‘I’ve accepted I’ll be stuck here’: International students on spending Christmas in the UK

‘The uni haven’t been clear on what would happen if I were stranded.’

It’s been a year since Covid-19 cancelled the Christmas and New Year plans of everybody who doesn’t work at Downing Street.

It’s been two years since I’ve seen my family in Australia. International students like me are once again facing the prospect of winter away from home, while others have made it home but don’t know whether they’ll be able to return to Manchester.

So we asked some international students about their own plans for the winter break and how they’ve been affected by the never-ending Covid situation.

‘I haven’t been able to go home for two years, so the pandemic has never been over for me’

Postgraduate Arts Management student, Jade is from Malaysia. Her mum is currently living and working in China, where mandatory hotel quarantine on arrival makes it a very difficult and expensive place to visit. As a result, Jade is spending her second Christmas in a row in Manchester.

Jade, postgraduate Arts Management student

Jade says the Omicron variant hasn’t made a big difference to her plans, as she’d already resigned herself to the idea of staying in the UK indefinitely.

“I haven’t really thought much about going home in the past two years,” she says, “I’ve kind of just accepted that it’s a given that I’ll be stuck here.”

She feels frustrated that domestic students don’t always seem to consider the struggles of being an international student in the middle of a pandemic: “So many people in the UK have been assuming that the pandemic is over,” she says, “but it’s different for people with parents in other countries. I haven’t been able to go home for two years, so the pandemic has never been over for me. Not everyone seems to understand that.”

‘I used to take for granted the ability to just fly home so easily’

While many international students have been stuck in the UK like Jade and me, others have managed to get home this Christmas, but it certainly wasn’t easy for them.

Biology undergraduate Kamila is spending the winter with her family in Russia. She says usually she would go home every two months to see her family, but Covid has caused these visits to become far less frequent thanks to repeated flight cancellations and increased airfare prices.

Kamila, fourth year Biology student

“I used to take for granted the ability to just fly home so easily,” she says, “but I’m just grateful that I’m even capable of going home at all.”

She says vaccine politics have also been an obstacle for her. If she received a booster vaccine in Russia it would not be recognised in the UK, potentially complicating re-entry if vaccine passport restrictions are extended. To avoid any issues, she ended up queueing for three hours in the rain at a walk-in in Manchester to get a booster before she left.

Speaking to me the night before her flight to Moscow, she’s anxious that the flight could be cancelled at the last minute due to the rapidly developing situation with Omicron. She is also worried that cancellations could delay her return to Manchester, since last Christmas she had to spend a few extra weeks in Russia for that exact reason.

“Thank God my exams are online this year, or it could be a real issue.”

‘I was worried when the university said that they weren’t going to do online teaching next semester’

Politics and Philosophy undergraduate Nicola is another international student who managed to get home, returning to her family in the US for the first time in over 18 months.

Nicola, third year Politics and Philosophy student

She left the UK before Omicron was detected here but now worries that her return to the UK could be in jeopardy, especially since her journey requires multiple transfers.

She is also worried about the possible impact on her studies if she is unable to return to Manchester.

“I was worried when the university said that they weren’t going to do online teaching next semester,” she says. “They haven’t been clear on what would happen if I were stranded.”

As of writing, the University of Manchester is still insisting that all teaching will be in-person next semester, “unless there is a major change in UK government guidance”. They are offering to pay for the hotel quarantine of anyone travelling from a red-list country, but the students we spoke to believe they aren’t doing enough for students who may be unable to make it back in time for January exams and classes next semester.

This holiday season is shaping up to be a hectic one yet again, and few people are feeling the sting more than international students. For now, all we can do is take care of ourselves, try to have as good a Christmas and New Year as we possibly can, and keep hoping that next year will bring a return to some sort of normality. Whatever that means.

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “The University absolutely recognises that it has been a very challenging time for all our students over the period of pandemic, and we appreciate our international students have faced some specific challenges.

“While we are delighted that you have chosen to study at the University of Manchester and hope that you will all be studying safely on our campus in the not-too-distant future, we do particularly understand the concerns of international students who have not yet travelled to Manchester.  We are seeking to address these here and will continue to do so, providing another update early in the new year, by 7 January 2022.”

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