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No place like home 

For international students stuck in Halifax over the holidays, the company of friends and staying busy offer some respite frommissing family overseas.

What if you couldn’t go home for Christmas?

Many local international students have to be resourceful at this time of the year---support for students with nowhere to go isn’t always available from their schools.

Nova Scotia Community College international manager Zoran Kundali says his school doesn’t organize events for international students at Christmas. And as with Canadian students, most are “cost conscientious and just don’t have the money to spend” to go home.

Nova Scotia College of Art and Design has 60 international students enrolled this year. Student counsellor Bernadette Kehoe says NSCAD University’s student organization has nothing for them, either.

Three international students who can’t go home cope with this reality as best they can. With the last week of exams wrapping up mid-month, students have three or more weeks to fill.

Nicholas Reyes, 24, of the Philippines, says he can't afford the $2,000 round-trip ticket. Sixth of nine kids, Reyes says he'll miss his family.

“Christmas is one of the best events back home,” he says. “It’s different---there are nine masses before Christmas...if you complete all of these, it’s said you get a special wish granted. The Filipino Christmas meal is called nochebeuna and we eat that after midnight on the 24th after mass.”

He is staying on campus for part of his break and as an international student representative, helping coordinate special meals for international students on Christmas and Boxing Day. After a post-Christmas trip to Toronto to visit Filipino friends, it’s back to his usual routine at the gym and playing indoor soccer at SMU. Regular internet phone calls home to Manila help Reyes keep his spirits up.

Dal offers a year-long friendship program for international students. Program and project coordinator Teresa Inacio says the International Students and Exchange Services put a call out to the Dal community to participate as Christmas break draws near.

But even as his school makes an effort to bring students together for the holidays, John Kuol, a Sudanese refugee and a Dalhousie engineering student, will take a different approach. He finds even basic communication with his family is a challenge, having to relay messages via friends. Visiting over the break is simply not an option as Kuol’s family has spent the past decade in Kenya as refugees.

His plans don’t involve treating Christmas like a party. He is working hard at learning English and spending time on his schoolwork while some of his classmates, he says, will be “drinking over the holidays.”

“Most of the celebrations people talk about bore me. I am not interested in them, although I was born on the first of January. It’s a time when I am looking towards the New Year and I hope that means a good year for me.”

His beliefs are connected to his church. At home he would be marching in the streets on December 25th to January 1st---the religious tradition of his Sudanese family.

This is the third Christmas Malaysian Ashley Jane Chow, a 21-year-old third year public relations student at Mount Saint Vincent University, has spent in Halifax. She says she can’t afford the $2,500 ticket to Malaysia. Though she has relatives living in BC, she’s decided that staying in Bedford is her only choice.“The trip home involves four days of travel and jet lag,” she says. “I am preparing for my second co-op work term in January and am just going to take the time to chill out. I just wish I could afford to go home and see my family.”

This Christmas she’s got Maritime friends from school who are taking her home to include her in their celebration. “This is where I have found out about the warm feelings of Christmas; I can’t believe the amount of effort people put out to celebrate here.”

But she adds her first year of holidays in Halifax was a really depressing time to endure. She says she knows the plight of international students who don’t---or can't---go home for the holidays. “Alone on residence, and no one is around and it’s cold; you try your best to do something, socialize with somebody.”

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