‘I didn’t have anywhere to go’: How students from unstable regions handled news of lockdown

The way in which colleges handled the accommodation situation during the pandemic shed a light on the underlying inequalities in Cambridge

The colleges’ handling of the accommodation situation during the pandemic shed light on Cambridge’s underlying inequalities. In the hostile push to go home, colleges did not consider what it meant for underprivileged students such as those from conflict areas, for whom these messages could mean a serious trigger and the loss of safety. The Rowan Williams Studentship helps the higher education of refugee students, as well as those who came from conflict zones or from extremely hard circumstances or are at risk of discrimination, persecution, suffering, violence or other abuse of their human rights. I talked with Rowan Williams Scholars about how they coped with the University’s and colleges’ instructions at the start of the pandemic.

The half-Syrian, half-Yemeni Reem is reading for a Masters in English and spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia after her family settled there. Brenda is from Uganda, where her passion was helping community education, and where her daughter remains while she studies for a Masters in Educational Leadership and School Improvement. Humaira is also a mother, studying for a MPhil in Public Policy. She left her husband in Afghanistan, where she was working with NGOs and international organisations. Humaira considers herself as an activist for women’s right and youth programmes. Humaira and Reem have managed to stay in their college accommodation, but Brenda has had to move. Their stories may seem different, but they all show that Cambridge must be more considerate when thinking about university students as a unified, privileged population.

“It made me remember very disturbing things”

“It was depressing to know that the University is trying to push you away regardless of where you come from”, replied Brenda when asked about the  “go home” messages. “Every day you’d get like more than three emails sending you away. You’re sending me home. How’s this home? Do I have one? Do I have a good space for reading? Do I have an internet connection for remote learning? Do I have access to power, to electricity? I don’t.”

The push also caused emotional stress for Reem: “The constant messages to go home gave me two anxiety attacks. Saudi Arabia closed its borders long before they [the University] were telling us to go home. So I didn’t have anywhere to go. I knew that logically it would never happen, but because of the panic, rationality is thrown to the wind. And somehow you start to believe that you’re gonna find yourself in a situation where you don’t know where you’re going to live, or you don’t know if you’ll be allowed to reside in a certain place. It triggered me. And it made me remember very disturbing things that I’ve been through and very difficult situations that I’ve had to navigate”.

The half-Yemeni, half-Syrian Reem has had a passion for writing since her early childhood. She researches modern and contemporary English literature at Jesus College.

Although Humaira is less upset about the colleges’ lockdown, she has her own problems with the messages: “The communication was ambiguous for so many people because we received too-long emails, but we didn’t know what to do. The push for everyone to leave wasn’t considerate.”

“With my passport, it’s going to be very difficult for me” 

“It wasn’t fair because for students coming from backgrounds like mine, getting to Cambridge wasn’t easy”, explained Brenda. “And when I’m finally feeling at home, you’re trying to push me away.” In the case of students coming from conflict zones or difficult backgrounds, the possibility of staying Cambridge is especially important considering the difficulty of their applications. Before applying to Cambridge, Reem had to face two visa rejections despite having offered places and scholarships: one from the UK and one from the United Arab Emirates. “And that’s because of my Yemeni passport. They thought I was moving to stay illegally in the country”, she commented on the rejection. “The same happened to my elder sister. She applied to Germany and got accepted. But they wouldn’t let her open a bank account when she was there. So she couldn’t stay”, Reem continued. “Then everything started to make sense to me; I was like, okay, with my passport, it’s going to be very difficult for me to go anywhere in the West.” 

Humaira had similar fears about getting her visa, but the University helped her: “The international students’ team was so supportive when I told them that I was coming from Afghanistan, with my family, so the home office might not issue the visa.” Humaira is grateful for this help and the scholarship. She did not expect to be accepted, but she is not alone with this feeling. “Coming from a poor background, it’s at the back of your mind that you won’t be successful. Who am I from Uganda to make it happen?” Brenda explains her doubts. Reem’s anxiety about the Cambridge application almost caused her to back out: “I wasn’t even in the University yet and I already had imposter syndrome.”

Participants completing Mosaik Education’s Academic Guidance Programme in Amman. Photo: Ben Webster.

In the cases of people displaced by conflict, applications to university are difficult due to more than just visa applications. “Whilst the global average rate enrolment in university stands at 37%, only 3% of refugees reach university, explained Ben Webster, the founder of Mosaik Education, a London-based NGO which provides training for students in conflict areas to enter higher education. One of the main difficulties is the lack of information: some of the studentsdon’t always have a good understanding of the landscape of opportunities, nor do they always have the skills to put together the requisite motivation statement and application methods.” A former PhD student from Nigeria told us that applying from developing countries has many other drawbacks; for example, the lack of opportunities for a good reference letter.

