Stranded during the pandemic: Estrangement and limbo
 
 
Parents wearing protective face mask hug their children upon their arrival, at Cairo International Airport (CAI) as Egypt ramps up its efforts to slow the spread the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Cairo, Egypt March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh - Photograph: رويترز
 

The COVID-19 pandemic has halted commercial air travel and closed borders, leaving large numbers of people unable to reach loved ones, or return to their place of work. 

Social distancing, curfews and lockdown measures have made us all feel stranded in our homes, to some degree. Those who are forced, for now, to remain far from the places and people they know, or whose income is compromised because of travel restrictions, face particular challenges, and there is no clear end in sight. Here are some of their stories. 

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Egyptians in Saudi Arabia 

On February 11, Mohamed Abdel Mobdy’s residency permit expired, and the 60-day grace period to renew it expired last week. He is 27 years old and has been living in the Saudi Arabian city of Afif for three years working in car insurance. Mohamed tells Mada Masr that the residency renewal fee is 11,000 Saudi riyals (about LE46,000), which he cannot afford. He’d intended to fly back to Egypt for good on April 7. But now, he is stranded in Saudi Arabia, and his job is in danger because of his expired residency.

The Saudi government has made an exception on visa renewals, Abdely Mobdy says, but it only applies to people whose residencies ended between March 20 and June 30.

Abdel Mobdy says that although the Egyptian Consulate General in Riyadh released a statement on March 26 saying it would track people stranded in Saudi Arabia, it applied only to short-term travelers. Nevertheless, he signed up online at the link provided by the consulate. No one responded. “They only bring back people who were on Umra. They don’t care about nationals or whomever. And I’m obliged to pay to renew my residency in less than a week,” he says.

According to numbers by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, 2.9 million Egyptians were estimated to be living in Saudi Arabia at the end of 2016, out of a total of 9.5 million abroad. 

Saudi Arabia has seen over 5,300 cases and at least 73 deaths due to the virus. On Monday, the kingdom announced a 24-hour lockdown of its major cities, and there is a curfew in place for other areas of the country.

The Ministry of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs said on March 29 that it received 11,121 complaints and distress calls from Egyptian stranded abroad demanding to return due to the coronavirus outbreak. Minister Nabila Makram explained that most complaints came from those in Gulf countries, as well as the United States and parts of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. She added that priority is for travelers stranded during short business trips, emergency work, touristic travel or medical treatment.

Abdel Mobdy says several of his colleagues went to the Egyptian Embassy in Riyadh and were not offered a solution regarding their visa extensions, which is their main concern. 

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On February 27, Mohamed Abdel Mobdy’s brother Mubarak traveled from Riyadh to Cairo to renew his passport. But by the time he completed his paperwork, Saudi Arabia had suspended flights from Egypt, so he stayed in Qena where his family lives. Mubarak, a 32-year-old accountant who has been living in Saudi Arabia for 12 years, tells Mada Masr: “People I know in Saudi Arabia feel they’re stuck there and people I know in Egypt feel like they’re stuck here.”

Usually, Mubarak visits Egypt once a year. This time he was intending to take his wife and four children back with him to Saudi Arabia. Now he is waiting and does not know when he will be able to travel, and he has been given unpaid leave from his job. “If I’d known what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have come back to Egypt,” he says. Even though his work benefits are good, and he gets a two-month vacation, he is still worried about his limited savings running out before the crisis is over and he gets back to work, in addition to worrying about the future in general.

Two days before travel was suspended between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, several news websites published photos of hundreds of Egyptians working in the kingdom crowding in front of the health ministry’s central laboratories to get the coronavirus test required by the Saudi government for entry into its territories. Mubarak planned to go get tested, but after seeing the crowds his wife — fearing infection — asked him not to. 

***

Italy 

“I’ve been self-isolating for a month, and there are still two more weeks to go. The situation is starting to get better because the rate of infection is slowing down a bit. But I started to be more concerned about Egypt. Because even if the measures taken are good, they were taken late. I’m worried about my kids and family. I want to be with them now. I want to take my children in my arms. I made a mistake by not traveling at first. I didn’t know that the situation would evolve into this and that the quarantine would last this long,” says Waleed al-Zayat, an Egyptian cook who has been living in Milan for 14 years. He has an airplane ticket to Egypt for May 1. The plan was to return to Italy in August, with his wife and five children, who are all currently in Egypt. 

Italy, which at one point had become the epicenter of the pandemic, has been in full lockdown for weeks. 

Even though the rising numbers worried Waleed, he did not contemplate traveling to Egypt, until mid-March. He tells Mada Masr: “I saw a video of two Moroccans who died in Spain. When I saw that their bodies were not washed and no one prayed over them before burial [as per Islamic burial rituals], I went looking for a plane ticket to Egypt. But I couldn’t find any. I didn’t want to die alone abroad, especially after the first Egyptian died here in Italy — he was alone. Then, the number of Egyptian deaths in Italy reached six.” His mother, who lives in Sharqiya, had already been pleading with him to return. 

Waleed says that many Egyptians in Italy wanted to return before Egypt suspended flights. But the massive increase in ticket prices — up to 800 Euros — meant many people were unable to buy flights for themselves and their families. Egypt has not organized repatriation flights from Italy.  

According to Egypt’s 2017 population census, released by the central statistics authority, there are about 560,000 Egyptians living in Italy.

“People’s nerves are getting tense as they hear the numbers every day. They want to be with their families, even if healthcare in Italy is better than Egypt. [Where I live] in Bresso, 30 people died and more than 170 were diagnosed. I went to stay with a friend so that I won’t be alone,” says Waleed.

