How UK student body NISAU is handling the COVID-19 panic among Indian students like a pro

Over the years, members of the NISAU organically grew and their success with the post-study visa issue also got them the attention of the High Commission
The NISAU team
The NISAU team

The outbreak of COVID-19 has left many Indians stranded in various parts of the world, not to forget those inside the country too. The United Kingdom is one of the most preferred spots for Indian students to pursue higher studies and the outbreak has left many students panicking but the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU) has been doing quite a bit to help the students. 

When it came to coordinating with the students during COVID-19, NISAU was the first to start helping out. Since the Union has over 60 WhatsApp groups and a good presence on Facebook and Twitter they were able to coordinate with the students easily. "We started our operations and engagements with the community very early. The minute the situation started to get serious, we immediately issued a survey to understand the scale of the COVID situation. This way we were able to provide the High Commission of India with data-backed updates highlighting the scale of the situation as early as March 18," said Vignesh Karthik, National Officer and member of the founding team of NISAU. About 20,000 Indian students go to the UK every year for higher studies.

The group basically addresses student queries and if they need any help, they either provide the students with appropriate answers or put them through to those who can help. The group has been flooded with queries and said that just on Friday last week they corresponded with more than 1200 Indians. This provides an indication of the magnitude of panic amongst Indian students. NISAU has set-up a dedicated COVID-19 response team of more than 15 volunteers. Vignesh alone handles around 50 messages from students every day. "Most students just want to know if there any way that they can go back home now that all the flights to and fro have been cancelled. The minute the flights got cancelled, many students immediately began to panic and became homesick. They keep asking about special flights, some people don't mind paying how much ever is needed to book flights, others can't afford it. Some students are saying they have family emergencies. A few MPs like Supriya Sule have also reached out to us too," Vignesh explained.

The NISAU was started by a few Indian students living in the UK in 2012, headed by Sanam Arora, who was a student at the London School of Economics. "There were three reasons for starting NISAU – first the fact that there were 20,000 Indian students in the UK and no national body that united them and represented them. Secondly, this was the time when we were noticing a lot of distress in the student community especially with the closure of around 1000 odd so called ‘bogus colleges’ in the UK but no one to help. Finally, we firmly believed in the power of young people in taking forward the India-UK relationship and wanted to provide them with a mechanism for doing so. Today, the NISAU has presence in most universities with significant Indian populations, and our patrons include Members of Parliament in both Britain and India, such as Lord Karan Bilimoria and MP Virendra Sharma. We also worked together with like-minded organisations and interest groups on the campaign to extend the post-study work visa for Indian students, which we also succeeded in doing," Sanam, the chairperson of NISAU said.

Over the years, members of the NISAU grew organically; today the organisation represents the thousands of Indian students and alumni studying and working in the UK. They have hosted various celebrities, political leaders and academicians from India in the UK and organised interactions and programmes. These events are high-quality and bi-partisan India focused events and have hosted thought leaders ranging from Rahul Gandhi to Raghuram Rajan to even actor Akshay Kumar. “It is the trust which students place in us as a result of the honesty and authenticity of our work that gets us the very extensive UK-wide reach we have” said Mohanish Borana, President of NISAU. 

Another problem that students have is with landlords who students say are allegedly abusing them or evicting them from the properly ever since the outbreak. The other major issue that students are having is that now since most of them are unemployed they are not able to afford rent, food or some, even sanitisers, "They reach out with basic needs that any student has. We have put up an advisory answering all the most commonly asked questions. We are also trying to help the students who need shelter by talking to hotels and for food, we have been collaborating with the Seva Trust, who have been providing food to people in need. We are also trying to put together some additional hardship funds for those students who are genuinely in extreme need," Vignesh explained. 

The team is also going through all the laws and rules in place, so students can understand what they are dealing with. However, this is not all. The NISAU is trying to get the stranded students to have some fun too and make the most of this situation. They are organising 'Netflix parties' and other small events that will help the students take their mind off the situation. "Our team members are also trying to organise Zumba classes, stand-up comedy and also some career counselling," Sanam added. The Union also has to deal with the spread of fake news and spam that escalates during this times well. The team keeps their Twitter active and regularly updates it with information for the students, the High Commission has also acknowledged the team for their work during this course of time.

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