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Missing home and resilience in lockdown

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Kimberly Mitchiko
Kimberly Mitchiko is Study Melbourne Ambassador and recipient of the International Student of the Year (Vocational Education) at the Victorian International Education Awards 2020.

It’s been over a year since Australia and the rest of the world shut their borders. Since then, circumstances have changed for many international students – for different reasons, some stayed, and some went back home.

How are some of them now? 

Noemi Aleli Vito, Community Services student and Annaliza Tamargo, Hospitality Management student, shared their roller-coaster journey during the lockdown. 

Noemi Vito

During the pandemic, working in the front-line must be challenging and rewarding, which is valid for Noemi Vito, who works in an aged care facility. Massively hit by coronavirus during the first half of 2020, family members of the elderly were restricted to visit – it was difficult for Noemi to see her residents become depressed, isolated and deteriorate. That’s when Noemi decided to take an extra duty of care, ensuring she is not a carrier of the virus and keeping her clients happy.

Noemi Vito with face shield

Fortunate enough to be employed during the beginning of the pandemic up to the present, Noemi mentioned that her financial situation massively changed since the Federal government lifted the working hours limitation for international students. “This has given me the ability to save whilst continuously supporting my family back home,” Noemi said.

Similarly with the rest, if not all, Noemi has found online learning quite frantic, especially when she needs extra support from her teachers to understand course discussions in a more comprehensive way without being exposed to distractions at home. On the other hand, online learning for her also means saving time and money travelling. Her institution has been supportive when online learning was introduced – her teachers and mentors have been extremely flexible in assessment submission dates. Still, from time to time, it takes a mental toll on her. “I miss going to campus, seeing my peers, going out. I also miss home.”

As Noemi is a single mother, her biggest challenge was maintaining a good relationship with her two daughters in the Philippines. 

“It’s definitely the biggest challenge I would have to say I faced during the pandemic. Coming to Australia three years ago, I planned to make frequent trips home when I can so I could spend time with my children. Being a single mum is difficult but being a single mum living abroad during the pandemic feels ten times more challenging. I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of milestones such as my eldest daughter starting high school and my youngest turning seven. She was only four when I left. It’s about constantly finding the right balance between myself, work and my children. It’s definitely made easier by technology and smartphones. I am here because I am really motivated to secure the best future possible for my kids. I can’t wait to go home so I can kiss and hug them again,” says Noemi.

Single-mum Noemi Vito with her two children

“I think besides my family, I just miss being in the Philippines and the feeling of being home the most. I miss the weather, the people and our food. I miss our beaches and the lifestyle. I can’t wait to travel as soon as international travel opens up again. For now, I’m grateful to have my partner, family and friends here who make it feel more like home. The Filipino community in Melbourne are all so warm, generous and supportive and the solidarity between us all is something I really admire. Everyone is always willing to extend some help. Even though I may not always need it, I am grateful to know it is there.

“My only worry travelling when the borders reopen would be an outbreak happening while I am away and not being allowed back in Australia or being stuck in the Philippines for a while. It is still too early to tell when we can travel again so I haven’t made any plans yet though I do look forward to the day where we can learn to live as close to normal as possible, so we can be with our loved ones again.”

Annaliza Tamargo 

Resilience is the word to best describe Anna. 

Anna was thriving as a chef in one of the hotels in Melbourne CBD when the uncertainty came due to COVID-19, and hotels decided to cut staff. Anna had to enter the agriculture industry working in a Filipino-owned potato farm in Morwell, Victoria, with other Filipino international students for a few months. 

Annaliza Tamargo working as chef in Melbourne
Annaliza Tamargo as picker in a Filipino-owned farm in Morwell, Victoria

“I was assigned to potato picking. We go to farms at 3 am or 4 am. It was crucial to go to the farm and pick potatoes while there’s no sun yet. When potatoes get sunlight, they turn green, and it’s not safe to be eaten anymore. We had to separate potatoes according to sizes then manually remove the green ones and those that are not up to quality standards,” says Anna.

“We get paid depending on how many wooden crates we fill. It was around $12-$15 per crate, and there were about 15 people, and we can load about 70 crates, so we divide the total earnings.

“It was a good experience. Kudos to farmers! What they do is difficult. Waking up early in the morning and lifting heavy buckets of vegetables, and you do that for 8-14 hours a day. It made me appreciate those that are sold in Farmer’s Market.

Her journey did not stop from here when her dad tested positive on COVID-19 back in August 2020. “I got scared of the possibility that I might not be able to go back to the Philippines if the worst thing happened. Most of the countries were imposing total lockdowns. I booked two commercial flights from Melbourne to the Philippines, and both were cancelled because of the lockdown. I had to talk to the Philippine Embassy to see if there were any slots for repatriation.

Anna deferred her studies in Australia and remains in the Philippines. “Distance learning does not fit my needs. I specialize in Culinary and Pastry Arts, and I think practical classes are vital to learning this course.” She also admitted that it crossed her mind to consider going to Canada because she sees Canada as a more welcoming country to international students. However, her family is very important, and they are her strong support system, so she stayed. “All I can hope is that the Australian government would consider giving exemptions on student visa renewal fees. Everyone has the right to education, no matter from which country you are.

Annaliza Tamargo's new business idea

Although she is in the Philippines, Anna is putting her craft into practice when she decided to put up her online dessert shop named Kuki Co. The business turned out well because, at that time, most commercial businesses were not allowed to operate due to restrictions. My neighbors started getting cakes from me for home birthday celebrations, anniversaries, and sometimes even weddings. I expanded the menu and started selling platters for catering as well.” 

Apart from practicing her craft, Anna now works in the Senate as a Consultant. 


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