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Should I stay or go? Canadians ponder returning home as coronavirus cases spike in U.K.

After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sounded the alarm in March that it was time for Canadians abroad to “come home” as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Megan Stewart found herself faced with a difficult decision.

While her loved ones were back home in Canada, it had always been her dream to live and work in London. Having arrived in the U.K. capital in November after spending hundreds of dollars to obtain a visa, the 29-year-old was desperate to stay.

Not long after making the decision to remain in the U.K., however, Stewart, who is from Midland, Ont., faced another hurdle in keeping her London dream alive. She became one of millions of people in the U.K. to be put on furlough during the pandemic.

Under the British government’s furlough scheme, she was receiving only 80 per cent of her salary at Go Ape, an outdoor adventure company, making it difficult to afford the high cost of living in the city without tapping into her savings.

“It wasn’t enough to pay my rent and that’s not even including my phone bill or food.” 

Despite the difficulties and pressure to return home, Stewart, who celebrated her 30th birthday alone in April under London’s lockdown, said: “I was stubborn enough to stay.” 

Staff work at an outdoor bar in London on Sept. 24, 2020, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a range of new restrictions to combat the rise in coronavirus cases in England. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

While Stewart was able to return to work over the summer, the threat of another lockdown in London, where coronavirus cases are on the rise, has left her facing a decision shared by other Canadians living in Britain: should she stay put or think about returning home?

“I’m a bit worried…. I don’t want to lose out on all that money that I had to pay to get here, but I’m being realistic about it,” she said. “If we go into another lockdown and I don’t get furlough pay, I will more than likely have to leave and that absolutely devastates me.”

‘It’s been a bit of a rough deal’

Mark Sultana has heard many stories like Stewart’s during the coronavirus pandemic. He’s an entrepreneur born in Etobicoke, Ont., and now based in the U.K. who heads up Canadians in London, a social group for expats with more than 6,500 members. 

“I think that when the pandemic happened there were a lot of people stuck and not just Canadians.”

With as many as 95,000 Canadians estimated to have been living in the U.K. in  2019, according to data from Britain’s Office for National Statistics, it’s likely many of them have faced similar scenarios.

“There were a lot of people who paid money for visas who were not able to come over,” Sultana said. 

While the British and Canadian governments have made efforts to support expats living in the U.K., including offering visa extensions, not all visa holders are able to extend. In some cases, the same visa can only be applied for once. 

People wearing masks board a bus outside Waterloo station in London on Sept. 23, 2020. (Dominic Lipinski/The Associated Press)

For those who don’t have visa concerns, Sultana said, many are desperate to be reunited with their families, if even for a short time. However, it can be difficult to decide whether to risk the flight home during a pandemic and potentially end up stuck on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Even Sultana has had to grapple with that question. He cancelled plans to fly home to celebrate his mother’s 85th birthday early in the pandemic.

His mother has dementia, Sultana said, and it has been hard to be far from home as her condition has “declined so much” since the pandemic started. 

Now, he said, he feels he has “missed the window” to see her during better times. 

‘A really big decision’

For Torontonian Laura Watt, 31, being far from family during the pandemic has weighed heavily on her and her boyfriend, who is also Canadian.

Having made the move to London in July 2019, Watt said the couple “stuck it out” during the first coronavirus wave. 

Now, however, coronavirus cases are rising sharply in the U.K., with the country seeing its biggest surge since the pandemic began, with 7,143 cases reported Tuesday within a 24-hour time period. Watt and her boyfriend have been struggling with the decision to stay in London. 

“My family has pressured me to return home, making it a tough decision to be here,” Watt said. 

However, she said, staying put during a pandemic feels like a responsible decision, while returning home would be “a big commitment, especially when you’ve sort of established your life here and you have a full-time job and a relationship…. It’s a really big decision to make.”

‘I’ve struggled with the idea of staying here’

Jahan Kotowski, a 29-year-old from Calgary studying Spanish at Birkbeck, University of London, is determined to put off the decision of whether to return home for as long as she can. 

While she said she loves living in London, she has struggled to justify paying high international student fees to stay in a city that is unlikely to be fully open in the coming months. 

Kotowski works part-time as a model, but her visa only permits her to work a maximum of 20 hours a week, limiting her ability to make an income.

With the possibility of a second lockdown “and with the Christmas season coming, I’ve struggled with the idea of staying here,” Kotowski said.

“I do think if [the government] was like, ‘We’re going to do a six-month or even a two-month lockdown,’ I might have to move.”

‘It’s a good thing I stayed’ 

One Canadian in London with no plans of moving back to Canada any time soon is Natasia Kalajdziovski, a 32-year-old PhD student from Toronto.

For Kalajdziovski, the decision was effectively taken out of her hands in March when she contracted COVID-19.

Having lived in London “on and off” for more than a decade, the city had long felt as much like home for Kalajdziovski as her hometown. However, when the pandemic struck, she felt the urge to return to Canada to be closer to family. 

Natasia Kalajdziovski, a 32-year-old PhD student from Toronto, had been considering returning home from London when she started to experience coronavirus symptoms at the start of the pandemic. (Chantal Da Silva/CBC)

After debating whether to fly home after hearing Trudeau’s call for Canadians to make their way back, Kalajdziovski hesitated to book a flight.

“It’s a good thing I stayed, because the week I potentially would have flown home, I ended up becoming symptomatic for COVID.” 

What began as a small cough quickly turned into something more serious, with Kalajdziovski ending up in hospital, struggling to breathe. 

Months later, the 32-year-old said she still has residual symptoms, including severe headaches. The experience of surviving the virus not only took a physical toll, but also an emotional one, she said.

“Going through something like this really does make you question the idea of your own mortality and what that looks like, especially when you’re young.” 

Knowing what might have been had she boarded a flight home unknowingly carrying COVID-19, Kalajdziovski said that with coronavirus cases rising in the U.K. and Canada, “this time around, I’m staying put.”

A ‘weird uncertainty’ 

While many expats have made the decision to remain in London during the pandemic, some have returned home, uncertain of whether their future will lie in Canada or back in Britain.

Keith Wong, a 43-year-old working in advertising, said he decided to return to Toronto’s east end in March, concluding it would be better to be “half an hour away from my family than in another time zone.”

Initially, he planned to return to Britain in May, but as the months went on and the future remained uncertain, Wong kept pushing back his return date.

Eventually, he said, he hopes to return to London, where he has built a close-knit community of friends and has had to leave the majority of his possessions in storage. The questions he struggles with most are when to go back and for how long. 

“There’s just this weird uncertainty that’s sitting on top of all us,” he said. 

“I mean, do I come back? When do I come back? It turns into a big confusing thing no one knows the answers to.” 

Until answers do become clearer, Wong said, “I’m just torn between two places.”

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