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'Friendsgiving': N.S. students create new holiday traditions inside Atlantic bubble

HALIFAX — Haneesha Relwani, third-year marketing student at Acadia University, would normally be preparing at this time of year to travel home to St. Kitts and Nevis to see family.

HALIFAX — Haneesha Relwani, third-year marketing student at Acadia University, would normally be preparing at this time of year to travel home to St. Kitts and Nevis to see family.

Instead, she and many other students across Atlantic Canada will be celebrating the holidays away from loved ones this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I definitely wanted to go back home,” Relwani said in a recent interview. ”We're Indian so we also celebrate this festival called Diwali and we celebrate Christmas and New Years so I was telling them, ‘Maybe this time it won't be possible because of all of that.'"

But Relwani, who is president of Acadia's club for foreign students, said she is going to make sure students who can't go home for Thanksgiving can at least maintain a sense of community on campus.

Her group is holding an event called LocoMotion: Icebreaker -- an outdoor party during which international students can gather at a safe distance and celebrate the holiday together.

Relwani said she wanted to "create an environment for unity and comfort and just to remind each other and international students we're here for each other."

Students who do leave the Atlantic region for Thanksgiving weekend will need to quarantine for 14 days upon their return, Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said this week.

He urged students to "stay within the Atlantic bubble for Thanksgiving." The bubble is composed of the four Atlantic provinces -- Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador -- in which residents are free to travel without having to self-isolate when they cross borders.

Acadia president Peter Ricketts shared a similar message of caution in a letter posted on the school’s website Thursday.

Ricketts said the university “strongly encourages you to stay inside the Atlantic bubble and follow public health guidelines so you can experience a Friendsgiving.”

At St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., student union president Sarah Elliott said the school is offering several events for students who stay on campus, including a "Friendsgiving" feast and a trip to nearby Keppoch Mountain.

Elliott said she has travelled to see family in Ontario for past Thanksgivings, but said she'll stay in the bubble this holiday with roommates and do "low-risk" activities such as apple picking.

For those who choose to the leave the bubble, they won't be subjected to mandatory COVID-19 testing when they return from Thanksgiving, unlike when students arrived for the beginning of the fall semester, Strang said.

The province, however, is considering imposing mandatory testing following the Christmas break, he said.

Professors should be concerned with the mental health of students who are away from family during the holidays, said Lynda Ashbourne, associate professor of family relations and applied nutrition at the University of Guelph.

She said these young people are adults but still need their parents. 

"These relationships continue to be important and significant in their lives," Ashbourne said in a recent interview. "But how they connect can vary across families and in the current situation of the COVID I think families need to be a bit creative in how to make time for each other if that can't be in person."

Relwani decided to stay in Nova Scotia last spring out of concern she'd be trapped in St. Kitts and unable to return from the Caribbean to finish her studies. She spent the entire summer living in Wolfville, N.S.

Explaining to her parents she wouldn’t be travelling home for any of the fall and winter holidays was difficult, she said. "I do feel left out. I do feel helpless because this year has just been like that."

When November comes and it's time to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, she said she may wear a traditional Indian dress, called a sari, and light candles with her family over live video.

"I'll be trying to be a part of them as much as I can from here."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2020.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press

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