While most Turkish students have returned home, international students are mainly confined to their dormitories, unsure of what the future holds.
Istanbul - It’s been nearly two months since Turkey shut down most of its universities at the beginning of March. Many students left their adopted cities, said goodbye to their dormitories and headed to their hometowns unsure when they would come back and what remained of their education.
The possibility of attending graduation ceremonies and taking final exams has slowly faded and online classes have replaced the physical interaction of the classroom.
Students have seen their social lives transform, no more so than Turkey’s 150,000 international students, many of whom are now living in limbo, unable to continue their education.
“When it [coronavirus] first started in China, we were drinking our coffee outside and enjoying the days with friends,” says Shaha Hyseni, an ethnic Albanian student from Serbia.
Since the first recorded coronavirus case in Turkey on March 11, the country has seen the number of confirmed infections steadily rise to almost 120,000 thousand and more than 3,000 dead.
“We had to move from one [student] dormitory to another,” says Hyseni who is doing her master’s in cultural studies at Sakarya University, 140 kilometres outside of Istanbul.
Normally, when universities are closed in Turkey for holidays or summer break, student dorms are also shut for students with international students going back to their home countries or finding alternative accommodation.
“Everything is new, suspended between loneliness and fear,” Hyseni tells TRT World, unsure when she will be able to go home and see her family and the lockdown potentially weeks away from being lifted.
“Our sleeping routine has drastically changed, and as someone who does outdoor sports, it was difficult to cope with the idea of not getting fresh air every morning,” added Hyseni.
The virus has resulted in students scrambling to build a new sense of normalcy in their social lives while trying to continue their studies.
“This entire lockdown, of course, has most impacted my academic life. I haven’t made progress with my thesis, there is stagnation because it is very difficult to concentrate and write,” says Hyseni who is in her last year of a master’s programme.
Looking towards the future
Job prospects for young graduates coming out of this pandemic is likely to compound the pain.
Following the 2007-2009 financial crises, the International Labor Organization (ILO) noted that youth unemployment spiked leaving them much worse off than adults.
On April 14, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast that the world was entering its most significant crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s, which financially decimated much of the world.
For many students, the prospect of gainful employment in the foreseeable future may be remote as social restrictions cause increasing social anxiety.
When Turkey abruptly shut universities, 22-year-old Adam Nkandu saw his everyday life dramatically change.
The Mechanical Engineering student speaking from the city of Bolu told TRT World: “I am a social person and the Covid-19 has killed half of me.”
“I’m not someone who likes isolating himself from other people. In our Zambian culture, we believe in Ubuntu. We define Ubuntu as Umuntu nga muntu nga in the Bantu language, which means a person is a person through other people.”
With a population of a little over 130,000, the city of Bolu is mostly known for producing quality chefs in Turkey. And during his time in the city, Nkandu has taken to integrating into everyday life learning Turkish and even the local traditional dances.
“I used to spend time in the Bolu streets with old people and also dance the Black Sea folk dance Horon with my Turkish friends,” says Nkandu. “Now I am feeling too isolated.”
His studies have also been impacted by the shuttering of everyday life. With university courses increasingly moving online and Nkandu still getting to grips with the Turkish language, he struggles to sometimes understand the lessons.
“This has made me start having sleepless nights studying because the only way I can survive is by helping and teaching myself,” he says.
Nkandu has also seen his financial life impacted with his family in his home country of Zambia also facing restrictions due to the coronavirus.
“I used to receive some help from people back home but as for now even those back home are in lockdown not working so the only option for me is just to stay at one place, plus we are in the month of Ramadan this means that I am not spending much money,” says Nkandu.
A lost year and a new normal?
Assistant Professor of International Relations at Ankara Yıldirim Beyazit University, Huseyin Mercan has seen the impact first hand of what the coronavirus has had on students describing it as the “main problem for international students”.
“Turkish students are living with their families. Those who study in a different city...have returned to their homes. However, international students have no such option. They mostly stay in dormitories,” says Mercan speaking to TRT World.
Measures taken by the Turkish government in their fight against the coronavirus included people above the age of 65 and under 20 not being allowed to leave the house.
“I personally observed from my students that they feel bored as other people, but they are also worried whether they will be able to find an opportunity to travel to their countries in the summer or not,” added Mercan.
For prospective international students thinking of studying in Turkey or those looking to get a scholarship, deferment for an additional year looks like a distinct possibility.
“The student’s capability and eligibility are mostly observed through interviews. Therefore, I do not think that Turkiye Scholarships Administration will decide on eligible students for next year without interviews.”
One student who has benefitted from the scholarship system but now finds herself isolated because of the coronavirus is 23-year-old Amra Mlloja.
“I went from being someone trying to find a balance between studies, a part-time job and my desire to wander about Istanbul [to] having classes in different corners of my room and walking about 100 steps a day,” says Mlloja speaking to TRT World.
“I [have] experienced two panic attacks, which I had never experienced before,” she adds from her home in Istanbul.
For many young people, the monotony of everyday life being isolated at home raises concerning questions about potential mental health issues that could arise.
Some have tried to deal with the new reality by picking up a love of cooking, playing board games with friends online or simply keeping themselves busy with the continuity of learning. But most of all they yearn to get back to living their lives.
“I can’t wait to go back to the ‘pre-coronavirus normality,’” says Mlloja.