Locked up outside: life of HSE students who are stuck abroad

17 мая, 2020
Coronavirus launched a global crisis that affected each of us. Many exchange students returned home, and those who could not do this faced problems in another country. Katya and Lisa are students who came for an exchange in Italy and did not return home because of the pandemic. The girls told why they could not afford an apartment in Bologna, where they plan to live, and how the media caused a great response to their story.

Katerina Gerasimova, in Italy since January 26

Fundamental and Computational Linguistics, 3rd year

Student AbroadPhoto from Katerina's personal archive

My name is Katerina, and together with Lisa I left for an exchange in Bologna.

It does not seem to me that something extraordinary has happened to us because it has happened on a global scale, everything is not so bad with us. I did not think about this problem all the time. I still have classes, homework, but I had to keep a lot of things in mind — it was difficult.

We lived in our wonderful four-bedroom apartment in Bologna. When the coronavirus story began, the two of us went home to Russia. Paying the rent of the apartment was expensive for two when previously we used to pay for four, so we wanted to negotiate with the agency to lower the price. We were able to get a discount but very small. The owner refused to reduce the price. At the same time, the ruble was falling, all flights from Italy to Russia were canceled. We can say now that we were locked here. I did not return home, because here in Bologna we will not pose a threat to anyone, even if we get infected. If I went home, I would have to go through airports and stations. I would be even more worried about my family than now. I think I did the right thing. In addition, I really love this country. In Italy, I feel warm and good. I believe that everything will be fine in Italy soon.

Student AbroadPhoto from Katerina's personal archive

I was not going to contact someone because I thought we could handle everything ourselves. Later, I found out that Lisa wrote a post about finding contacts, which received a great response. Thanks to the media, many have learned about our history. A few days ago, my friend Lisa got a call from the HSE mobility department to find out the situation. Together we turned to the University of Bologna. They promised to help. In fact, our second home this semester, our University of Bologna Alma Mater Studiorum, is very supportive of students and is always ready to help. When the coronavirus just started spreading in Italy, the rector of our university wrote letters to us every day with important news and words of support.

We have not found a new place yet. We extended the contract for the removal of the old apartment until the beginning of May, and at this time we hope to find new housing. But incredibly many people are helping us and are ready to help now. I am extremely grateful to the guys from Russia who take care of us and ask how we are doing.

The school of linguistics in which I study in Moscow supported me very much as soon as they found out that I was in that position. Thanks to Yuri Alexandrovich Lander and Ekaterina Vladimirovna Rakhilina, who contacted me and made it clear that they were ready to help in any circumstances. The Centre for International Student Mobility helps us a lot. From the very beginning of the pandemic, letters of recommendation were sent to us, they informed us about all the important things related to our mobility in these conditions.

What is happening now is very unusual for me. Of course, I could not even imagine that my semester at the University of Bologna would look like this. In general, I am not discouraged, and I have no time to be bored — I am studying a lot. But I really miss walking, traveling. It’s a great pity that I look at our beautiful city only when I go out to the store on the next street. I really look forward to Italy recovering, because I really miss It. I have no doubt that our problem will be solved, because the university, the school of linguistics, my family and my Italian friend are helping us.

Lisa Krivolapova, in Italy since January 27

Cultural Studies, 3rd year

Student AbroadPhoto from Lisa's personal archive

My name is Lisa, and I left for an exchange in Bologna.

I went to the University of Bologna at the end of January, and the first month everything went well. I had interesting lessons at the oldest university in Europe, I met many people, and had a lot of fun. At the end of February, when we went to Venice for a carnival, the first wave of the virus in Italy began. Classes were canceled. In the beginning, there was no quarantine, we were just transferred to distance learning. The carnival was ending, we managed to see everything, but on the last day, when we were already leaving, the holiday was canceled. We saw how St. Mark's Square suddenly became empty. We saw how it happened. We arrived in Bologna and continued to walk, have fun. But a week later the whole country was closed and martial law was introduced. We could not come to other cities. It was unpleasant from the fact that I bought a ticket to Padua and it became known on the night before the trip that the borders of cities were closed. I know that many stuck and could not return to their city. There was a girl with whom we lived in an apartment in such a situation. She was in the mountains near Milan and could not return to Bologna, so she was forced to go to Moscow.

At the beginning of March, we did not understand the whole situation and did not think about returning home. We did not realize that coronavirus would infect the whole world and cause a global crisis. Of course, we were upset that we didn’t have live lessons, but we were sure that everything would return to normal soon. As it turned out later, the situation was not going to improve. The virus spread rapidly. Just because people were returning home with the virus, they were carrying it from other countries to their homes. When there was an opportunity I decided not to return to Moscow precisely for this reason. At the end of March, there was a peak in the spread of the virus in Italy, 900 people were dying every day. Now the number of deaths has decreased. Here, we are not in contact with anyone. Bologna is a small city, you will not meet anyone in the streets.

At the end of March, the situation became difficult. The crisis had come to Moscow. My parents were left without work, so we began to negotiate with our landlord about cost reduction. This is really an emergency, not every day there is a global crisis. We hoped that the owner would understand us, but we could not agree on the amount that was expected. I wrote on Facebook to find other housing. Many options are offered to me now, but there is no suitable one yet. For example, someone rents a room in Bologna, but because of the virus, we do not want to contact other people in the same space. It is not known who lived there before and who will live with us. I do not want to risk my health once again. In Bologna, high prices for apartments, because students often rent housing — there is a demand for it. Even during a pandemic, people don’t really want to cut prices. I don’t know what they are counting on. It is unlikely that demand has remained the same.

Student AbroadPhoto from Lisa's personal archive

We also found out that we just won’t be able to move to another apartment. Now in Bologna, relocation can only be arranged with the permission of the local police. We called the migration office. We were told that in April moving is undesirable, and they cannot help us with this so far. They offered to call later, so we had to extend the contract with the current owner until May. I really hope that we can find another option at this time. So our problem is paused — we have housing for this month.

After a post in the FB, I was contacted by the HSE Abroad, HSE organization that is engaged in the academic mobility of students. They contacted the University of Bologna, and now they are in correspondence. Maybe the University of Bologna will provide us with housing. I am very pleased that the head of my educational program "Cultural Studies" V. A. Kurennoy takes part in solving our problem. He promised to raise our issue at the HSE meeting. So far, everything is in the process, but I am very glad that people reacted to our story and disseminated it.

I would not say that the situation with coronavirus caused a lot of stress. I try to isolate myself, rarely go out to the supermarket and walk around the house. I only contact the girl with whom I live in the same apartment. Of course, I’m sad that I can’t go to university, because I already fell in love with these medieval walls, the spirit of the oldest educational institution. Classes with a teacher using Zoom are already perceived differently. I can’t walk through the buildings, through the library, through the streets of the city. On the other hand, I became more concerned with myself. It may sound corny, but self-isolation helps to understand oneself. Distance learning is a little easier. I can combine my courses at HSE with classes at an Italian university. In this sense, HSE has become even closer to me. I really hope that this will all be over soon. I would like to wish Russia a speedy recovery, as in Italy the situation has already begun to improve.

Original text by Kristina Chernykh
Edited by Sagarika Sanyal and Marta Ermashova