Coronavirus leaves international students scrambling to get home

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International travelers needed to wait in long lines for hours at Delhi International Airport on March 20, 2020. "We were made to wait behind glass doors to join the actual line which led to the immigration counters," said Maheshwari.

Yashovardhan Maheshwari, a freshman at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus, was aboard one of the last planes allowed to fly to India on March 20, two days before that nation imposed a temporary ban on international flights.

As college campuses across the nation were being shut down, international students around the world were left scrambling to find a safe way home amid a pending wave of travel restrictions. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had 10,610 international students from 113 countries for the 2019-2020 school year and many were torn between staying or returning home.

For Maheshwari, his journey to get home to Bhopal, India started on a Friday in Chicago at 1:30 p.m. and ended 31 hours later, after long lines, tight quarters with thousands of fellow passengers, three health screenings and little-to-no-food. A 15-hour flight followed by 16-hours locked in an airport. 

Maheshwari said the situation was “mismanaged” as 8,000 passengers from international flights were held in close proximity for 16 hours at the Indira Gandhi International Airport or IGI, in Delhi.

“The officials were not cautious at all; we were at inches distance and really close to each other in queues and there was pushing around as well,” said Maheshwari, days later in an online “Zoom” discussion from India with journalism classmates. 

“At hour 14 of 16, everyone was given a sandwich and juice. No other foods were offered. Luckily I had brought snacks in my bag from Chicago,” Maheshwari said.

The first part of his journey was a 15-hour flight to IGI Airport in Delhi. Upon arrival, he had the first of three “health screenings” with what Maheshwari described as a “temperature gun.” He said airport officials refused to tell him his temperature, but because they allowed him to continue his travels, he assumed he was OK. 

Later, after immigration checks and baggage claim at IGI Airport, he had a second, more extensive health screening, during which officials in extensive medical protection gear checked for specific symptoms such as dry cough, runny nose, and shortness of breath. Had he shown symptoms, he was told, he would have immediately been taken to a government facility or hospital without choice, he said.

Having a low-risk assessment, Maheshwari was granted permission to return to his home in Bhopal and completely self-isolate himself from his community and family. During this time, a team assesses his symptoms each morning. The Bhopal flight had few passengers, Maheshwari said. But he still had a third health screening, this one again with just the temperature gun.

Ananya Kulkarni, a University of Illinois freshman, was another of the university’s international students struggling to return home. Kulkarni is a Malaysia resident who holds an Indian passport. 

Malaysia declared a lockdown in the country, denying entry to any foreign passport holder, which left Kulkarni stranded. She then had to make the tough decision to travel to India and live with her relatives.

“I’m scared to be away from my parents in this time of crisis but I’m hopeful of returning to Malaysia soon and am keeping myself strong,” she said. 

Kulkarni departed on an Air India flight from Chicago to Delhi on March 20, the second-to-last flight to depart from Illinois to India before travel restrictions were imposed. Traveling along with her was another University of Illinois freshmen, psychology student Rishika Arya, who lives in Delhi, India. 

On their arrival in Delhi, Kulkarni and Arya had to wait in long lines for baggage claim, immigration and health screening. “We were tired and drained from the 14-hour flight but waiting for another 16 hours at the airport on arrival has thus far been the most strenuous travel experience of my life,” said Arya. 

“The entire process was terribly mismanaged and the authorities had no idea what was going on as four different people provided us with different pieces of information,” said Arya. 

She also said that the mismanagement at the airport contradicted the efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Passengers embarking from places emerging as virus hotspots like were made to stand in close proximity to other passengers in rooms for health screening. ”Forget five feet, we were barely five inches apart from strangers who might be carrying the virus,” said Kulkarni.

Another University of Illinois international student, Yamini Malhotra who lives in Singapore, discussed her ordeal at the Delhi International Airport. Echoing themes faced by other passengers, the graduate student said that during a 17-hour wait, essential commodities like food and water were scarce. “Water bottles were provided once and very little food was made available,” said Malhotra. 

When they left the airport Arya and Malhotra appeared jubilant as they greeted family.

“I am home and I feel safe although I feel sad on such an abrupt end to our freshmen year,” said Arya, who hoped to return to the University of Illinois in August. She added: “My heart goes out to people who weren’t able to return home and I pray for their safety.”

Julia Jing, a sophomore in the College of Media at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus, has been unable to return to her home in Beijing, China.

Jing said her family has been sending masks from China. Relatives worry about her “because I am not an American citizen and I don’t know if my school insurance includes the Coronavirus treatment,” she said.

Traveling home means a 20-hour flight to China as well as going through multiple airports, increasing the risk of infection. Jing would also be subjected to 14 days of quarantine in a hotel upon her arrival, she said. 

Not being able to return home poses other problems for Jing.

“My visa is expired in June, so I need to get a new visa right away during summer break.

However, all the flights are canceled, and the U.S. embassy is closed right now,” said Jing in an email. “I might not come back to UIUC next semester.”

Maheshwari, the freshman who spent 31 hours on flights and in the airport, is relieved to be back home.   

Reese Dolan, Mekalah El-Amin,  and Matt Troher contributed to this story. (Editor’s Note: Yashovardhan Maheshwari, in his capacity as a reporter/journalism student, conducted and reported the interviews with Kulkarni, Arya and Malhotra, reported in this article.).

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