Influencers Use Social Media to Educate New International Students

Students use video to warn against scams, share beauty tips, and welcome those following in their footsteps.

Aliya Abbas sits on a stump at a park. She wears a blue hijab, a floral print shirt and jeans, and works on her laptop.
Photo by Sun Woo Baik

Influencer Aliya Abbas at work on her laptop near Vancouver’s Trout Lake

Mrinal Singh Walia did not expect to get scammed in Canada, and certainly not on his first day as a student at the University of Windsor. Walia—who had arrived from India only two weeks before—was getting ready to begin classes when he got a phone call from an unknown number claiming to be Service Canada.

 “The caller said that my [social insurance] number had been leaked, that I was a victim of identity theft, and that I was in big trouble because my account had been used to launder money,” says Walia. The caller told Walia to transfer his money to an account where it would be safe until he got a new social insurance number (SIN), and warned Walia not to tell friends and family, to avoid the risk of deportation. “From his official tone he seemed genuine. And though I suspected that this could be a scam, I was still scared because I was new in this country,” Walia says. 

Such was the elaborate nature of the scam that Walia even received a call spoofing his local RCMP precinct during which fake police officers assured him that they would help him with a new SIN and “fight his case” in the courts.

Newcomers are especially vulnerable to scams.

“The minute he spoke about transferring money, something clicked,” Walia says. After realizing that it was a scam thanks to a Google search, Walia spoke harshly to the caller in Hindi on a whim. “To my surprise he replied in Hindi [confirming that it was a scam]. That’s when I hung up.” When Walia recounted this story in a 15-minute video on his YouTube channel, it went viral within hours, and resulted in numerous international students—current and prospective—thanking him for sharing his experience.

Since then, Walia has posted regularly, answering viewers’ questions on topics from budgeting to fitness tips. “I advise students to do their research before coming,” says Walia. He gives advice “not just about how to buy a car or have fun in Canada, but also about safety issues, how to manage expenses, and not get carried away with their money.”

Canada has been a top destination for international students in the last decade predominantly because of the ease of obtaining permanent residence compared to the US, UK, and Australia. According to updates provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), 444,860 for international student permits became active in 2021, with students from India, China, and France accounting for 55% of this population.

Language barriers—which sometimes cause international students to be intimidated by fluent English speakers—and the belief that fraud and corruption don’t happen in a wealthy country like Canada, are the main reasons international students say they let their guard down. To help each other fill in cultural gaps and avoid the scam-shaped pitfalls that come with them, many international students have begun creating content on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. 

“I realised that fraudsters exist in every society, in any country and I want students to be aware of that,” says Walia. “It’s not all beautiful mountains and friendly people in Canada.”

Overcoming challenges

Newcomers are especially vulnerable to scams such as one in which a call from “IRCC” informs students they could avoid deportation in exchange for money transfers. Fraudulent ads for rentals on popular classified websites like Kijiji and Craigslist also often target students who are always on the hunt for cheap accommodation. Recently, a student from Sudbury, ON, revealed to a CBC journalist the horrific conditions he lived in: a three-bedroom apartment converted into seven bedrooms, and crawling with rats and cockroaches.

YouTube is chock-a-block with vloggers talking about issues they’ve faced within days of landing in Canada: exorbitant rents, invasive landlords biased against religious and cultural practices, exploitative employers who work students to the bone while paying them less than minimum wage. 

According to Rishabh Dutta who posts as Life of Rishabh on YouTube, landlords know that international students often don’t have a credit history or knowledge of Canadian rules and regulations. “So, they try to intimidate them,” he says. The Indian-born influencer got a taste of this when he shared a two-bedroom apartment in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb, with 10 other tenants.

“There were two rooms, one of them occupied by the landlord himself. I was sharing the second room with three other guys and then there were about seven boys staying in the living room,” says Dutta. “There was no air-conditioning which made it unlivable in the summer. And the bathroom door did not have a lock.” When some tenants wanted to move out, the landlord demanded the entire month’s rent and refused to give them their luggage if they didn’t comply. 

I was sharing the second room with three other guys, and then there were about seven boys staying in the living room.

Dutta has since graduated in computer networking and now works in a software company in Calgary. His fans appreciate his affable, no-nonsense style, and Dutta—who posts videos in English and Punjabi—has garnered a loyal following of 100,000 and counting. “Through my content I try to give students the lay of the land based on what I’ve gone through,” he says. “I don’t want them to make the same mistakes that I did.” He urges students to research accommodation options, ask for a legitimate lease document, and become aware of their rights.

International students also face discrimination from landlords, as Surrey-based influencer Aliya Abbas did. When Abbas—who wears a hijab—first went house hunting, a landlady she spoke to over the phone sounded ready to rent to her. “But then she changed her mind because I wasn’t Punjabi,” recalls Abbas. Despite this incident, Abbas is keen to mention people she’s met as an international student who have empowered her and endeavoured to learn about her religious and cultural customs. 

While Abbas is a newbie on YouTube, she commands an impressive following of close to 70,000 on Instagram, where she promotes her lifestyle business with a focus on plus-size beauty. Originally from Karachi, Pakistan, Abbas was already part of a Facebook group devoted to assisting international students before she moved to Canada this year for her MBA at University Canada West. 

Earlier this year, she posted a video on YouTube about the process of appealing to the court if a student’s permit application is rejected. “I spoke about my own personal experience where I appealed, and I won,” says Abbas. “Students get intimidated if they have to go to court. But if they are sure that their application is fine, they should go ahead and appeal instead of reapplying.”

The lighter side

These influencers don’t only post doom and gloom. Abbas’ social media also features videos of her exploring—like riding the SkyTrain, visiting Gastown, and taking a trip to the waterfront. Many influencers urge fellow students to engage in local activities (including some that even might be out of their comfort zone, like hiking in the winter), and try popular foods like beaver tails and poutine.

Philippines-born Rachel Dancel, for example, revealed a hidden gem to her viewers a few months ago: the cherry blossoms near the McArthurGlen mall. Dancel has become one of the most sought-after student influencers  thanks to her informative videos about immigration programs. The social media star has built partnerships with major companies like RBC and ApplyBoard, who support her content about managing finances and navigating the job market. Though her top videos on TikTok and YouTube are about the new permanent resident pathways and the Express Entry program in Canada, fun videos—like gym vlogs—are popular, too. 

Many influencers urge fellow students to engage in local activities and try popular foods like beaver tails and poutine.

“I started vlogging during Covid to pass the time while I was waiting to hear about my immigration status,” explains Dancel. “My partner encouraged me to talk about my experiences, as it would be a great way for other people to learn about how immigration works from the point of view of someone who has been through it.” 

“In that process, I’ve built a community that looks out for each other,” she says. “I’ve learned to appreciate vlogging more now that I know the kind of content I share can change someone’s life or help them make smarter decisions about their journey to Canada.”

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