International students struggle under containment measures

Northern Cyprus’s 35,000 international students, an estimated 20,000 of whom come from Africa, are finding it even harder than usual to make ends meet as a result of the measures taken by the government to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

The Council of Ministers on 9 March announced the closure of all learning institutions until 27 March. The implementation of a travel ban has also meant that students who left the country for the spring break are unable to return and first-year students due to start their studies in March are unable to enter.

As at 20 March, the number of people reported infected in Northern Cyprus was 33.

Of concern for international students still in Northern Cyprus is the rising cost of basic commodities and the closure of money transfer points such as Western Union, the most convenient way international students, especially those from Africa, receive money from home.

No part-time work

Furthermore, the closure of most businesses, especially restaurants and fast food outlets, has meant that hundreds of students who were holding down part-time jobs have lost an important source of income.

Nicole Mweeto*, a Nigerian student who is studying nursing at the Cyprus International University, told University World News via WhatsApp on 19 March the future was uncertain after the closing down of the restaurant where she was working as a waitress on a part-time basis.

“I was getting enough money to cover rentals and bills, but now that they have been forced to shut down due to the virus, it’s going to be a struggle for many of us, especially when food prices have increased and those that can afford to are buying in bulk.”

She is one out of thousands of international students who are forced to stay at home in self-isolation in order to contain the virus spread.

Women are more vulnerable

But while self-isolation is meant to protect people, the economic implications are making women in particular more vulnerable.

Non-profit organisation Voices of International Students in Cyprus (VOIS) Gender Issues Committee recently released a statement on social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram which said: “Home is not safe for everyone during this pandemic.”

Rawaa Ahmed, head of the Gender Issues Committee, said the economic impact of the coronavirus was forcing women and girls, including international students, to be trapped in abusive relationships.

The gender committee, made up of students from countries such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Syria and Pakistan, has set up a mental health and gender-violence support group that will help those affected to deal with challenges, such as housing, and provide counselling and other support.

Banks have been operating on a half-day basis from 16 March as stipulated by the Northern Cyprus government, making it difficult for students to receive funds, especially as they are required to make an appointment with the bank online and such a request may be approved or declined.

International students have raised their complaints via student unions and bodies which have approached the relevant ministries.

The government has set up crisis hotlines and online platforms to communicate with the public and students. Universities are also assisting by providing information on the virus and giving news updates on websites to keep students informed.

Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU), one of the largest universities in Northern Cyprus with at least 18,000 students, situated in Famagusta on the east coast – where the first cases of coronavirus were identified – created a ‘COVID-19 awareness committee’ which facilitated disinfections of university premises and transport systems from 11 to 14 March.

Online learning

In the wake of disruptions to education, however, students have appealed to their universities to set up online learning portals so they do not fall behind with their studies.

An email from the rectors’ office at EMU said the institution was preparing to set up online learning portals for their students as there was no certainty that the pandemic would end soon.

Currently, students from several universities are able to access course materials through the university online portals and reach their lecturers via email.

According to the UNESCO website, over 114 countries have shut down learning institutions (excluding localised shutdowns), affecting 890 million students (as at 20 March).

* Not her real name.

Eve Ruwoko is a Zimbabwean student studying in Northern Cyprus.