“Give me the encouragement to know that I’m in the right place”

“Personally, I  didn’t know anything about Cambridge because I’ve never been to the UK, or to Europe”, Brenda says, discussing her troubles with fitting into the Cambridge environment. “It’s quite unfortunate that nobody tells you what’s it like here”, she continued. “Perhaps, it’s the system, but they are not considerate enough of where people come from, and how they can make people fit in in a new environment, especially people coming from a low developed country like ours. Of course, when you come here you’re really frightened. So I needed that support. The encouragement that I’m in the right place.  But I didn’t get that, so I was so lonely most of the time.  It’s kind of depressing”. Fortunately, Brenda’s loneliness was eased by joining a welcoming and accepting Christian community, where she found peace.


Brenda is from Uganda. She studies for Educational Leadership and School Improvement at Lucy Cavendish. She is passionate about community education.

“I found that coming here really made my anxiety worse”, Reem agreed with Brenda’s experience. To overcome her anxiety, Reem learned and regularly practices mindfulness. She found her place in the supporting community at Jesus College. The only thing Reem feels upset about is the lack of Muslim praying rooms around campus and college. “I do think  it’s a big problem of these campuses that there is no universal praying space.”

Brenda also had everyday issues, such as her fear of cycling in Cambridge: “This city is kind of busy. And I’m just coming from a remote village”.  She had similar problems with adapting to using the computer all the time for her everyday studies and administration. Brenda also shared that the college accommodation ballot was not considerate towards those who needed the cheapest possible room, instead of random allocation. “That stressed me a lot. There was a reason as to why I applied to this range”. As Brenda has a daughter at home, she also has to keep her in mind when spending. “I think, generally, there are so many things that were not considered. They didn’t give us time to accommodate.”

Reem also told The Tab: “Establishing Cambridge as a place of safety is already difficult enough when you first come here, but then to have this happen and to have the pressure to leave when you cannot leave, exacerbates the problem. So it was disturbing.” 

“At the end of it all, we are going to be assessed equally”

“My concentration has been affected by this pandemic because I can concentrate a lot more in the library. I get motivated when I see people reading and focusing”, Brenda explains her problems with studying in the lockdown. “If you are at the student accommodation, it’s easier because you can hole up in your room and concentrate”, she continued. Brenda told us about a colleague who was sent back to Kenya, despite of his circumstances. He has to study for exams while living alongside his wife and children in a tiny flat without good broadband or infrastructure.  “You need to read and write, because the deadline is the same for everyone. It’s so difficult”, commented Brenda. Humaira has similar troubles. Her husband couldn’t come due to the travel ban so she is alone with her child and her exams. “My son used to go to nursery, so I could really focus on my studies, but nowadays he’s at home”, she said. “So now I am juggling, studying and working, parenting and everything all together.”

Humaira is from Afghanistan and studies for a Mphil in Public Policy at Lucy Cavendish. She has a husband and a son. She has worked with several NGOs and on diplomatic missions. She considers herself as an activist for women’s rights and youth programs.

Brenda summarised the main problem with the situation. “At the end of it all, we are going to be assessed equally. Regardless of where you are. I’ll be back in Uganda in the remote village without power, without electricity, without anything but at the end of the day, I need to write my thesis and it’s marked on the same map.”

“Covid-19 has shed light on educational inequalities”,  Stephen Toope commented recently. The vice-chancellor also predicted that the inequalities in backgrounds would be shown in the exam results.

“Thankfully, I am in a safe space”

To deal with the stress of the situation and to rediscover the town, Humaira takes big walks in Cambridge with her son. “The first days, I couldn’t really belong to this place, but now it’s getting better”, she explained her motivation. Reem finds comfort in mindfulness: “I’ve been working on managing my own anxiety, my senses of security and stability. But then the situation kind of pushed it all up in the air”, she confessed.

Despite this, she is full of positivity. “I try to practice gratitude and to remind myself that, thankfully, I am in a safe space. And I have access to all these resources. Instead of looking at my thesis, which I’m now writing, as a burden, I try to remind myself that it’s such a blessing that I can even do one. If I hadn’t gotten the rejections from the UK and the UAE, then I would not be here. It is a life-changing experience, and I’ve grown so much as a person since coming to Cambridge. I encourage people who come from a place of uncertainty or instability, and who did not ever think that they could go to Cambridge (or the like), to reconsider and please apply.” Meanwhile, the University and the colleges also have to reconsider their acts to make Cambridge an inclusive place. It is not enough to preach about inclusivity while washing their hands over the inequalities highlighted by their pandemic policy.

A University spokesperson commented:

“The University is aware of the strain students are under as a result of the pandemic, and is making every effort to ensure they feel supported and safe. We have previously stated that if students need to be in Cambridge, they should be – no student who could not go home would be evicted by their College. 

“The University and Colleges strive to create an environment in which academic successes are supported by personal wellbeing, particularly at such a difficult time. The University Counselling Service is available to all students, as is help from specialist welfare staff in the Colleges, such as College nurses, chaplains and Tutors.

“Additionally, no student should be disadvantaged by the alternative assessment methods that the pandemic has necessitated. We recognise there will be students who have particular needs and we have tried our best to take these into account. If students have concerns regarding assessment arrangements, they should contact their College Tutor, their Faculty or Departmental Teaching Office, or their Director of Studies.”