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The foreign students of CIHEAM-MAICh narrate their experiences during the lockdown period

Lockdown far away from your family
The foreign students of CIHEAM-MAICh narrate their experiences

Maria Verivaki, Professor of English, CIHEAM-MAICh
George Fakotakis, Researcher, CIHEAM-MAICh
Giannis Katsikandarakis, Conference Center, CIHEAM-MAICh

During the lockdown period, when the movement restrictions were applied in the country, we took it for granted that we would have to stay at home. For most of us, this meant that we spent a lot of time in our houses, cooking all our meals and going out only for necessary jobs. But imagine being a foreigner at this time, stuck in a country where you have no family. Lockdown came as quite a shock for all of us, but it affected foreign students in a different way to the local people.

As the borders of countries around the world closed one by one, the students of CIHEAM-MAICh were faced with a difficult choice: to stay where they were, in their dormitory room at the CIHEAM-MAICh campus in Chania, or to go home, and this decision had to be made very quickly, as the world's borders closed down one by one. Student dormitories around the country closed one after the other. All the Greek students left the campus and went back to their respective homes. But all the foreign students studying at CIHEAM-MAICh decided to stay where they were, out of fear that they will not be able to return to Chania to continue their studies. No one left the campus; for this reason, special permission was granted by the Hellenic Ministry of Education to allow the foreign students to stay at the Institute.

The sudden lockdown affected all the students in similar ways. Here are their experiences, in their own words: Odai from Palestine, Abir from Tunisia, Nour from Egypt, Mohamad from Labanon, and Sergei from Russia. How were the students at CIHEAM-MAICh affected by the lockdown? 

Here, they speak to us about their immediate thoughts once restriction of movement was enforced in Greece.

ODAI: We all make daily plans for our work and study at CIHEAM-MAICh. This all suddenly stopped. We turned little things like going to buy food into  way to get our daily exercise. Sometimes we don't appreciate the small details of our freedom until something extreme like the covid crisis happens. At first I thought the restrictions Greece had imposed sounded too strict, but when I saw what was happening in Italy, I realised I had to take personal responsibility. Students form close bonds, so it was extremely difficult for us to maintain distances initially. As a scientist, I knew we knew we had to adapt and to do this very quickly.

ABIR: I felt panic at first. Institutes were closing and I worried that CIHEAM-MAICh would close too. We suddenly found ourselves unable to visit the friends we had made here. We couldn't go to the gym and most students had tickets to go to France and Italy for the Easter holidays. But the flights were all cancelled. The residents permit procedure was blocked and I couldn't open a bank account as I had intended. It also felt ironic that we were staying at CIHEAM-MAICh together, but when we went to the supermarket, we had to enter one by one. 

NOUR: I couldn't continue with my research work because the laboratory schedule was halted. But I was also upset because I had been rehearsing with a music band which was going to start playing concerts in the tourist season. So my hobby was destroyed. We had to learn to make the best of our time here in new ways. My scientific background helped me to adjust to the new rules, and it also helped me to not be afraid, as I could calculate the real risks involved in my new situation

MOHAMAD: I had just finished my studies and was ready to leave the institute. Then lockdown happened and i couldn't leave. So I couldn't go back home to see my family, and I could not make plans to go Germany where I was accepted for PhD studies. In effect, my plans were ruined.

SERGEI: As a business student, I was aware of the risk of lockdown, because it was obvious the crisis was approaching us. But no one could predict the chaos that ensued - we could not make plans. My first thought was to go back home! In Russia we have a saying that "at home, even the walls help you". But as I reviewed the situation, I realised from the available data that we were safe here. We are on an island, and the containment measures to so the spread were very strict, especially concerning transportation. 

The students expressed a high level of satisfaction with the way Greece handled the covid crisis

ODAI: Compared to other countries, Greece did very well. The restrictions were flexible so that you could move around with good reason. The messaging system was efficient. It made you realise that you had to act very responsibly.

ABIR: Greece seems to be winning the covid crisis. I was amazed that everyone was treated in the same way. We knew where we could go and where we couldn't go. Everything seemed under good control 

NOUR: Greece used a very objective system.  The country maintained the right procedure. It may not have eliminated the virus, but it stopped the spread quickly. 

MOHAMAD: Greece was very organised. I knew what the rules were.

SERGEI: Greece did so much better than neighbouring countries. 

We asked the students to describe their daily lives during the lockdown period.

ODAI: To be honest, I wasn't studying much before covid, but when the crisis deepened, I had nothing else to do so I worked very hard! Instead of complaining, I finished writing most of my thesis. The crisis opened my eyes. I began working on my professional profiles on social media and writing my CV. It was a chance for me to do the things I wanted to do but never dedicated the time to do them.

ABIR: I became much more organised!  I had a daily schedule, where day became night. I did my online lessons during the day, and I began taking night walks. I did workouts in my room since I could not go to the gym, and I was careful with who I socialised with. I kept track of all my movements.

NOUR: Some people say lockdown was hard and stressful, but CIHEAM-MAICh was a little heaven, with its open green spaces, so I didn't really feel so enclosed here. I could work when I had work in the lab, I would go bike riding, and I felt very hopeful because Greece's numbers were low. 

MOHAMAD: Even though I had finished my degree, I decided not to waste my time. I continued working in the lab, so I was still learning new things.

SERGEI: I really enjoyed spending my days in the many open spaces here, in the fresh air. I felt lucky that we had a beautiful large garden here. It helped so much.

The students were also worried about their family and friend back home. What did they hear from them during the lockdown?

ODAI: I knew it would be very difficult for them in this situation. Not all countries responded in the same way. In Palestine, the lockdown was much stricter. You had to stay home all the time. But in Greece, it was more flexible. I was especially worried about my family and friends who did not have fixed salaries. 

