Cape Breton community seeks help for struggling international students

It’s not every day you see a call from a Catholic priest in your local newspaper asking people to take in homeless college students.

Pastor Dr. Albert Maroun wrote: “Recently I learned that some of these students were sleeping in their cars when they were looking for accommodation. That is simply unacceptable.”

“As Cape Bretoners, we know that something must be done to make sure the epidemic stops.”

Father Maroun knows the needs of international students at Cape Breton University, because he meets them for lunch. Hundreds of people depend on the local community kitchen, Loaves and Fishes, for food.

It’s a community run kitchen, mostly funded by churches around Cape Breton. The facility was overwhelmed when the university recruited thousands of new students in just a few years. They provide free meals to up to 250 people per day, most of them foreign students.

Cape Breton University has actively increased enrollment over the past five years for international students, most of whom are from India.

That’s because students from abroad often pay double what most Canadians pay, which has helped save money for universities across the country.

Today, CBU has 7,300 students on campus, more than 70% of whom are international students. That is the highest percentage of international students from the 30 W5 public universities surveyed across the country (see chart below).

CBU students board a bus in Sydney, Nova Scotia (W5)

In his letter to the editor, Maroun alleged that the university wanted to make money but was not responsible for these students.

“When the steel mill was established here more than a century ago, they built housing first… maybe the CBU should look back to see how it was done.”

New recruits are struggling

W5 spoke to dozens of international students, both by phone and in the field in Cape Breton.

Many are frustrated by the lack of affordable housing, the lack of space on buses for students to go to school, and the challenges of finding part-time work. But most students are afraid to speak in front of the camera for fear of being punished by the school.

“I want to grab the landing gear and fly back,” one student told us when we agreed to hide her identity. “My mind stopped working about a week after I got here. It’s so desolate and empty here.”

This student studied abroad, where a transfer team at her first university helped her find accommodation. CBU currently has a listing of apartments in the community on its website and a dedicated off-campus housing coordinator, but the student claims she was not informed of anything like that. exist and it is very difficult to find a place when she arrives.

“I used to wake up in the middle of the night, 3am, 4am… I just knew my hair was going gray,” she says of the pressure to succeed in Canada.

Before the wave of students, Cape Breton faced a severe shortage of affordable housing. While there are dormitories on campus, there is no kitchen, so students cannot cook and must purchase meal packages worth about $3,000 a semester.

Damanpreet Singh is the President of the Student Union of CBU and is also an international student coming to Canada in 2021.

“They should have built a kitchen so the students could cook, but they didn’t,” he said. “They don’t want students to cook in their rooms.”

He says most students can’t afford to live on campus because many have taken out personal loans and it’s much cheaper to live in the community. But he also thinks students need to do more research about housing and employment before coming to Cape Breton.

Another student, who asked not to be named, said he had poured all of his life savings into the degree, but struggled to find a place to live. His first hire made the sink and tub rust, and rats running around.

“It was the most disgusting place I’ve ever been to,” he said. He temporarily moved in with a friend. He says he has lost 20 pounds due to stress and hasn’t video called his family since coming to Canada in early 2023. “I really shy away from Facetime with my family because I don’t want them to find out. what a terrible thing. I’m looking,” he said.

International students share photos of some housing conditions in Sydney, NS (W5)

He also showed us the isolated, snowy road he was waiting for to catch the bus to school.

“I waited for the bus for an hour,” he told us. “All my shoes, socks, pants are wet.”

Others told us, at the beginning of the semester, there weren’t enough seats when the bus arrived. Many people say they miss classes because of that delay. In response, CBU purchased two city buses and added shuttles to help students get to class. But those buses continued to be crowded.

The university largely regards its growth as a success, although it acknowledges that there are some growing difficulties. David Dingwall, president of CBU, said the university plans to add 240 more beds on campus and is working with the private sector to create more options in the community.

“But let’s not fool ourselves, housing in every community across the country has serious problems and we are no exception,” Dingwall said.

In 2019, CBU purchased land to develop affordable housing in the community, but no ground-breaking has yet to happen. It is also expanding dormitories to accommodate families from abroad and limiting certain enrollment programs.

  • For a full list of improvements made by the CBU, click here.


Community members are coming to help the students. Brenda Matheson from Sydney is one of them. Last year, she started to notice international students, mainly from India, everywhere.

“My community has become the most beautiful brown,” she laughs.

The 61-year-old grandmother was like Cape Breton when they arrived. You can hear her laughter and beautiful voice a mile away.

That warmth is what draws an international student to her doorstep, asking for a place to stay. She said she couldn’t refuse him in the cold. A year later, he is still living with her, with no rent, with another student planning to move in in April. From these newcomers, she began to see what was really going on in her community.

“Children are sleeping in cars. Children sleep on the floor, in people’s living rooms, children sleep in the laundromat,” she announced. She said she was embarrassed that so many students had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to come to Canada to live like this.

Her home has since become a center for struggling students. Many of her neighbors are now also home to foreign students because of the influx of immigrants.

“I think if you’re going to invite thousands of people to any community anywhere on the planet, maybe you’re going to have a place to live for them, maybe there’s going to be a place to live, maybe there’s going to be a place,” Brenda said. jobs for them.”

“These kids aren’t kids. They’re commodities. They’re a cash figure. They’re the bottom line.”

Can’t see the chart of international students by university below? Click here

Watch Documentary ‘Cash Cows’ on CTV W5, Saturday at 19:00


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