Documenting The Struggles of Female South Asian Students

A Startling Revelation

I always thought I had a grasp of the international student crisis until Balraj approached us with a harrowing statistic: 5 to 7 students are showing up in funeral homes per month. It was then I realized the story was far more complex and devastating than I had imagined.

Why This Matters

As a Canadian-born descendant of a Punjabi family, I’ve always had a unique perspective on what it means to be Punjabi in this country. My relationship with peers coming from India is distant because we don’t share the same experiences. This disconnect is part of the issue; many international students in Canada find themselves without support.

Unveiling the Struggles

Himanshi shares a harrowing story about her friend in ਸੁਣੋ (Listen):The Struggles of Female South Asian Students

Cultural and Societal Challenges

Dr. Baldev Singh Mutta, founder of Punjabi Health Services Canada, outlines several cultural and societal challenges faced by female South Asian students.

First, there’s the looming threat of deportation.

“The fear of being sent back is so great that no amount of clinical intervention will work with this international student.” - Dr. Baldev Singh Mutta

Abusers often use their influence to threaten students’ permanent residency, silencing them through fear. Misinformation about their rights keeps many students silent and compliant. Moreover, cultural misogyny within the Punjabi community tends to side with men, further discouraging women from speaking out.

A significant challenge is the lack of accountability among colleges. Young people from India are not accustomed to the individualistic culture of the West. In India, parents often guide their children into adulthood, handling many responsibilities that Western culture expects individuals to manage themselves. This lack of support in cultural assimilation leaves students feeling lost, alone, and incapable, leading to severe mental health issues.

With cultural and systemic indifference to their challenges, international students are left vulnerable, making them prime targets for predators.

Creating the Documentary

Behind the scenes, working with Dr. Baldev Mutta

The Spark of Inspiration

When Balraj Singh Khalon from One Voice Canada presented the situation to us, I felt an immediate compulsion to act. Hearing about the rampant sexual misconduct felt like a natural consequence of a perfect storm of inaction from colleges and communities.

Navigating Challenges

We knew that hearing directly from survivors was crucial for our storytelling. However, convincing them to speak on camera was challenging due to their fear of backlash. Our priority was to approach these stories with sensitivity and respect.

We provided opportunities for survivors to remain anonymous without compromising their stories’ integrity. For example, one survivor shared her story through audio recordings, which we visualized through cinematic reenactments. Another preferred to keep her appearance obscured, so we used the classic silhouette interview style. Ensuring these women felt comfortable was paramount to our workflow.

Powerful Narratives

Hearing the survivors’ accounts was deeply moving. They could have been my sister or cousin, and their constant fear of being re-victimized was heart-wrenching. The lack of empathy and societal misconceptions they face is what drives our work. We hope to change this by diving deeper into these lived experiences and highlighting how complacency, judgment, and apathy contribute to ongoing harm.

Visiting Lotus Funeral Home, I learned from Kamal Bhardwaj about the disturbing frequency of international student suicides. While Kamal cannot officially claim these as suicides, the signs clearly indicate a severe issue that needs urgent attention.

The lack of governmental response is equally alarming. Federal MPs acknowledge the suicides in private but remain silent publicly. The finger-pointing among police departments, schools, and provincial governments leaves students without support or resources. The Punjabi community also needs to mature in addressing and condemning sexual misconduct directly.

“Modern society brings modern complexities. Parents don’t know how to deal with these complex issues.” - Dr. Baldev Singh Mutta

Reflecting on the Journey

A scene from ਸੁਣੋ (Listen):The Struggles of Female South Asian Students

Personal Growth and Realizations

Working on this project made me reflect on how I support international students and visitors to Canada. As a Canadian citizen living comfortably, I aim to extend a welcoming hand, making them feel seen and supported. This film is part of that effort.

Moments of Deep Emotion

The most emotional moment for me was realizing that these survivors must continue living with their trauma. Retelling their stories opens deep wounds, and it’s my responsibility to tell them respectfully and responsibly, striving for justice in their names. Otherwise, we risk exploiting their pain, which is another form of abuse.

Broader Impact

Fostering Community Dialogue

I hope this film sparks crucial conversations at dinner tables and community gatherings. The Punjabi community needs to unite and define our stance on these issues. We’re too divided, with some blaming individuals and others pointing to systemic flaws. If we all made our communities more welcoming and supportive, it would make a significant difference. These are young people, often just 17 to 19 years old, navigating a completely alien environment.

A Call to Action

Supporting female South Asian students starts with small acts of kindness. Share a smile, offer your seat on the bus—these gestures can brighten someone’s day. However, we must do more. Communities need to engage in dialogue and hold governments accountable for creating environments where colleges profit from international students without offering adequate support. If Canada charges triple tuition to international students, some of that money should fund mental health and support programs for abuse victims.

Looking Forward

The panel discussion after the premiere on June 19th at Surrey City Hall.

Hopes for Change

I sincerely hope this documentary will spark dialogue and serve as a reminder of the social issues brewing in our own backyards. By addressing these problems, we can create a more inclusive and supportive community for all.

Written By
Inder Nirwan
Co-Owner & Filmmaker