Elizavita Sidorovich, a Music Industry Arts student, has received an outpouring of help from her peers and faculty at the college. Photo credit: Nathan Drescher

When Elizavita Sidorovich first heard that Russia had invaded Ukraine, the Music Industry Arts student wasn’t surprised. “I just knew that something was going to happen,” she said. “They’ve been doing this since 2014.”

What Sidorovich, 20, didn’t realize, however, was how the war in Ukraine was about to affect her personally.

Sidorovich is an international student from Russia who is studying at Algonquin College. Sanctions by the Canadian and Russian governments have left international students like her struggling to buy groceries here in Canada.

Before she came to the college in August 2021, Sidorovich spent her childhood learning the lyrics to American songs and dreamed of being a musician. She knew she wanted to leave Russia as soon as she finished high school. She wanted to live somewhere less suffocating. To get out.

Then she found the college in a pamphlet back home in Moscow.

“It was the first school listed on the first page,” she said. “Music Industry Arts it said. It was like it was made for me.”

Sidorovich’s fall term in the program was a success. She was a straight-A student and quickly made many friends. She called it a life-changing experience.

“The first time I ever smiled in public was here in Canada,” she said. “People in Russia think there’s something wrong with you if you smile in public.”

But then Putin invaded Russia on Feb. 24, 2022, and the world reacted. As crippling sanctions against Russia kicked in, Sidorovich found herself cut off from her parents back home. They couldn’t send her money. She couldn’t buy food or pay her student residence fees.

“I hate Putin. I hate what he’s doing,” Sidorovich said, scrunching up her face in disgust. “I don’t know anyone back home who likes him. He’s robbed Russia for 20 years. Now he’s sending 18-year-olds to another country. For what?”

But what individual young Russians have to say about the war hasn’t changed things for the world, for Ukrainians, or for Russian students like Sidorovich.

Canada’s Parliament passed the Special Economic Measures Act as part of a coordinated wave of unprecedented sanctions against Russia. The sanctions target a series of individuals in Russia, mostly the infamous oligarchs and people in positions of power.

But it also goes after the financial and energy sectors. Russia’s banks have been kicked off the global SWIFT network which allows for fast, borderless money transfers. People like Sidorovich are suddenly cut off from their homes.

Algonquin College is working to keep up with the rapidly changing situation.

“We’ve reached out to these students through email to inform them of various supports that are available,” said Ernest Mulvey, the director of the college’s International Education Centre.

Normally, the IEC arranges study permits, helps international students set up health insurance and gets them settled when they first arrive in Canada. “Right now we’re dealing with exceptional circumstances,” he said.

The IEC is doing what it can to support students just now. They’ve added a full-time staff member to a desk devoted to guidance for students affected by this war.

“Let me be clear: the college recognizes that Russia has illegally attacked and invaded Ukraine,” Mulvey said. “This war affects three cohorts of international students at the college. First and foremost, Ukrainian students. But also Russian and Belorussian students.”

In the email sent out to these students, Mulvey recommended college counseling services and an emergency bursary for students.

“It cannot be used for tuition, but recipients can use it for things such as groceries and rent,” he said of the bursary.

However, when Sidorovich attempted to access the emergency bursary, she was told the college couldn’t do much beyond offering a food card.

“With the sanctions against Russia our support will be extremely limited beyond this food card,” said Krisha Marshall, the financial aid assistant registrar, in an email to Sidorovich. “You will need support from the Embassy and/or you may need to consider returning home if the situation doesn’t improve.”

Krisha Marshall was unable to comment to the Algonquin Times specifically about Sidorovich’s case for confidentiality reasons, but said that there are many supports in place.

“Financial Aid and Student Awards has many supports for students in emergency situations, all students and situations are assessed individually, with specific criteria to assess needs,” she said. “Potential support for students ranges from food, shelter, emergency supplies, and travel home.”

Marshall also said that financial aid has been approached by some students concerning support.

“We have had a total of three students referred, and as per standard practice, have asked for information regarding their emergency need. No students to date have been denied an emergency bursary and their applications are open and waiting to be processed once information is received.”

Marshall also has some tips for students who need to access emergency support through Financial Aid.

“The students need to provide basic financial information and other information regarding their emergency need,” she said. “In addition, we have budget assist tools on our website and students work with a student awards and bursary officer to ensure that all options of support are considered.”

At the program level, Sidorovich has received an outpouring of help from her peers and faculty at the college.

“Ellie is a straight-A student and a wonderful person,” said Colin Mills, the program coordinator of the Music Industry Arts program at Algonquin College and one of her professors. “The department is doing what it can for her. Her classmates threw a surprise birthday party for her and everyone brought gift cards.”

Mills’ main concern is seeing his students succeed in the MIA program. “My goal is to see Ellie graduate from the program, ” he said. The program is 12 months long and ends in August. “We just got to get her through to the end.”

Some of Sidorovich’s peers have said they’ll buy her food or let her sleep on their sofas. “They gave me $350 worth of grocery cards for my birthday,” she said. “Colin got me a birthday cake. My tuition is paid to the end, at least. If worse comes to worst, I can live with my best friend.”

But no matter what happens, Sidorovich says she’s not going back to Russia.

“I never want to return there,” she said. Her study permit lasts until 2023, and under Canadian immigration laws, she can convert that to a work permit upon graduating from a Canadian college or university. After one year, she can apply for permanent resident status.

All of which means she just has to get through these last four months of college. “It’s expensive to live on res,” Sidorovich explained. “I need another $5,500 for the last three months. It’s due on April 14, but my parents can’t send me the money.”

Sometimes there are days or even hours when money transfers suddenly go through. “We watch it all the time. If the opportunity comes up, my dad will send me everything at once.”

She doesn’t want to live on someone’s sofa. “But if it’s what I need to do, then it is what I will do,” she said.

Sidorovich remains pragmatic and optimistic. She’s even thinking about her post-college plans. “I really like Kitchener,” she said. “I might move there.”

UPDATE, March 25, 2022: Since this story was published, Elizavita Sidorovich says the college has told her it will pay her residence fees and her meal plan. She has also been given another $150 grocery card.