He adds that the situation is worse for undocumented Egyptians or irregular workers. They do not have a source of income, nor do they receive aid or a portion of their salaries like regular workers. But Egyptians in Italy are actively helping them, Waleed says. He thinks that after this difficult time passes, many Egyptians abroad will want to return to Egypt permanently.

In Egypt

On the other side is Angela*, who is 38 has been living in Cairo for over 10 years. She is married with two children and works in the private sector. Her family lives in southern Italy. “I call to check on them every day. They are being careful. What’s reassuring me is that my brother traveled to be with them, because they’re old and my dad has kidney problems,” Angela tells Mada Masr.

She adds that she wishes to check on them more often, as well as the rest of her family in Italy and Egypt. But between the extra work her household’s self-isolation requires, her work from home and caring for her one and five-year-old, her time is limited. Moreover, the horrifying situation in Italy has led her to restrict her news intake to one hour a day — “so that I don’t get depressed,” says Angela. “In the beginning, the problem was in the north. I wasn’t worried because my family is in Sicily. 

Angela is preparing for what could happen in Egypt based on what is happening in Italy. She expects it to be a much bigger disaster than Italy. Her worry stems from not knowing how prepared hospitals in Egypt are in case the rate of infection increases. From the start, she understood that everyone had to stay put to prevent the transmission of the virus. This is why she did not think of traveling to Italy as a good option, especially given the widespread infection on planes and in airports.

“If I catch the virus and go to the hospital, my family in Italy will be worried sick about me because they won’t know anything about my condition. And my kids — who’s going to take care of them?”

***

Sarah al-Sharif, 35, is studying to obtain a master’s degree in digital media from the University of Sussex in Britain. She has not seen her 11-year-old son Seif since traveling for her studies last September.

“We had booked a ticket for Seif on April 12 to come visit me and spend the [spring] vacation with me. When I started to feel the danger in the second week of March and worried that they would close the borders, I asked his father to have him travel earlier. But when I thought about it for a bit, I felt that while it might be better for me to have my son by my side, it’s definitely not better for him to travel by plane and go through airports that are themselves sources of infection. So, I decided that he should stay in Egypt,” she says.  

With schools suspended, Seif spends much more time at home in Cairo. Sarah tries to spend longer hours with him online. “I now talk to him for longer. We have a video call every day. I watch him as he studies from home, and I read on the other side. Like, he’d get up to open the door for the delivery guy in the middle of the call, so I’d tell him to disinfect the stuff and wash his hands. Once, I clocked the time he was away, and it was only 20 seconds. So, I asked him to go wash his hands again. Every day, I spend about two and a half hours talking with my son, and I also check in on my mom, who lives alone in Cairo. That’s the only way I won’t lose my mind.”

Sarah’s life in Britain is also in limbo. Her university decided to teach remotely, like many others around the world. But the problem for Sarah is that her course includes workshops that she cannot complete remotely. Additionally, the software her program uses requires access to university computers — but even the library is closed. With limited space in the university dorms and being unable to go outside to study, Sarah and several of her colleagues asked for the semester to be extended and for exams to be delayed or the academic year postponed altogether. She also suffers from immune deficiency, so she has another concern about catching the virus. “I surely exert extra effort to seem fine and assure them,’ she says. “But I am worried.”

***

After Oxford Brookes University closed, architecture design student Mariam Bahaa tried to return to Egypt. “There wasn’t anything for me to do here, and the money I had was close to running out,” she said. 

Mariam actually bought a return ticket on one of the evacuation planes coming from Britain to Egypt, scheduled for March 31. She paid 333 British pounds (LE6,575) for the ticket. 

“There was quite the mixup,” she says, about the flight. The airline emailed her to say it had been canceled, but then “a friend’s mom called them in Egypt, and they told her that the flight is on schedule … Then, they sent us an email five hours before the flight to confirm that it’s on schedule.”

She bid her friends farewell with an Egyptian meal, and took the bus from Oxford to London. In Egypt, her family had prepared their old, empty house for her to self-isolate for 14 days, as per travel requirements.

Mariam and the passengers were hit with an announcement that they had to sign a statement declaring that they would go into quarantine at the Méridien Hotel — and at their own expense. This cost LE900 per day, amounting to LE12,600 for the quarantine period. They had to sign the statement before boarding the flight.  “I called my family and asked them,” she says. “My mother told me that it was too much money. But if I wanted to, I should come, and they’ll manage. But I felt I didn’t want to do that or sign the statement.”

Mariam decided not to board the plane, and to stay in the UK. “I felt like what happened was disgusting,” she says. “I felt paralyzed, and used. Why did they make us feel like they were giving us charity by bringing us back home, even though we had bought plane tickets?”

That same day, a video circulated online featuring Egyptians returning from Kuwait at Cairo International Airport protesting against being placed under quarantine. The government announced on the same day that anyone returning would have to sign the quarantine declaration, Mariam explains. The government later said it would cover the costs of quarantine for returnees.

Mariam returned to her apartment in Oxford after she called her landlord and told her what happened. “The landlord understood the situation and told me to come back. On my ride back on the bus, I felt a lot of anguish and I still do. I have enough money to pay rent through May. But I don’t know what I’ll do afterward. I hope to God this crisis we’re all in passes by May. Then, I’ll be able to work and live,” she says. At press time, Britain has recorded over 88,000 positive COVID-19 cases and 11,000 deaths due to complications from the disease.

On March 25, EgyptAir said that it had conducted 33 special flights from 26 countries. Mada Masr could not confirm whether more repatriation flights were planned. 

*Name has been changed at the interviewee’s request.

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Basma Mostafa 
Hadeer El-Mahdawy 
 
 

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