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Photos and text by Asher Imtiaz

Shortly after I arrived in the United States, I came across some statistics about international students that remain worth sharing. Approximately 40 percent of these students never make an American friend and 75 percent will never visit an American home during their time in the U.S.

My experience as a student was different. I quickly learned about an American couple living a block from my university in Milwaukee who had been hosting international students for dinners every Friday night for years. Joining them were volunteer helpers from their local church. They simply provided friendships, free food, and a place to feel welcomed every week. In other words, a home away from home. I became a regular attendee.

I remember one conversation with a fellow international student in particular. She was from South Korea. I asked her one of the typical questions an international or immigrant would ask another: “When did you come to the U.S.?” She replied: “A year ago.” And when I asked what she did and what places she visited in the city that year, she responded that she had not been anywhere except her dorm, her classrooms, and grocery stores. Perhaps hers was an extreme case, but still one that resonated with other international students.

Learning the statistics and meeting students like these prompted me to join the same local church group to welcome international students. We connect with them in their first few weeks in the U.S. by giving them personal tours of the city, inviting them to Thanksgiving meals at American homes, providing them with furniture, and even taking them for driving tests.

All that was before COVID-19. Now, with universities closing and everyone being asked to leave dorms and campus housing, almost all who remain on campus are international students. With the “stay at home” order in place, they are one of the loneliest groups of people in the city. Because of uncertainty, financial limitations, or travel restrictions, many are feeling afraid and stressed. Some Asian students have even had anti-Asian sentiments expressed to them. Many recent graduates who would like to remain in the U.S. are anxious about getting jobs. Social life has been minimized greatly, if not stopped for those living in dorms or other housing near campus.

How can the Church enter the lives of international students in new ways, to show them they haven’t been forgotten? Is there a way to create intimate spaces into which we can invite them and share life together despite the walls separating us? That’s what I tried to do recently when I invited my friends to allow me into their rooms via web cam, so I could photograph them. During those encounters, we got to know each other on an even deeper level as we talked about how we’re feeling and what we’re doing in quarantine.

Unless otherwise mentioned, all students in this essay are at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. According to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) report, there are approximately 1.5 million international students living in the United States. The greatest number of international students are from Asia, with 860,000 active students as of January 2020.

Asher Imtiaz, a frequent contributor to The Living Church, moved from Pakistan to the United States in Fall 2012 for graduate studies. He now resides in Milwaukee and works for IBM Watson Health. He is a leader in international outreach at his church.