Away from home: international students struggle with uncertainty amidst pandemic

When sophomore Yifan Yuan went to Hy-Vee with his girlfriend two weeks ago, they were wearing face masks for protection when a fellow shopper approached them and sneered “this is ridiculous, get out of the country.”

Yuan, who is from Beijing, China, then realized that the newfound racism against Chinese people isn’t just happening on T.V.

Yuan said he practices social distancing by staying inside, but not because he fears  COVID-19, the virus that has turned into a global pandemic. He is afraid of the racism he may face if he steps outside of Augustana’s protective borders.

“That’s actually what we’re worried about the most — that we cannot go outside,” Yuan said. “People have a lot of [negative] emotions, and they want to take it out [on us].”

This fear comes just days after President Donald Trump defended his use of the phrase “Chinese virus” in two tweets made on March 18.

According to CNN, Trump said he didn’t regret describing COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and defended his past adoption of the terms by referencing other infectious diseases that are named after their place of origin.

“Some of the U.S. politicians gave people a way to let out those emotions by saying it’s the Chinese virus,” Yuan said. “I think it’s not fair for us, and they should find a more mature way to solve this problem instead of blaming it on other people.”

Despite his fears, Yuan said he and other Chinese citizen students now prefer to stay here at Augustana instead of returning to China.

“We’re really satisfied with what Augustana is providing us — the dorm, the food, Campus Safety,” Yuan said. “We are safe here, and we feel that we have no need to go anywhere else.”

But, after Augustana announced that it would move all classes online for the rest of the semester, administrators and the International Programs Office (IPO) are now encouraging international students to return home as soon as they can book a flight. 

However, not all international students have this option.

Zemenu Hailemariam and Luis Cruz talked about their fears, as international students, in the uncertainties of staying on campus and returning home. Photo by Gage Hoffman.

The dangers of returning home

Junior Luis Cruz and freshman Zemenu Hailemariam are roommates in Granskou Hall. They want nothing more than to return home amidst the uncertainty.

Cruz is from Honduras, but his family recently moved to the Dominican Republic. Hailemariam is from Ethiopia. 

For the two roommates, home is where they feel the safest. 

“The only thing that got me through freshman year was thinking of going back home — happy, safe and back to my family and friends,” Hailemariam said. “Losing that opportunity is not good; it’s a bummer.”

For Cruz, returning to his family is not an option, as the Dominican Republic closed its borders to all incoming travelers on March 19. 

“I would rather be back home because the support that I feel there goes beyond a number,” Cruz said. “I’m more than a case. I’m a person.”

While Hailemariam has the option of returning home, there are many things to consider, he said. He is afraid of transferring the virus to his family if he were to go back and said it would be difficult to complete his classes online. 

“It’s hard in Ethiopia because we don’t have fast internet and blackouts happen now and then,” Hailemariam said. 

For now, the roommates have each other. According to them, having a fellow international student as a roommate in times like this makes a huge difference.

“You have someone that you can talk to,” Cruz said. “By the way they look at you, you can see that they relate.”

According to Hailemariam, the IPO has also been supportive during this time by providing storage options, boxes, food, discounts on Lyft rides, free shipments and extended textbook rentals. 

Insurance worries cause additional fear

Keeping their textbooks longer is of little importance, though, to students who are more worried about contracting coronavirus.

“I don’t know what’s covered by my insurance, but I know it’s the lowest [coverage],” Hailemariam said. “Whenever I get sick here, going to the doctor is not an option for me. It doesn’t even come to my mind.”

Hailemariam and Cruz are not the only ones facing this worry.

Sophomore Zurab Lomidze is an international student from Tbilisi, Georgia. The hardest part about being in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic is the fear of getting sick, he said. 

“There is no family here to help you get better,” Lomidze said.

Lomidze is practicing social distancing but is frustrated with those who are not.

“It feels kind of scary because people are being weird about the virus,” Lomidze said. “They are still hosting parties, still going to public gatherings and still going to stores daily. It’s just wrong.”

For Lomidze, COVID-19 has affected him since the beginning of January when he learned that his best friend, sophomore Patrick Chang, would not be returning to Augustana for the spring semester due to travel bans.

“It’s boring without Patrick here,” Lomidze said. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s just boring.”

Coming together as a family

Despite the uncertainty and fear that comes with a constantly-changing global pandemic, many international students have realized the one thing they consistently have: each other. 

“I’m not the only Ethiopian here, so that’s a positive thing I’m trying to focus on,” Hailemariam said. “We can do this as a family.” 

Cruz hopes to find this same support from domestic students as well.

“I expect understanding,” Cruz said. “Just ask simple questions like ‘Are you okay? Is your family good?’ and do so in an interested manner or otherwise don’t.”

Yuan also hopes to find this understanding. He said he wants domestic students to understand that for Chinese citizen students, wearing face masks is a cultural difference. 

“We wear masks a lot, even if we’re not sick at all,” Yuan said. “It may not help you 100%, but it may protect yourself and others as well.”

Another cultural difference that international students are finding challenging now is social distancing. Hailemariam said that in Ethiopia, social distancing goes against their culture so people are struggling to follow the distancing mandates. 

For Cruz, he finds the separation to be a challenge, too.

“In our culture, social distancing is not a thing. So asking us to not high five or not greet people the way we do is like asking a person to walk or run differently,” Cruz said. 

In the midst of these challenging times, however, international students can often be found laughing together and making the most of the time they have. 

But Cruz said it best: “Before, positivity and happiness were facts, whereas now they are a choice.”

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