I’m sitting in my room, a sheet of yellow paper resting on my lap with the list of things I need to pack before I go home to Nigeria. I can hear my roommate in her own room, conversing softly in Japanese with her friend over Skype. Unlike me, she won’t be going home for the holidays. This will be the second year she’s had to stay in Halifax. Plane tickets are too expensive for the short break, especially when home is halfway around the world.
Being unable to go home for the holidays is a common theme for foreigners and international students alike. But it’s not just the expense of the flight back that’s a bummer— it gets lonely spending a holiday in a foreign country, without friends or family.
Itai Kuwodza is a 21-year-old student from Zimbabwe. Though it was a family decision to not return home for the holidays last year, she says the loneliness didn’t hit until most of her friends travelled home. “There was a lot of sadness because Christmas is the time to be with family,” says Kuwodza. “Now, I’m not only unable to be with family, but also so far away from people I know. We don’t have Thanksgiving in Zimbabwe, so Christmas is the time to have everyone together.”
Siddhartha Siddik, 24, has only been home twice since he moved to Halifax from Bangladesh four years ago. He remembers his family’s reaction the first year he couldn’t go home.
“My mom thought I didn’t want to come home and got upset,” he says. “In the end, they realized it’s too costly to travel. By staying, I can do more courses at a cheaper cost, or get work experience. [Staying] is always better, but the price is another year’s wait.”
A few universities, like Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie, plan events at their international centres for students who remain on campus during the holidays. The festive activities range from tree-decorating to Christmas movies to a Boxing Day dinner.
Terri Hann, 27, moved to Halifax from England five years ago for work. At first, she was excited to be in a new country but soon homesickness began to set in.
“My first and second year away were manageable,” says Hann. “But by last year I didn’t even want to acknowledge Christmas was happening. I almost felt like a terrible daughter for not being able to be with my family for a fifth Christmas. The guilt was the hardest part.” Hann will finally be flying home for the holidays this year. She advises others spending their first Christmas alone to take advantage of the new experience.
“Embrace it,” Hann says. “Come up with an exciting new tradition and make it your own. Find others than are in a similar situation and chat about what Christmas is like at home. Nothing can make you appreciate family around the holidays than embracing a Christmas away.”
Kuwodza says she regrets not seeking out activities last year and encourages newcomers to always try something new.
“I slept through Christmas and also into the New Year,” she says. “I really let not having my family around get me down, and looking back now, that was a really bad choice. Try by all means to go out, make a plan with someone you see on campus. You might not know each other, but at that moment you share this loneliness, and the only way to make it any less lonely is to have someone with you.”