By Sean Car
The Salvation Army last month relaunched “The Couch” – a pop-in program dedicated to international students experiencing isolation and unemployment as a result of COVID-19.
With the support of the City of Melbourne and Newcrest Mining, the program was reinstated on March 26 at The Salvation Army Melbourne Project 614’s Bourke St headquarters with the help of Lord Mayor Sally Capp.
With international students some of the worst affected by the pandemic, the program will provide a safe place for students to relax, learn, socialise, connect with support services, study, and to be part of peer and social networks.
“We know that international students, given their contribution to our community, are deserving of support whether that’s a lifting of spirits, an opportunity to come and connect and have a safe space with others – particularly with others who can provide assistance and support,” the Lord Mayor said. “We hope that The Couch will become important in the lives of international students.”
“We hope that it’s here to give that ongoing support but, more importantly, that we have that ongoing connection of showing how important international students are to all of us in the City of Melbourne.”
Filipino international student Kimberly Clemencio said the return of The Couch was welcome news for the student community.
“This will be very relevant and helpful for international student community to connect with other students,” she said.
“2020 was a very tough year. Most suffered emotionally, financially and mentally. I was one of those students. It was very tough on me. I suffered mental health issues – I was very stressed. My brother passed away last year, and I couldn’t go home.”
The Couch program first ran in 2011 and 2012 and was launched after the murder of a recently graduated international student Nitin Garg in Yarraville in 2010. At the time it was funded by the state government.
In June last year, the council voted unanimously to undertake an assessment of The Couch International Student Program and consider funding a yearlong revival.
While the program was originally conceived and equipped as a study hub, Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle said his team soon found that “sharing meals, Zumba classes, yoga, and Bollywood nights” were the mainstay for participants.
“These students are dealing with loneliness and social isolation,” he said. “Some international students go without nutritious meals, and face challenges with mental health, addiction and visa issues.”
“Many of these kids have come from families who have sacrificed so much to send them here, so they have the chance of a better future. We want them to be safe and supported – that’s what The Couch is about.”
From 29 March, The Couch will operate at Project 614’s Bourke St premises each week, Monday to Thursday nights, 6.30pm – 8.30pm.