Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 May 2020

Coronavirus: how international students in Dubai are coping away from home

Many chose to stay in the UAE but did not anticipate flight restrictions lasting so long

When the UAE announced it was going to close its borders last month, many international students in the country were faced with a dilemma: stay put or travel home.

As university campuses closed across the country to contain the spread of Covid-19, virtual classes became the new norm.

Days before flights were fully suspended, many students decided to pack up and head back to their families to continue e-learning remotely.

But despite the pandemic upending daily life, a number of foreign students opted to stay in the Emirates, either by choice or because they had no other option.

Some could not afford a last minute flight home, while others wanted to see out their final year with their peers, albeit virtually.

Bonded by the burden of a tough decision, those living thousands of miles from loved ones have had to navigate through the crises together.

I did not think the lockdown measures were going to go on as long as this and I do question if I made the right choice, many of my close friends have left for home already

Manny Moid

Ali Muzaffar, 23, is one of hundreds of those still living in student accommodations in Dubai.

“The sudden change in routine has been hard to adapt to,” the Indian national said.

"I had the option to either go home to India and stay with my brother or head to Libya where my parents live, that’s where I grew up.

“I chose to stay in Dubai because the situation in Libya is not great right now and with all the disinfection precautions being carried out here, I felt safe."

Studying a one-year master’s degree in marketing at Middlesex University, he is a resident of Uninest student accommodation in Dubailand.

Since the outbreak, the UAE government has flown back more than 2,000 students from the UK, mostly Emirati, as their study abroad plans were cut short.

However, many foreign nationals enrolled at Dubai universities were forced to delay summer trips home because of the nationwide flight disruptions.

Mr Muzaffar had planned to travel home in April, but had to extend his rental agreement until June.

“I did have some concerns and frustrations at the beginning of all this,” he said.

“When everything stopped it was just such a big change and I felt very depressed not being able to exercise or go out and see friends.

“As students we are away from family so there is no one close by to console us, but I’m managing better now.”

Last year, the Dubai Higher Education Landscape report put the university student population in the emirate at 29,989 - more than 60 per cent of which were international students.

Pooja Nambiar says her student accommodation in Dubai has been very quiet since the Covid-19 outbreak. Pawan Singh / The National
Pooja Nambiar says her student accommodation in Dubai has been very quiet since the Covid-19 outbreak. Pawan Singh / The National

The study, which included more than 33 universities, was commissioned by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (Khda), Dubai’s educational regulatory body.

Since the outbreak, Sucharita Basu, general manager at the 424-bed Uninest residences, said “a good number” of their student tenants remained in the UAE. At another 432-bed facility managed by the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority, a representative told The National “about 50 per cent” of its young tenants remained in the building too.

For second year student Manny Moid, the decision to isolate in Dubai rather than return home during the pandemic was not an easy one.

“My mum and siblings are in Saudi Arabia and my father is living in London,” the 22-year-old British national said.

“I had the option to go to either country but because I was in the middle of important university work, I decided to stay.

“I did not think the lockdown measures were going to go on as long as this and I do question if I made the right choice, many of my close friends have left for home already.

Students living in Uninest playing pool during Covid-19 pandemic. Pawan Singh / The National 
Students living in Uninest playing pool during Covid-19 pandemic. Pawan Singh / The National 

“For me, going out and socialising was a big thing so I just feel a bit hemmed in, but I do a lot of video calls with friends and family.”

Studying a bachelor’s degree in mass communications at Curtin University, Mr Moid has had to extend his rental contract at Uninest for another few weeks, as it expired on May 10.

Adjusting to the “quiet life” away from home has been challenging for 22-year-old Indian national Pallavi Verma. But for the most part it has given her time to "reflect" on life after university.

“Quiet is not a word I usually associate with our student accommodation, it’s always full of life, so that’s been odd to get used to,” said the Heriot-Watt University undergraduate.

“I chose to stay because I need to study for exams.

“I’m in my final year so it’s certainly not how I pictured celebrating my last few weeks but we just have to get used to it now, it is a bitter sweet ending.”

About 50 per cent of the international students living in Uninest in Dubailand remained in the UAE to finish their studies during Covid-19 crises. Pawan Singh / The National
About 50 per cent of the international students living in Uninest in Dubailand remained in the UAE to finish their studies during Covid-19 crises. Pawan Singh / The National

And for Pooja Nambiar, 21, the pandemic has given her more time to build independence.

“I actually made the decision to stay because I wanted to spend more time with my peers and friends,” she said.

“I knew we were not going to have the proper send off that you get at the end of a uni term so I wanted to make the most of my time here while I could.

"There’s still quite a lot of students in the residences but many tend to stick to social distancing rules and stay in their rooms, it’s not ideal as I'm very sociable."

Ms Nambiar, who is studying international business at Heriot-Watt University, said her rental contract ends on May 21.

Although she has signed up for a repatriation flight home to India, she said she will likely have to extend her tenancy.

Updated: May 14, 2020 09:32 AM

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