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‘No choice but to remain’: Jordanian students stranded abroad grapple with closed campuses, suspended flights

By Perry Keziah - Jun 29,2020 - Last updated at Jun 29,2020

Jordanian citizens are seen returning to the Kingdom in mid-May as part of the government’s repatriation efforts (Petra photo)

AMMAN  — When universities around the world began closing their campuses in February and March as the novel coronavirus began crossing borders and continents at an alarming rate, students found themselves launched into an unexpected and uncertain remainder of the academic year.

For most students enrolled in university during the pandemic, adjusting to the loss of social life as they had known it and the abrupt switch to online classes was already a blow to morale, but for the roughly 35,000 Jordanians studying abroad, the closure of campuses and dorms signalled a much bigger problem, forcing them to grapple with the questions of where to live, where to go and how, if possible, to get home.

These were the questions going through Jordanian student Rasha Badran’s mind when she learned in mid-March that her university in Hungary was closing its doors and evacuating students from dorms as the Hungarian government took strict measures to respond to the coronavirus. 

While Hungarian students were given one week to pack their belongings and move out, international students were given only a day’s notice before they were transferred to a different building, she recently told The Jordan Times over the phone.

Badran, a second-year PhD student in Literary Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, said that the stress of moving out of her dorm into a three-bedroom apartment with nine other students, coupled with health concerns amid the spread of a still little-known virus, took a toll on her ability to meet deadlines and focus on studies.

“I was living with many girls in the same apartment in the new dormitory, so it was very hard, not to mention all the pressure and stress we had from deadlines that we had to meet but couldn’t,” she said.

Not all universities in Europe took a similar approach of dorm closures, but stress and difficulty adjusting to a new reality far from home became an all-too-familiar experience for international students across the continent.

Laith Alzu’bi, a fourth-year student at the University of Jordan who travelled to Venice, Italy on January 3 for a study abroad programme at Ca’ Foscari University, said that, while he was not forced to evacuate his dormitory, he did consider returning to Jordan at first. However, the reasons to remain in Italy soon overwhelmed his desire to leave. 

According to Alzu’bi, he was not only dissuaded by the “really costly” two-week quarantine he would have to undergo in Jordan, but also encouraged by his university in Venice to stay. 

“The university here didn’t want to send students back to their home countries, because there’s going to be a long process of refunding the money. You have to repay part of your scholarship and you have to pay for the flights you took to Italy,” he said. 

Alzu’bi was also afraid that he would lose his credits for the semester if he returned to Jordan, which might have spelled the end of his hopes for graduating this year. 

“I didn’t want that to happen, because this would have delayed things for me,” he said.

For Alzu’bi, online education, which began a week after the university campus was shut down, was difficult to adjust to. 

“I’m not the kind of student who focuses a lot on technology,” he said. “For example, I didn’t even bring a laptop with me to Italy, so that was an obstacle. And I’m still suffering from this problem because there are some exams that you can’t do without a laptop.” 

“I was using my phone to complete everything, and it was difficult for me to study from home. And all libraries and bookshops are closed, so you can’t get books either.”

Towards the onset of the pandemic, Italy experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the world, prompting a country-wide lockdown on March 10 and effectively confining around 60 million people to their homes, a reality that would last for two months.  

Meanwhile in Budapest, the pandemic was not only affecting Badran’s living situation, but had also opened an internal debate about whether or not to return home.  

Badran’s family in Jordan urged her to return whenever a flight to the Kingdom became available, but she was afraid of taking the risk of leaving Hungary without a guarantee that she would be able to return to finish her degree, especially as her scholarship to study in Budapest covers her living expenses and is contingent on her residing in Hungary. 

“If I return to Jordan and stay in Jordan, we might resume online studies, but my scholarship would stop,” she said.

“I’ve calculated all of this in my mind. I’ve calculated the quarantine period I would have in Jordan… and if I went back to Jordan, would I be able to come back to Hungary for the next year or not?” Badran questioned. 

“Each choice will have a consequence.”

While being apart from family has caused further fear and stress amid an already turbulent situation for many students, Alzu’bi said that one advantage of being far from his family is the minimised risk of spreading the virus to them if he were to become infected. 

Now, Alzu’bi’s only concern is when and if the airports in Jordan, which closed on March 17 for regular air travel, will reopen. 

Although international flights to the Kingdom have remained suspended, thousands of students stranded abroad have taken advantage of a government programme launched in mid-April to repatriate citizens, including sixth-year medical student at the Jordan University of Science and Technology Mohammad Eniezat, who also grappled with a similarly uncertain reality brought on by the pandemic in Chicago. 

Eniezat had moved to the city in February to participate in a two-month training programme for paediatric cardiology at Rush University Medical Centre and take an exam to get licensed to practise medicine in the US. 

“At the beginning, we didn’t feel that the coronavirus was something serious. I felt that it was too far away from me — it was not going to affect me, at least at that point,” he told The Jordan Times over the phone. “I had been planning this trip since last October, so I was not going to change my plan.”

Then cases began emerging in Chicago, including an infection at the hospital where he was working. In response to the city’s outbreak, the hospital started to impose new health regulations, including COVID-19 testing and cancelling non-emergency appointments and surgeries. Programmes for students were also suspended, including Eniezat’s. Then, his exam was cancelled.

On March 14, the Jordanian government announced that all flights in and out of the Kingdom would be suspended indefinitely within three days, prompting a frenzy among expatriate Jordanians to buy return tickets before what has now become a three-and-a-half-month airport closure. 

“This is when I knew the coronavirus must be serious, otherwise Jordan wouldn’t do such a thing,” Eniezat said. He attempted to buy a ticket before Queen Alia International Airport shut down, but tickets were sold out, leaving him with no choice but to remain in the US. 

“I wanted to just leave everything, leave the exam I had been studying for for three or four months, and go home,” he recalled.

With a notice that he would have to leave his dormitory, Eniezat’s only alternative was to fly to Los Angeles, where his older brother lives.

Returning to Jordan did not become an option until the government announced a plan to repatriate some of the roughly 35,000 Jordanians studying abroad in mid-April. Eniezat was among the thousands of students to apply for repatriation, and on May 6, he found himself again in Chicago, although this time, he was standing in a near-empty airport on his way to Amman. 

At QAIA, he and other students were greeted by army personnel who checked for symptoms, disinfected luggage and enforced social distancing before transporting incoming students to quarantine sites at the Dead Sea. 

Eniezat, who had previously been intent on practising medicine in the US, said: “After I saw all the efforts that the Jordanian army made for us, I started thinking about applying to the Royal Medical Services. I felt that I belong to this country so I started thinking seriously about staying here to serve my people.” 

While Eniezat was able to return, both Badran and Alzu’bi face a more uncertain future. Although Badran was initially hesitant to leave her university in Hungary, she told The Jordan Times that she now plans to take a flight back to Amman at the end of July if the airport reopens.

After a flight back to Jordan was cancelled, Alzu’bi is still in Italy, and says that his university has had to reschedule his flight for mid-July.  

On Sunday, the government suspended its repatriation programme until July 10 following a concerning spike in infections among repatriated Jordanians at quarantine sites. Official sources have also denied several claims circulated online and among the public that Queen Alia International Airport will reopen on July 15.


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