planning to graduate this fall. He is mostly staying at home and so far, the situation is “not very boring” for him, though he thinks his family in China is concerned about the number of cases in the U.S. The family have asked him to talk to them every day to make sure he is okay, and he is getting a lot of messages from family friends who are making sure he is safe in the U.S.
Rahul, from India, finished his master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He moved to Milwaukee in 2018 for work. During these times, he feels uncertain about the job situation after hearing news of people losing jobs.
Nasim, from Iran, is pursuing her doctorate in architecture. She describes her current stay-at-home situation as “Feels like I am waiting for Godot, trying to take my boots off.” Because Iran is a country whose citizens are banned from visiting the U.S., many students like Nasim can’t go home to visit their families for fear they won’t be allowed back to finish their studies.
Jazil, from Pakistan, is completing his master’s in engineering management from Milwaukee School of Engineering. Reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of this stay-at-home order, he said “Ramadan is here and it is pretty easy to spend the days of Ramadan at home. Praying is very easy now. As student employment has been suspended so work from home is not allowed. I had free time so I picked up guitar and started to learn.”
Unless otherwise mentioned, all students in this essay are at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. According to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) report, there are approximately 1.5 million international students living in the United States. The greatest number of international students are from Asia, with 860,000 active students as of January 2020. All photos were taken between March 25 and April 8.
Asher Imtiaz moved from Pakistan to the United States in Fall 2012 for graduate studies. He now resides in Milwaukee and works for IBM Watson Health. He is helping lead international student outreach at his church and also serving as CIVA’s Gallery 212 Curator. He is currently curating CIVA’s first photography-only traveling exhibition launching later this year.