The last time Ron Biswas, a fourth-year economics major at SVSU, saw his father was three years ago. At upwards of $1200, the round trip to and from his home country of Bangladesh has simply been too expensive.
“A lot of international students haven’t seen their parents since they got here,” he says. “And it’s been three or four, even five years.”
Biswas was already working two on-campus jobs to make ends meet. He lost one of them at the start of the lockdown and will lose the other once the school year ends.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen after I graduate,” he admits. “I don’t know how I’m going to earn money. I don’t know anything, to be honest.”
Even worse is the way that the uncertainty has made Biswas question whether the preceding years of isolation were worth it. “A huge reason why many of us come here is to seek opportunity,” he says. “We don’t get to see our families because we’re working hard so they can have a better life in the future.”
Now, with a recession looming and job prospects bleak, Biswas wonders if he will have to return home “empty-handed.” More than that, he can’t help but wonder if he might not see friends and family members—even his own parents—ever again.
“People are dying,” he says, solemnly. “It’s no joke.”
Zakaria Abden, a fellow Bangladeshi and friend of Biswas, is in a similar sort of limbo. As a freshman, he still has a few years at SVSU to look forward to. But he also doesn’t know what he is going to do in less than 20 days, after his lease expires. He has been jobless since the lockdown started. The family business has also shut down, leaving Abden’s parents unable to help from afar. As of now, he is living off of his savings.
“I need to figure something out,” he says. “And quickly too.”
The prospect of being on his own doesn’t intimidate Abden though. Since arriving in Maine as a high school exchange student, he has had ample time to familiarize himself with what he considers the more “individualistic” aspects of American culture.
“I have to be safe,” he says with a shrug. “If anything happens, if I get sick or hurt, nobody’s gonna take care of me. I have to take care of myself.”
Abden doesn’t just believe in his own ability to take care of himself though. He also has faith in our collective ability to care for one other. He acknowledges that human error has already exacerbated the pandemic’s severity. But he remains optimistic that society will find a way to “come together.” And his reasoning is not dissimilar to Biswas’s grounds for wondering if his sacrifices were worth it in the first place.
“We’re here to study and have a bright future,” Abden says. “We have to be optimistic and confident because we’re already here.”
Still, optimism and confidence are easier to come by on some days than others. And as positive as they may try to be, neither Abden nor Biswas has any idea what the immediate future holds.
All that is left is to “take things one day at a time,” says Biswas. “It’s the only thing we can do.”
Like Abden, Binh Dang, a freshman computer engineering major, was a high school exchange student before coming to SVSU. For the past three years, he has studied in the US during the fall, winter, and spring, and spent summers in his home country of Vietnam.
As of now, Dang still has a ticket home scheduled for mid-May. If he makes it back, the Vietnamese government will put him in an official quarantine center for fourteen days. From there, he will make his way back to his hometown in the southwest of the country, about six hours from Ho Chi Minh City.
If his flight his canceled, he knows what he will miss most for at least another year: the food, hanging out and doing fun things with his friends, the general atmosphere of summer in his homeland. He will miss “just gathering with [his] family,” without whom, as many around the world are realizing along with him, “it’s just not the same.”