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The COVID-19 lockdown has drastically changed our everyday lives and for international staff members, this has significantly impacted plans to visit friends and family in their home countries.  

International staff members from across the University have had to navigate different time zones, continents and technology to connect and keep in touch virtually with their friends and family. Below they discuss the individual challenges they have faced during lockdown, as well as their advice to anyone in a similar situation. 

Shyane Siriwardena (Canada) – Lecturer in Philosophy

I am a Canadian citizen living here in the UK. As with so many families in the UK as well, we are not able to see or hold one another. But to this, I add the further complication that comes with living in different time zones. I am lucky that my family is only five hours behind us; I have other friends whose families live in Australia for whom even video calls have proven challenging. Perhaps one of my greatest fears is that one of my parents will take ill, and I will be stuck here, an ocean away, unable to see them, unable to support the rest of my family, unable to say goodbye if the virus takes a fatal toll.  

On the upside, I am so grateful to the friends I have here in the UK. I am part of a wonderful community of people, within the University, and beyond it. Thanks to them, I feel far less alone.   

Dr Laura De Pretto (Italy) – Senior Lecturer in Psychology

When it comes to being physically isolated from family and friends, most people who have moved countries will have felt, at a point or another during lockdown, that we were already experts. Teaching elderly parents how to use Skype and WhatsApp videocalls, missing birthdays and other celebrations, lacking childcare support from grandparents, patiently waiting for months before you can hug your mother; we have experienced it all before.   

There comes a time when lockdown measures are relaxed, and people around us slowly start getting their lives back. This time coincides with summer, which is usually a time when people take annual leave and go see their family. But many countries have their borders closed. Others don’t, but most people are faced with the dilemma: should I go see my family, or would that be a reckless choice? The UK now has deaths and contagion rates that, though decreasing, are still quite high compared to many other countries. Would that be right for me to put other people at risk because I want to see my family and friends? 

I guess that, while trying to live with prolonged isolation, there is one thing that can help us keep sane: relate to each other. We come from a variety of places and experiences, we work in different areas, we are different in age, some of us have children and some don’t, and yet, the mere fact of coming from abroad creates a sense of belonging that few other things can create. And that sense of belonging feels good. 

 So here comes my advice: connect. For those of you out there who identify as an international staff member, do get in touch if you still haven’t done that. We like to keep things friendly and informal. We like to help each other if we can, and have a laugh as often as possible.  

Alexandra King (Germany) – Student Admissions  

To me, uncertainty is the most difficult aspect as we all don’t know when we are going to see loved ones back home again. This is creating lots of emotional stress, above all when having sick or older relatives. Also, as borders begin to open up again, some countries still require a 14-day quarantine which makes it more unlikely to travel anyway. At the moment, certain flight connections are not available anymore – even though they offer a reduced flight schedule from July. Therefore, if anything happened back home there is no way to get there quickly.

Maia Sule (Estonia) – International Placement and Study Abroad Officer

As someone that has lived in several different countries, travels frequently, has family spread across Europe and sees the world as home, the COVID-19 crisis really shook me when all the connections and freedom to travel suddenly disappeared.

The situation exposed a particular vulnerability when I realised that if anything was to happen to my elderly and rather fragile parents, there was simply no feasible route to get to Estonia. For weeks we were totally cut off. It also raised a feeling of guilt when myself and my three sisters spread across Europe had to rely on our cousin back at home to deliver shopping to my parents who are shielding.

It was also heart-breaking to know that it may be another year until my children get to see their other grandparents after our long-awaited Easter holiday to Peru got cancelled. In our desire to be the citizens of the world, have we forgotten what really matters? By setting up international families, are we exposing ourselves to more heartache?

Dr Stefano Odorico (Italy) – Reader in Media, Film and Culture

Overall it has been a very stressful journey, in particular in late February and early March when we were getting dramatic news from our relatives and friends back home about the devastating impact of the virus. It felt like the UK would never catch up and impose a lockdown. It was very difficult to juggle these two worlds; trying to live a normal life in the UK while reassuring and calming people down in other parts of the world. Online communication is a fantastic tool, but it can also be overwhelming; it never stops, it never gives you a break and amplifies worries. These anxieties make feelings of general uncertainty even stronger. Now things are easing up, people can see each other again, families can reunite but, unfortunately, with the continued risk of international travel, this doesn't really happen for us and it is very difficult not knowing when we will see family again, especially for aging parents not knowing when they will be able to see their grandchildren again.

On the brighter side, working from home meant I had two hours extra a day, as well as lunches, with my one year old son and I feel very lucky to have had this invaluable time with him that I never would have otherwise had. While we miss our loved ones overseas I do feel like community spirit has strengthened locally and my family has made new friendships with neighbours and people across the local area who we may not otherwise have met. 

Leeds Trinity University’s International Staff Network is a group of international staff members who meet bimonthly with the twofold aim of supporting each other and drawing insights from our worldwide experiences. Chaired by Dr Laura De Pretto and Dr Stefano Ba’, the network seeks to inform University policies and support the development of an international environment.  

For more information about the International Staff Network, email Dr Laura De Pretto.

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