ABIR: My family worried about me, but they didn't know how well things were going here. I know my friends started working from home and fast decisions were made, but I worried about the health system in Tunisia. The lockdown took more time to be put in effect there. But I think they took good measures after all.  

NOUR: I think people were being misinformed in Egypt. They were being fed with the wrong information so they had a greater fear of the virus than we did here in Greece.  My sister has an autoimmune disease, so I told my family to take extra care with her, because I was worried that some people would not follow the laws about the restrictions, in the way that we did here,  

MOHAMADLebanon didn't have a lot of cases, so I was thankful for that, because I was very worried about my family. They were worried about me, but I explained to them that I felt safe here.

SERGEI: The impact of the measures in Russia was greater than in Greece.  But I think I felt much safer here, whereas my family did not always feel safe in Russia where there was a lot of uncertainty. The measures in Russia were not so clearcut. Instead of talking about quarantine and lockdown, the state told people to be 'off work'! 

In crisis situation, the fear of the unknown is often prevalent in our lives. The students describe their greatest fears during this periods.

ODAI: My main concern was to stay safe and healthy, without infection and this is what happened because we followed the instructions. It was stressful because some students became very depressed during this period. They were nervous and I felt worried about them, but we are all young enough to take care of ourselves, and to look after each other. We must see the positive side of the situation.

ABIR: I feared that this situation had no end in sight and I imagined that we would have to wear masks, and clean our hands all the time. I sometimes feel that I am at risk among strangers. It was also worrying to hear the strange theories that came out of the crisis about where the virus started from. 

NOUR: Professionally, I was  worried about when I could travel again. I know my PhD studies are waiting for me, but i really don't know when I can get my visa issues sorted out. 

MOHAMAD: I was mainly worried that I may not be able to continue my  PhD studies.  -But now, I dont worry so much, because the whole world when into lockdown together, so this is no longer a problem. It will sort itself out slowly.  

SERGEI: When we face problems, we firstly have to find ways to satisfy our basic needs. We had a place to stay but we had to keep it safe. We had access to food, but it was served differently during the crisis. Instead of using plates, we could only have packaged food. The wifi is now a basic need. When it broke down, this felt like a crisis because we couldnt communicate with our families, and we werent able to do our online courses. Communication is now a basic need in the global world. 

The students are now making plans for the near future, in the hope that the borders will soon be open so that they can see their families when international flights resume. But they also appreciate the time they spent here during the covid crisis. 

ODAI: I'm glad that I had the chance to do some travel before the covid crisis. So I am making it my goal to see as much of Crete and Greece and Europe as I can, before I can return to my country. I especially like to visit the old town of Chania, it feels like a new experience to me each time I go there. I need 2-3 hours to see the sea in my country, so I want to enjoy this view as much as I can before I return home.  

ABIR: I am not making any plans at the moment until flights resume and airports open. This crisis has made me realise how important travel is to me. It may be a long long time before I can travel again, so i want to enjoy my time away from my country, to savour the experience of living away from home.  

NOUR: My current plans are to finish my thesis, and to get the most out of the Greek summer. It will be a unique experience because this summer will not be like any other. Now that the fear has gone, we need to enjoy and appreciate what we have. 

MOHAMAD: I am grateful to have spent my time usefully here. But i really want to visit my family as soon as I can.  

SERGEIInitially, I wanted to return home. I felt that I had been away from my family for too long.  But I now realise that I was lucky to have lived through the crisis in a beautiful place like Chania, in the safety of an island.

FInally, we asked the students what memories they will hold about this period in their lives.

ODAIThe greatest memory I will have is the way the students were organising themselves. We socialised in a different way, but we still could help each other out of depression. 

this decreased depression. We looked to the positive side of life, we took extended walks, and we watched many sunsets.

ABIR: Before the crisis, we had 'square' ideas in our heads. The lockdown made us think outside the box.  For example, you don't need to sit down at a cafe to enjoy your coffee. You can make your own coffee and take it with you on a walk! I will remember it as a time when we did things differently. 

NOUR: It was a nice experience to be in lockdown in Chania. My family understood that I was in a better position here than they were in my own country, where I would have been living in an apartment, in the middle of Alexandria. I will remember the calmness I felt here because I was living in a more natural environment. 

MOHAMAD: I will remember the gardens of CIHEAM-MAICh. I walked through all the paths, looking at nature more carefully. Above all, I will remember this moment as the time when I lived more slowly. 

SERGEI: I really appreciated being surrounded by the nature here. Most of my memories of this period will be of the CIHEAM-MAICh gardens and the beautiful sunsets, as I was able to appreciate the surroundings I found myself in. 

Despite the many problems it raised, the lockdown was a period of serenity and reflection for these young people who found themselves trapped in a foreign country.  But it is also true that the foreign students of CIHEAM-MAICh had the chance to experience the nature and beauty of the beautiful town of Chania in a way that not even many tourists to the island would have been able to experience, and they are grateful to have had this chance. 


On behalf of the students at CIHEAM MAI.Chania, we would like to thank everyone who helped us to remain safe since the start of the covid pandemic. We are truly grateful for the help and support that we have been given over the last three months, by CIHEAM and the staff of CIHEAM-MAICh, especially the people who provided us with our daily meals and hygiene services. We also extend our gratitude to the students themselves, who showed exceptional patience throughout this period, by following all the new rules and regulations that were imposed on everyone in Greece, which all had a positive effect on the way that Greece handled the covid crisis. This experience has taught us all lifetime lessons. The online courses were definitely the students' favorite experience during this crisis, as they discovered a new way f knowledge who helped them stay productive during these difficult times. We hope that we will be returning to our countries soon, when the borders are open once again, and we look forward to a brighter future where people are more conscious of unity and solidarity towards each other.