With the entire world experiencing a lockdown and many countries closing their borders, masses of Sri Lankan students overseas are facing difficult times especially in Australia, UK, and USA which are the most sought after countries for Sri Lankan students to pursue higher studies. When the spread of the Coronavirus was escalating many international students availed themselves of the flights and returned back to Sri Lanka where they spent the requisite two weeks in quarantine camps run by the government before they were released to their homes. However, others have not been so lucky. Some are still stranded overseas and due to borders being closed they have no chance of returning to Sri Lanka any time soon. In Australia the authorities announced that students who could not sustain themselves for 6 months should return to their countries. This was a little too late for thousands of Sri Lankan students in Australia as Sri Lanka had already closed its borders with Australia following swiftly behind.
Gamini Hrithik Jayasuriya a first year Business Admin student at RMIT in Melbourne explained that there were many Sri Lankan students who were stranded with little or no money. "Many of the students who are here are helped by their parents to get to Australia. Most of them have to do extra jobs to pay for their food, accommodation and also a component of their fees. Now that there is no work they are stuck. Most of the students work all hours and as a result have a nonexistent social network and don’t know many Sri Lankans who they could even approach for help. These students need to return to Sri Lanka to the safety of their families and we appeal to the president to organise a flight to bring us back to Sri Lanka." Gamini also added that he knew of some students whose parents had pawned their gold jewellery to send money to their children in Australia so that they can buy the basics.
Echoing his sentiments is Noorul Buhary an MSc student from University of South Australia. Noorul lives in Adelaide and like countless other Sri Lankans in the same predicament he worries about funding himself. "I am now managing with savings from my part time job which I was doing before the virus outbreak and now that source is also fast depleting. There has been some help from the Sri Lankan Society in Adelaide for which I am grateful. The Australian government said that those who can not afford to stay for 6 months under these circumstances should return home. But how can we? The borders across Sri Lanka and Australia are closed. There are many other Sri Lankans here in Adelaide in the same situation and we are also being helped by fellow Sri Lankans who are permanent residents in Australia. We have also sent a letter to the President of Sri Lanka asking him to intervene and help over 200 Sri Lankan students in Australia to return to Sri Lanka as we feel much safer back at home” he pleaded. “ Once this is over we would like to return back to Australia and finish our education and for that we would need our visas extended and we hope at that time the Australian Government will help us by extending our visas If that does not happen, then I don't know how we will finish our education. We came here for a better future but now we are not sure if we will have a future” Noorul added.
One student who was fortunate enough to return to Sri Lanka is Shaquille Balasuriya a first year BSc student at the University of Bristol in the UK. " I came back because the situation in the UK was poor to the extent that we got instructions saying that even if we got the symptoms we would not be treated until we had the symptoms for 7 days and a fever of 102. It was then that I felt really unsafe and decided it was best to head home. I spent two weeks at the Diyatalawa quarantine camp and the facilities and care we received there was just amazing. I have heard that some universities in the UK have cancelled exams but I am still expected to submit all my assignments and do my exams online in May. I am supposed to return in September to start the next academic year but who knows what will happen.”
Many of our former students have been kicked out of their university rooms. Fortunately, most of them have found kind Sri Lankans, be it relatives or family friends, who they have been able to stay with. I think, by and large, these students are aware they are nowhere near the people hardest hit by this situation and they respect the privilege of their education, opportunities and the food on their table so they’re not feeling sorry for themselves”
Taha Adamaly is another student who decided to fly back to Sri Lanka. Reading for a BSc in Economics and Finance at the University of Bristol, Taha decided to fly back to Sri Lanka on the 19th of March just as the situation in the UK was escalating. “ I wanted to be with my family at home where I would feel safe and secure.” Taha spent the requisite two weeks in quarantine at the Diyatalawa camp and returned to his family. Speaking of how the university handled the situation Taha said “my university handled the situation quite well and has moved the entire third term teaching online so all teaching and assessments will be submitted online. If the current situation prevails I am unsure what will happen in September when the new academic year starts.”
Waiting to fly the nest and start a course of study is Rosariya Liyanage, a graduate from Raffles Institute of Fashion who was on the eve of her departure to a Business School in Rome to begin her MA in Fashion Management when the deadly COVID-19 outbreak escalated. The virus thwarted her plans of leaving Colombo as her parents forbade her from leaving the country. "Rome is the last place my parents wanted me to go to even though they knew that I was very disappointed that I was not able to leave. I got a scholarship to do my MA in Rome and I am heartbroken as I don't know what will happen. I was hoping to do a part time job in Rome to help with my expenses but that looks remote as there are so many people without jobs in Rome now. I will just have to sit this one out like so many other students and see what will happen."
Watching the daily Covid-19 death rate increase in Spain is Saakya Rajawasan, a university student in Madrid. Saakya’s university closed a week before Spain ordered all schools to close and they moved to an online platform to continue their studies. The university has given the option for foreign students to return to their countries and has availed facilities so that students in different time zones have access to the lectures. Speaking of her current circumstances, Saakya says “ I have mentally prepared myself to stay in Spain till the December holidays in case the borders are still closed in June and July. I have been inside for three weeks and I am confident I can continue in this matter for another month or two. My university has also provided us with a two month free subscription to HBO in addition to providing mental health services to cope with these stressful times. In June Saakya’s lease on her accommodation runs out and she is faced with the daunting task of renegotiating the lease. If not, she has to find a new place to live. Faced with these mounting challenges Saakya remains hopeful when she says “I am trying to be very optimistic about the current situation and ready to face any challenges that might come up. I am trying my best to stay safe, especially as I have no family here and there is no Sri Lankan embassy or consulate here either.”
