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Advocates warn of alarming rise in toxic drug deaths among B.C. international students

A B.C. gurdwara is raising the alarm about what it says is an alarming increase in the number of toxic drug deaths among international students.

Naridner Singh Walia, president of Surrey’s Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran said he is already aware of four deaths just this month. Over the past two years, his gurdwara has spent $200,000 on funerals and returning bodies of the dead to India.

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“They have no relatives here. Their friends, their parents phone us from India. They say please help us, we want to see our son. Even though it’s a dead body, they want to see,” he said.

“They don’t believe it at first. And after that, they don’t want anybody to know their son dead with overdose. It is sad. People have to know. If people know, then somebody can save.”

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Walia has seen many of the deceased students’ coroners reports because the temple is often granted power of attorney in order to handle funeral arrangements or to transport the bodies back to India.

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Ninety-five per cent of the cases are among young men, and 80 per cent of them died of issues related to toxic drugs, he said.

But while Walia said while he’s been able to observe the trend in his community first hand, the government doesn’t collect data to confirm it.

Without that data, he said, it’s harder to inform those most at risk. And he said it means the problem is probably more widespread in the South Asian community than the cases he’s been able to confirm personally.

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“So many other people died with overdose, it’s not only students,” he said. “There’s no counting how many people die.”

The BC Coroners Service confirmed to Global News that it does not collect race-based data at this time. In a statement, it said there was currently no administrative standard in the province for collecting that type of data, other than for Indigeneity.

Jeevan Sangha, editor in chief of South Asian youth culture magazine 5XPress, said there remains a stigma about talking about drug issues in many South Asian families and communities.

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International students in limbo due to paperwork delays

“A lot of that has do do with a culture of silence in the South Asian community broadly,” she said.

“It’s this idea that our families hold a lot of pride and honour, and that if a child dies from an accidental drug poisoning or an overdose, it’s somehow a failure of the community, it’s a failure of the family. but when we don’t talk about it or we don’t report it or we don’t talk to the media about it, we can’t identify what the root cause of this problem is in our community.”

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Sangha’s outlet is cohosting a panel on the struggles of international students in Surrey on Thursday, that will deal with issues ranging from exploitation to the stigma around drug use.

International students, she said, suffer from unique pressures which include being isolated and high expectations from their families, many of whom are not wealthy.

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“A sizable amount of students who come here, particularly those who come from the Punjab region of India, are coming from low to moderate income families, their families have taken out sizable debts to send them to Canada, and the whole family’s future is riding on a 17 or 18 year old kid. That’s a lot of pressure,” she said.

Making matters worse, there is a lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate information and resources around B.C.’s toxic drug crisis available for newcomers.

Addressing that gap is something Walia is concerned about.

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His temple has held seminars in the past, and is currently working on a partnership with the student association at Kwantlen Polytechnic University to do outreach there among the international student body.

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Karan Singh, the student association’s vice-president of external affairs, said he hoped to begin holding seminars by February.

“We would try and organize that in the KPU community and try and educate the students about this is what is going on … (that) you are not alone here,” he told Global News.

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“They come here, they feel loneliness, they have the stress of studies, and it all comes to mental health — mental health is a big issue we are dealing with from a long time,” he added. “If our community comes up and try to help them socially and try and help them, for sure they will come back on the track.”

In the meantime, Walia continues to advocate for better data collection and dissemination, to better track the impact drugs are having in his community.

And he continues with the grim duty of sending the remains of young men back home to their families.

“It’s a very sad condition. So many people died. And all the people’s age, 25, 23, 22, 19, under 30.”

“When they just taste once, who knows — in that taste death is there. It could be your first time.”


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