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‘I Can’t Go Home’: Harvard Students Grapple With European Travel Ban

A pedestrian walks through Harvard Yard in front of Sever Hall on Wednesday morning.
A pedestrian walks through Harvard Yard in front of Sever Hall on Wednesday morning. By Allison G. Lee
By Declan J. Knieriem and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

In the wake of sweeping federal restrictions on travel across the Atlantic, European Harvard students said they have faced considerable challenges returning home as a coronavirus pandemic spreads.

On March 11, President Donald J. Trump announced a ban on travel from nearly all European countries. Two days later, he updated the ban to include Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The change to federal policy — an effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus — came during a week of confusion and uncertainty on Harvard’s campus, as administrators made the unprecedented decision to send students home in order to stem the virus.

In a Sunday night email to several hundred affiliates abroad, Harvard Global Support Services encouraged recipients to return home as soon as possible.

“Governments are swiftly enacting border and travel restrictions without prior notice in the hopes of slowing the pandemic’s progression,” it states. “If you’re in a location where you can leave, now is the time to decide whether you stay or return home.”

When Trump announced the ban during an address to the nation, several European students said it complicated their already shifting plans to leave.

While at dinner with his friends, David A. Paffenholz ’22 said he was “shocked” to learn of the travel restrictions. He said he immediately went on travel websites to look for a way to travel back to Germany. When he attempted to book a flight and entered his payment details, he said he received a notification that the flight was already booked.

“I was in a bit of a panic to find a flight that would still take me home the next day,” he said. “In the end it worked out, and I was able to book a ticket just to make sure I can get home to my family before the travel ban takes effect.”

Matej Cerman ’23, who is traveling to Slovakia, said he will have to travel through Austria because Slovakia’s borders and international public transport are limited.

“I haven’t fully figured out how I am going to get from the airport to my country, but I hope I should be able to do that,” he said. “Once I’m home, I’ll have to go into self-quarantine.”

Other students decided not to return home at all, finding housing with friends or applying to stay in Cambridge.

Lavinia Teodorescu ’22 spent this semester studying abroad in Denmark as the global pandemic unfolded. Instead of going home to Romania, she said she went to stay with family friends in London because her home country declared a state of emergency.

“I can’t go home,” she said. “[My family] is also recommending to not come home because of travel restrictions, but it’s been hard because we’re so close, but at the same time so far.”

Eugenio Donati ’20, who is originally from Italy, said he was approved for Harvard’s emergency housing in the wake of the “abrupt” travel restrictions. He also said he was fortunate because he was not initially planning to go home.

“It was very unexpected, but I knew I wasn't going to be affected by it, just because I wasn't planning on going back to Italy anyway,” he said “But now even if I wanted to fly there's just no flights anymore. So if I go, it wouldn't be possible to come back.”

The College rolled out a series of support measures in the days after announcing the dramatic changes to life at Harvard, including storage and travel reimbursements for students on financial aid. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that the decision to transition classes online and empty campus was “incredibly difficult.”

“I know how challenging this situation has been for our students, faculty, and staff. I’ve heard their feedback in the dining halls, in emails, in calls, and in the pages of the Crimson,” he wrote. “These efforts, although absolutely necessary and required by the evolving global pandemic, has had unintended and incredibly hard impacts on our community.”

He added that the situation was “a first in our lifetime” and that the University is doing everything it can to support students in the “face of unprecedented challenges.”

“I want to thank the many students who used this moment to help their friends,” he wrote. “I also want to express my thanks to the College and University faculty and staff who have been working non-stop since to help our students.”

As students absorbed the shock of the College’s policies and federal changes, many said this past week’s events have brought both logistical and personal challenges.

Alexander C. Chen ’22, who lives in London, wrote in an email that he felt a “sense of loss” after hearing about the travel restrictions. He called the prospect of indefinite separation from friends a “devastating blow.”

Despite the challenges presented by the ban, Chen said he was grateful for help from his peers.

“The support from other Harvard students has been overwhelming,” he wrote. “In this difficult time for international students, there have been countless genuine offers to indefinitely stay with my American friends — something that has certainly made this dark week brighter.”

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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HealthEuropeGlobal HealthStudy AbroadInternational StudentsCoronavirus