I woke up on Friday, November 26, to a message from my dad asking if I had seen the news about the new COVID-19 variant in South Africa. Immediately after reading the message, I looked at the news and saw that the UK had added six southern African countries to its dreaded red list.
My response was an overwhelming feeling that I would not be able to go home. Later that day my intuition was confirmed. The US placed a travel ban on everyone traveling to the US from eight southern African countries. My heart sank after reading through the list of exemptions and not seeing the category I belong to – international students on an F-1 visa. There were exceptions for citizens, permanent residents, and some other select groups, just not students. A wave of uncertainty and anxiety ripped through me.
In September I planned a trip to see my family who would be in South Africa during my college’s winter break. The last time I saw my family was at the start of 2021. I only get the chance to go home to see my family once a year. Pursuing a degree in the US is a tremendous opportunity and one that I appreciate daily but it comes with sacrifices too. Being away from family is the hardest challenge. Even in a world so connected by technology I miss talking about the day’s arbitrary events. I miss birthday celebrations. My family misses out on most of what happens in my life too. All these things are not completely compensated by spending a few weeks a year together, but it certainly helps.
Now, I am in an extremely difficult situation. Do I cancel my planned trip, or do I travel? If I decide to travel, I am taking a huge risk that I will not be able to return to the US before the start of the spring semester. I reached out to my school to ask if there were any accommodations they could offer me if the travel ban is not lifted before the semester starts. They informed me that I would have to take the semester off if I am unable to return. I am supposed to graduate next semester and start a full-time job later in 2022. A semester off would jeopardize all of it.
The travel ban stops me from seeing my family while all my friends and fellow students can go home for the holidays, including other international students. What I do not understand is how all these students from other countries can go home and return to the US even though most of their countries have reported cases of the Omicron variant with many reporting community transmissions. It seems as if the travel ban unfairly targets Africans.
I have been closely following the news since the announcement of the travel bans hoping each day that they would be lifted. I was encouraged initially to see a broad criticism of the travel bans but despite that criticism, the President’s administration has not lifted the travel ban yet. They have mentioned that they will lift them, but when? No timeline has been provided. No conditions have been provided on which the lifting of the travel ban is contingent.
I am sure that the Administration is doing the best they can with the information they have. My plea is that an exemption be established for students from the affected countries. We are disproportionately affected by the travel ban. Most of us do not have families here we can spend the holiday season with. Many of us will be stuck on abandoned campuses or take refuge with hospitable friends. Many of us have not seen our families in a year or two. We only get a couple of opportunities to travel home between semesters.
After realizing that the news cycle about the travel ban was dying, I launched a petition to exempt southern African students from the travel ban. This would give us the certainty we need to travel home for the holidays while the Administration continues to reevaluate the travel ban.
Ryan Lowden-Stoole is an international student at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania.
He launched this petition here to exempt southern African students from the travel ban