Arab Students Trapped in China by Coronavirus Outbreak

/ 20 Mar 2020

Arab Students Trapped in China by Coronavirus Outbreak

Some Arab students studying in areas of China infected with the deadly new coronavirus that has been declared a global health emergency are being evacuated by their governments, while others are stranded and expressing their distress. 

Many of the students posted updates on social media about their plight, and some called on their governments to speed up efforts to return them to their home countries.

The number of Arab students in China exceeds 14,000, according to a study by a Chinese scholar in 2016, most of whom are pursuing master’s or Ph.D. degrees, according to the government scholarship system. 

The new coronavirus first appeared in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early December. It quickly spread during January to other regions of China and abroad. 

As of early this week, there were more than 20,000 confirmed cases of the virus in China and at least 200 more in more than 20 other countries, CNN reported. The death toll stood at 425 in mainland China, with two deaths reported elsewhere—in Hong Kong and the Philippines. 

As a result, the Chinese government has taken strict measures to prevent the virus from spreading further, including quarantining more than 50 million people in Wuhan and other major cities in its province, Hubei. Meanwhile, a  number of countries around the world, including several Arab nations, have begun evacuating or making plans to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan and other parts of China shut down by the virus.

Difficult Conditions in Wuhan

The restrictions are making life difficult for Arab students trapped in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people about 650 miles south of Beijing.

“Unfortunately, the conditions here are very difficult,” said Mohamed Marghani, a Sudanese student pursuing a doctorate in physics at the Central China Normal University in Wuhan. “It is not allowed to leave the university neighborhood where students live. Even inside we cannot visit each other.”

“The city is isolated and closed, all shared transport lines are halted, and we can only travel on foot.”

Adham el-Sayed   a Lebanese doctoral student at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, in Wuhan

“There must be a very rapid move,” said Marghani. He pointed out that there are about 100 students and graduate students from Sudan in the city, some of whom are with their families.

Adham el-Sayed, a Lebanese doctoral student at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, also stressed the difficult living conditions. “The city is isolated and closed, all shared transport lines are halted, and we can only travel on foot,” he said. “These exceptional measures are very necessary for us so that no one comes into contact with others” who may be carrying the virus.

Musab Hassan, a Sudanese student seeking a master’s degree in telecommunications engineering, is very concerned about the continuing outbreak, especially with the scarcity of medical equipment such as masks and sterilizers as a result of pharmacies closing.

“We are facing severe psychological pressures. We are afraid even though we do not leave the houses,” Hassan said. “The major foreign countries have evacuated their nationals and we are stuck here. We must be helped and evacuated too.”

Calls for Evacuations

Over the past weeks, social media has been filled with posts by students from various Arab nations asking their governments to follow up on their situation the way other countries are helping their citizens in China.

“The embassy did not contact us until I posted a critical comment about them and made an appeal through Facebook,” said el-Sayed, of Lebanon. Currently, students are remaining on the university campus to avoid exposure to people who may be carrying the virus.  “But we need to continue to communicate with the embassy to evacuate us in case the entire city is evacuated,” he said. 

A man walks along the deserted waterfront in Wuhan, China where the coronavirus outbreak appears to have started (Photo:  Arek Rata/AP).
A man walks along the deserted waterfront in Wuhan, China where the coronavirus outbreak appears to have started (Photo: Arek Rata/AP).

Earlier this week, a Royal Jordanian Airlines aircraft evacuated about 70 students from Jordan and several other Arab countries from Wuhan to Amman, reported Petra, the official Jordanian news agency. The acting Jordanian Minister of Health, Saleh al-Kharabsheh, said the students “were all placed under quarantine to ensure their health.”

Saudi Arabian media outlets also announced the evacuation of 10 Saudi students from Wuhan to Riyadh. The students were accompanied by specialized medical teams and were taken to a medical facility where they will be isolated for two weeks to ensure their safety.

The situation for Yemeni students is more difficult as there is no possibility of their government evacuating them, due to the continuing war in their country. (See a related article, “Yemeni Youth Speak: ‘We Are Stranded.’”)

