Most students in Russia want to stay, say SA officials ... but do they?
Some are desperate to come home, saying hostels make self-isolation impossible and shops are running out of food
While some students from Mpumalanga who are studying in Russia desperately want to return home over fears of contracting the Covid-19 virus in their hostel, the province’s education department says most of them want to remain in the country.
More than 370 students, who were awarded bursaries by the provincial department to study medicine, engineering and information technology, are studying at eight different universities in Russia.
A total of 100 students from Tambov State University and Saratov State Agrarian University - two of the eight universities in Russia - signed a petition on Wednesday evening, pleading to be repatriated to South Africa.
The students cited the risk of contracting the virus because of living in poor and overcrowded hostels as the reason for wanting to return home.
On April 1, acting head of education in Mpumalanga Jabulani Nkosi informed the students through a WhatsApp message that the department was making arrangements to bring them back home.
“Please e-mail the list of all students, the town and passport numbers. Prompt feedback appreciated,” he wrote.
He also confirmed in another WhatsApp message on April 10 that the students would be repatriated “probably next week”, meaning this week.
Speaking to Times Select on condition of anonymity, two students living at a hostel at Tambov State University said four students occupied a room and shared showers and toilets with about 50 other students.
“There are students from other countries who go out into the town during the lockdown and then return to hostel. We share ablution facilities and the kitchen with them, and feel unsafe because the risk of them contracting the virus and spreading it to others is great.”
Russia’s lockdown regulations allow free movement until 8pm.
“I desperately want to return home because I really feel unsafe in the hostel.”
A committee calling itself the RSA United Leaders recently wrote an anonymous message to the department requesting that each student be given about R1,580 in emergency funding to buy groceries, masks and sanitisers.
They wrote: “Shops are running low on food, and if this thing continue to escalate they might close all of them.
“'So far we are defenceless with no money to look out for ourselves during this crisis.”
The RSA United Leaders requested that students be relocated to flats for “proper self-isolation where you know your safety is guaranteed, not a hostel where you interact with everyone”.
“We plead with the government and its representatives to intervene with immediate effect since this is a global crisis.”
Through Racus SA – the main agency recruiting SA students to Russian universities – the department gave students R600 last Friday to buy masks and sanitisers, which some students described “as an insult” and “a slap in the face”.
“What can you buy with R600? It’s like sending us money to pay for our bank charges. I am thinking of returning the money,” one of the students said.
Students have also been complaining about the R3,000 monthly stipend they receive from the education department, saying that it was not enough to buy food and clothes and to pay for transport and study materials.
The hostel does not provide food to students.
Mpumalanga education department spokesperson Jasper Zwane confirmed Nkosi had spoken to students about repatriating them.
“But most of those we spoke to made it categorically clear that they do not have intentions to return home during this period.”
He urged those students experiencing challenges “to openly came forward so that their concerns may be attended to promptly”.
“The department commits to ensure that students are taken care of and is monitoring the situation very closely. Hopefully a determination will be made as the need arises.”
Zwane said the majority of students distanced themselves from the allegations made about the conditions under which they are studying.
In an earlier e-mail, Zwane said they were satisfied that students “have been quarantined and are in good care” after the department’s engagements with most of them.
The Racus head office in Moscow said 8,500 foreign students from 82 countries, who were recruited through the organisation’s offices worldwide, were studying in Russia.