Like many international students in Australia, Tanisha* and Kavya* lost their jobs at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These desperate times forced them to turn to the Indian community in Australia to seek help.
Facebook groups for Indians in Australia are known to aid international students from India during their tough times. The two women had experienced the generosity of the online Indian community in Australia first- hand.
Tanisha said she received assistance last year within hours when somebody stole her bike.
“I needed a bike to do my job, and I posted on the Facebook group. Many members came forward to collect the money for me. The love and support I received were amazing,” Tanisha said.
In March this year, however, when she turned to the group again, for help, her experience was very different. While she did receive assistance, it was often accompanied by vulgar messages.
From a loan request to a sexual proposition
Tanisha’s family lives in the outskirts of Punjab, and she arrived in Australia on a student visa. Before COVID-19 hit, she worked towards paying her rent and also assisted her parents in paying her fees.
However, this year in March, she lost her job and asked her brother in Germany for money.
When the pandemic hit, there were delays in the money transfer. Tanisha was also running out of time to pay her fees.
“I had already asked for an extension from my uni, and they were not willing to give me more time. I was short of $2000.”
Due to her lack of options, Tanisha requested financial assistance to help her pay her university fees from the Indians in Australia Facebook Group. A man soon got back to her and offered her $2000 with an interest rate.
She says that before giving her money, her potential predator did not attack her in any way and happily gave her the money with a set interest rate.
“After he gave me the money, he started sending me messages. He asked for sexual favours.”
The man later messaged Tanisha saying that he was married but not sexually satisfied. He offered her or her friends an additional $200 to have sexual intercourse with him.
“His sexual life information was uncalled for as I was not interested in his personal life, we just had a business relationship where I borrowed money from and returned it with monthly interest,” Tanisha said.
Tanisha returned the money within three days and blocked him because she was disturbed by the messages.
“I had the resources to return him the money, and so I did not fall into his trap, but what if someone was desperate? What happens then?”
Tanisha was scared by these messages and didn’t feel safe anywhere.
“I have never had to face anything like this at home. It is so new, and somehow I feel I am doing something wrong. I felt unsafe as that man also knows where I live,” Tanisha said.
Uncommon predatory behaviour going unchecked
Tanisha’s is not an isolated incident. Kavya* too was a victim of online sexual harassment.
In 2019, Tanisha was only 18 years old when she arrived in Melbourne to finish her degree and settle in Australia.
Merely five months later, she was jobless and in dire need of money to pay her rent.
Grabbing this opportunity to start a small business to cope, she decided to make a promotional post on the Facebook community group.
“I didn’t want to bother my parents for money; they are going through a tough time as well. That is why I resorted to my community in Australia for help. They are supposed to be my people,” Kavya said.
Kavya was receiving offensive messages asking for ‘happy ending massages’ and sexual favours in exchange for the money.
“I was selling a product, you buy it, and you pay me for it, it’s simple really. My post never suggested anything even mildly related to me providing sexual favours.”
Uninvited and unprovoked messages that Kavya received. Source: Supplied
Initially, she blamed herself and started blocking people. She even had to shut down her business for a few days.
“It is traumatising really, especially because for a few weeks I couldn’t talk to anyone at all. I blamed myself and thought if my post were suggestive in any way that they would attract such creeps,”
Uninvited provocation by the predators was traumatic for these women.
Kavya told SAARI Collective that initially, the incident impacted her, but now she is ready to take on any attackers and give them a response back.
“I no longer ignore it, you know why? Because I don’t deserve it. I just don’t. It’s not my fault.”
“I posted on the group telling the members about one of these creepy perpetrators. He then messages me saying he has never done this before and that I was an ‘international blackmailer’. I cried for hours that night,” Kavya said.
International students should be guests but seen as easy targets
Kavya and Tanisha, on separate incidents, got in contact with Kanwaleen ‘Mon’ Bhelley, a driving school owner who also invests her time now to help international students.
When Tanisha first told her story, Ms Bhelley couldn’t believe that this behaviour was happening in Australia. It was not long before she realised that Tanisha’s incident was not isolated.
“When that kid came to me and told me what happened to her, I was shocked, and I couldn’t sleep that night.”
“International students are a big part of our economy, and they are our guests. Who treats guests like this? I can’t tell my relatives and friends back in India to send their kids to Australia for a better life.”
Ms Bhelley believes these things happen because there is a flaw in the system.
“Students come from small towns and villages of India sometimes, and one of the most basic things that universities can do is show them a 1-2 module telling them the emergency numbers and what they can do in situations like this.”
“The person who harassed Tanisha knew where she lived. What if he had taken it to an extreme. If she was all alone, who would save her?”
Kanwaleen “Mon” Bhelley lost many nights of sleep when she heard what happened with Tanisha. Source: Supplied
After learning about Tanisha’s story, Ms Bhelley posted a video on the group urging anyone to come forward who has faced a similar situation.
“Kavya is brave, and she came forward after the video but there must be many more girls and even boys in the same situation or worse who are not coming forward,” Ms Bhelley said.
Many in the group came forward to help the girls after Ms Bhelley’s videos.
An Indian Australian woman and an admin of many empowering Facebook groups Reena Rana started a Facebook group called Indian students in Australia to help international students with their fees, groceries and utilities.
“After Mon posted the video, I thought I could help, so I shared the video with many Indian groups in Australia.”
“Then I formed a group and set up an email address just for Indian students to reach out to my team and me personally. It has almost 300 students in just a month,”
“In such a short span about 35 students have messaged me or emailed me to ask for help,” Ms Rana said.
Reena Rana couldn’t let the girls suffer in silence. Source: Supplied
Ms Rana and her team have raised about $5000 in addition to arranging groceries and accommodation for many students.
“Whenever there is a job opportunity for students, I post it in the group, my team checks their CVs, asks the members if they are willing to accommodate students in their homes for some time.”
These students often live for free while helping families around the house.
The group believes in transparency and provides its members and donors with accounts of all the funds distributed.
Ms Rana urges students to ask for help in smaller forums like this as it is a safe environment with its members scrutinised before joining.
If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information call 1800RESPECT (Phone: 1800 737 732). Counselling provided 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are feeling unsafe right now, call 000.
If you're facing harassment online, report the content here.
For Victorian students needing food support, please visit Foodbank.
For confidential e-safety support contact the ESafety Commissioner here.
Email the Indian students support group at email@example.com for accommodation and other aid, or connect to IndianCare’s international student support program.
For advocacy, you can make a complaint to the Council of International Student Australia.
*Names changed for security.
Sheetal Singh is a freelance writer who holds a Masters of Journalism from Monash University. She is based in Melbourne, and is a regular contributor to SAARI.