“Our situation is tragic,” said Manssour Malas, a Ph.D. student in communication and information systems engineering at Xidian University and a former media officer of the Yemeni Students’ Union in China. 

“We have not received our government scholarships for seven months and no one is caring to ask about our situation here,” said Malas. “We are not sure if we go back we can get enough medical care there, or whether it’s better to stay here and avoid putting Yemeni people in more trouble.” 

Malas believes it is the Saudi government’s responsibility to evacuate Yemeni students, as Saudi forces control all of Yemen’s airports right now.

Egypt Gives Students a Choice

Egypt also sent an aircraft to evacuate 300 of its nationals from Wuhan, most of whom are graduate students.

“The evacuation measures included only those Egyptians who were studying there and have been sent to China and are now seeking to return,” said Haitham Hamza, head of the missions section at Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education. Hamza stressed that the Egyptian authorities left nationals free to return or not.

“Our situation is tragic. We have not received our government scholarships for seven months and no one is caring to ask about our situation here.”

Manssour Malas   a Ph.D. Yemeni student in communication and information systems engineering at Xidian University

He added that the ministry decided to disburse an exceptional financial grant at the beginning of March to every Egyptian student who remains in China, to show the government’s support for its students.

Among the evacuated Egyptian students is Sayyid al-Qamhawi, 30, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Al-Qamhawi started his study in China in November after receiving a Chinese government scholarship. 

Al-Qamhawi said he remained in his apartment at the university for two weeks, as students were not allowed to leave the campus. He prepared meals from food he stocked up on before Chinese authorities imposed a curfew on the city on January 16.

Still, communication between al-Qamhawi and his university continued during this period, as they continued to correspond with him daily about his health condition. He even discussed with his Ph.D. supervisor possible ways to continue working on his thesis.

Basma Mostafa, 29, an Egyptian student, refuses to leave Wuhan, saying she doesn't want to carry the coronavirus back home (Photo:Basma Mostafa).
Basma Mostafa, 29, an Egyptian student, refuses to leave Wuhan, saying she doesn't want to carry the coronavirus back home (Photo:Basma Mostafa).

Uncertain Future

So far, study remains suspended at schools and universities in cities across China as part of efforts to combat the spread of the virus and diseases associated with it, including pneumonia.

“I was supposed to graduate and obtain my Ph.D. degree next May,” said el-Sayed, the Lebanese student in Wuhan. “I did not travel to Lebanon on the Chinese New Year holiday so I can finish my studies and graduate,” said el-Sayed. “But unfortunately, at this stage I am unable to focus. Now everything has changed and the university is still closed.”

Some universities have hinted that they may use online systems to resume classes soon.

“Some professors have told us that e-learning will be a suitable option if the the suspension continues,” said Basma Mostafa, 29, an Egyptian doctoral student at Beijing Language and Culture University. 

“Everyone is determined to return again; no one is considering leaving his studies or moving to another country.”

Sayyid al-Qamhawi   an Egyptian Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at Huazhong University of Science and Technology

She noted that the university communicates with students daily via email to check on their health and to remind them not to allow any visitors to enter the university building. Students can go out to buy supplies for their own needs, but officials check their temperature when they return.

For many students, the option of distance learning does not make sense.

“Most of the Egyptian students in Wuhan are specialized in applied sciences, such as engineering, medicine, and agriculture,” said al-Qamhawi. “So distance education will not be appropriate, especially since we need practical training in laboratories and to meet with our professors in person.”

Despite the uncertainty over when and how classes will resume, the majority of students confirmed their interest in continuing their studies.

“Everyone is determined to return again; no one is considering leaving his studies or moving to another country,” said al-Qamhawi. 

Mostafa stressed her desire to continue living and working in China after graduation.

“I have rediscovered myself during eight years of living in China. I have succeeded in self-development and broadening my perceptions,” she said, “so I would like to complete my career, after getting my Ph.D., here.”

Tarek Abd El-Galil and Jana Dhaybi contributed to this report.




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  1. That’s really a pathetic situation. Let Lord Almighty Allah bring in solution to such needy students and people’s.

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