Like Saakya there are numerous students who are faced with accommodation problems. Speaking on the condition of anonymity a student advisor at one of Colombo’s leading international schools said “ many of our former students have been kicked out of their university rooms. Fortunately, most of them have found kind Sri Lankans, be it relatives or family friends, who they have been able to stay with. I think, by and large, these students are aware they are nowhere near the people hardest hit by this situation and they respect the privilege of their education, opportunities and the food on their table so they're not feeling sorry for themselves. Issues like this are part of their education and they recognise the growth they can make as socially responsible people because of it”
Ishini Gammanpila a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York had booked a flight to return to Sri Lanka on 20th March but as the country imposed a lockdown, Ishini had no time to change her flights. Speaking of the support given by her university Ishini says “ They provided money from the school's Access Fund for students who had trouble leaving campus due to their financial situation. Some of the dining halls remained open for students who were unable to leave campus. I was alone on campus and feeling miserable and my friends were really concerned so one of them came to "rescue" me with her family. I'm currently staying at their house in Connecticut so I'm doing alright now, but there are times where I feel sad because I start to get homesick, and worry because the situation across the world keeps worsening.”
For many students the overriding concern is when they will be allowed to go back to their universities. Echoing this is Ammaar Careem an undergraduate student at Nottingham Trent University who says “ the only concern that I have is the time period that would take to return back. This is an unforeseen event and I hope a solution in this regard will be found soon, which will enable us to return to normalcy.”
While some students have been fortunate to have online classes, Areeb Thassim from the University of Amsterdam has had a different experience “My university has struggled to move to the online platform and will take some time to get there. With the uncertainty, I made the decision to move myself out of my flat in Amsterdam to avoid paying rent for the next couple of months and save some money since I'll be at home for the foreseeable future.”
Compare that with Manasha Silva a student at Istituto Marangoni in Milan. Speaking of her experience with virtual classrooms she says “Our lessons are conducted by Zoom which is not complicated at all. It’s actually quite easy to handle. All the class codes are entered into our schools intranet and we receive an email the day before on the codes of each class. We are also provided with a translator in English or Italian as my course is mostly taught in both languages. We have classes almost 5 days a week. With 2 to 3 lectures a day. It’s quite tiring and that’s an issue we have brought up with the school because we end up spending more than 12 hours a day in front of a screen and also the fact that we have group work for our finals which is next week. Another great thing is that most of our lecture subjects have been adjusted to how we could use our course content to deal with these issues in the future. We also got a skill class on how to communicate through online mediums due to this crisis. The school has been very supportive about everything else including time zones for kids who have gone back to their countries because the majority of the students are international students. So if someone misses a class, a recorded copy is available for viewing and so are ‘one on one’ time with lecturers if needed”
Living in Japan which has relatively fewer Covid-19 casualties, Rahul De Silva a student of Environment and Development at APU decided to stay back instead of returning to Sri Lanka because the area he is lives showed 0% in terms of both confirmed cases and deaths due to Corona. Speaking about the situation for international students in his area Rahul says ‘things haven’t changed much and there isn’t special treatment given for us. But many students who have gone for exchange programs are having a hard time returning to their own country or even coming back to Japan. My place of work hasn’t been asked to close down yet. However a popular hotel where many international students and Japanese students work has closed some restaurants inside, which made them reapply for other jobs. This means pay rates are different and so are working hours. Therefore they may not be able to earn the same wages they did before at their previous job.”
Speaking about the strict imposition of rules at the University of Oxford, which Sheshadri Kottearachchi attends she says “The University shut down almost immediately after the government announced a lock down. International students were allowed to remain where they couldn't return home but asked to self isolate and/or practise social distancing. As libraries and labs were closed, resources were made available online and classes are due to be carried out in the same manner. There is uncertainty as to when we will be allowed back home to Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan High Commission has been in touch with us and has sent several updates regarding what we ought to do. Thus far we've been asked to comply with government regulations.”
Summing the thoughts of thousands of Sri Lankan students stranded in foreign shores Kavindya Thennakoon a graduate student from Stanford University says “I think the sense of uncertainty is really crippling and to be away from home you feel very helpless given that there are several issues especially in my hometown around grocery stores and overall distribution of food. I was doing a part time job which is no longer available but I am truly grateful that I am on a fellowship and most of my tuition fees is covered. Many of us also help our families and communities back home, that depend on us so losing income has a trickle down effect. I know many friends both in the United States and outside who are unable to cover their tuition fees. I wish I had hugged my mother and my friends a little longer when I had the chance to. Nothing, absolutely nothing will be the same again.
“I think the sense of uncertainty is really crippling and being away from home you feel very helpless. I was doing a part time job which is no longer available but I am truly grateful that I am on a fellowship and most of my tuition fees is covered. I know many friends both in the United States and outside who are unable to cover their tuition fees. I wish I had hugged my mother and my friends a little longer when I had the chance to. Nothing, absolutely nothing will be the same again”