By Rabia Gursoy
My sister, Nihal Gursoy, sent me a text on April 10 at around 8 p.m.
“Don’t tell my parents I don’t want them to worry.”
It was 2 a.m in Berlin, 3,924 miles away from me. I picked up the phone immediately. She had called an ambulance to Neon Wood Student Apartments, where she lives, fearing she was having a heart attack. She wasn’t. Had she wanted to go to the hospital, she’d have to put herself at risk of COVID-19. I worry about her constantly especially since she has no one to call if anything serious were to happen. Nihal is unable to renew her visa, and just like 14,000 other students in Germany, she is stranded, unable to return home while embassies remain closed.
Of the 350,000 international students in Germany, 85 percent have been affected by the Coronavirus, according to a survey conducted by Studying-in-Germany. With transport canceled, 4 percent of students are stuck abroad, according to Student Exchanges in Times of Crisis. Universities’ uncertainty on the matter has made it even more difficult for students to decide what to do next.
“My university, Freie University, was late to announce that we would continue education online,” my sister told me during our phone call. “The visa process takes at least three weeks, and by the time I tried to reapply for it, embassies were shut down and borders were closed.”
The Neon Wood Student Apartments in Germany were home to over 500 students — but now less than 100 remain, Nihal among them. The U.S. embassy in Berlin and Consulates General Frankfurt and Munich suspended routine consular services on March 16.
Nihal has not been able to re-apply for a U.S. visa as operations have not moved to a virtual platform but were shut down completely.
“US embassies should provide online assistance for visa operations to the extent that they are able to do so safely for both workers and those who applied for a visa,” Daniel Bassner, a foreign policy expert at the University of Washington, said. “Though the COVID-19 outbreak is serious, people who have been waiting, oftentimes for months or years, to receive visa information, should, to the greatest extent possible, not have their processes delayed.”
President Trump announced the U.S. would be closing its borders to Europe for 30 days effective Friday, March 13 at midnight due to the pandemic. International students rushed to find flights.
In a letter from Erasmus Student Network (ESN) published on April 9, a Europe-wide exchange student support organization, communicated to its students that they should stay in place if possible unless recalled by their countries or universities.
“I decided that staying in my apartment in Berlin would be the safest and most responsible thing to do for me and others around me,” Shivani Mullo, a masters student at Freie University said. “I talked to other fellow Mauritian students abroad in the U.S. and here in Germany too, and my parents spoke to a few doctors and we were all of the opinion that traveling would be riskier.”
In Germany, over 4,000 people have died of COVID-19 — fewer than in Italy, Spain or France. However, the number of fatalities is still rising, as is the number of infected healthcare workers. As of April 25, over 130,000 people have been infected in the country.
Some international students tried to leave immediately, despite ESN’s recommendations, amid an increase in hate speech and racism. Almost a quarter of Italian students and around a fifth of Asian students said they had been the victims of discrimination based on their nationalities, according to Student Exchanges in Times of Crisis.
“Some young boys yelled to one of my Korean friends and to me with some saying ‘corona’ and ‘ching chang chong’,” Aram Na, a graduate student at Freie University, said. “That situation actually made me more fearful about staying in Germany.”
There are also fears for the mental well-being of students now under lockdown, away from their families in a foreign country. Parents are urging universities to provide as much support towards students’ mental health as possible.
“Most students that are not near their family or loved ones have an increased concern and stress that is related to what is happening to their family and loved one’s well-being and safety,” Najah Zaaeed, professor of Health Promotion and Wellness at Oswego State, said.
Nearly half of respondents to a new poll said their mental health had been harmed by the coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Being away from family and friends, a support system is especially difficult because of the additional fears of all the unknowns that accompany the situation,” Kelly Schoonaert, an associate professor of Health Promotion and Wellness from University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, said. “You don’t know when you’ll be able to go home again, [or] if you will see your loved ones. You don’t know if the place you are in has the capacity to treat all the possibilities. You don’t know when it will be over.”
Experts suggest that the most important thing families can do for students abroad is to contact them frequently.
“Some of the common needs of international students and students abroad are financial support or needs, access to healthcare services, socialization with others in their respective place of residence and having an open channel of communication with families and university staff,” Zaaeed said.
Despite coming up against closed borders, international students continue to find ways to go home. Universities, meanwhile, have begun to strictly advise students who have already left to postpone plans to return.
“My university advised students who have already gone back home to not book their return flights,” Sena Bakkurt, an undergraduate student at Warsaw University, Poland, said. “After that, I’ve decided to return home to Turkey, İzmir, but the borders were long closed. So I emailed the Turkish Embassy. They got back to me within 10 minutes and told me there was a flight in two hours and that they didn’t know when the next flight would be.”
Germany has decided to allow smaller shops to reopen starting April 20 alongside final year primary school pupils will start returning to class on May 4.
Embassies have not made any announcement regarding when they will reopen.