Stranded on Campus

By Eric Eyges
Spring/Summer 2020
Like most of us, Oussema Ksiaa (BA expected ’20), a Tunisian MEPI scholar at AUB studying political science, didn’t know what to make of the novel coronavirus at first. He read the news like everyone else, tracked the virus’s silent march across the continents, noted the curved lines tracking mortality swooping higher and the ones tracking the Lebanese economy sinking lower. Would the virus be worse than the economic crisis? His scholarship stipend wired from the State Department to a specially earmarked account at Bank Audi had remained accessible throughout the protests in its original currency, US dollars. He had his girlfriend, his friends, the solidarity of crisis. What else could this semester present that he hadn’t already experienced?

“I didn’t think it would be that bad,” Ksiaa says. That was before the groundswell of news boiled over and AUB, with the safety of its students, faculty, and staff foremost in mind, made the decision to close campus. “March 15th is the date we closed down campus officially,” Dean of Students Talal Nezameddine commented. The next day, the Lebanese government announced the impending closure of the Rafic Hariri International Airport, which would take effect March 19th at midnight.

“It’s very quiet now, ghost-like, and quite sad at times,” Nezameddine says. “Spring is when we have the big game, the Latin dance, lots of major club events. It’s a big contrast. But we’re trying to stay connected with people virtually, especially with counseling support.”

AUB’s Counseling Center, led by Chant Kazandjian, has moved online while maintaining a staff of one in West Hall. Kazandjian characterizes the bulk of student anxieties as relating to the shift to online learning, graduation, job hunting post-COVID-19, and family problems. “Some students have returned to live with families where relationships are problematic,” he noted.

Oussema Ksiaa

“We asked everyone in student housing to leave, but it turned out that a number of students couldn’t or wouldn’t for a number of different reasons,” Nezameddine says, pointing out that many come from conflict zones. Kazandjian and the counseling staff reach out weekly by phone to each of the 49 students who remain on campus.

Ksiaa spoke to MainGate from the study room in the MSFEA Engineering building, one of the few remaining study spaces still open to students. Fearing for his family’s safety, he has decided to remain ensconced in his dorm in Kerr Hall. “I didn’t want to put my family at risk,” he says. “The idea of going through the Lebanese airport, that’s a lot of risk. The passengers coming from Italy, Iran. I live in Tunisia with my brother, mother, and grandparents. I would never forgive myself if I transmitted the virus to any of them.”

While his living space has increased—he now has a two-person dorm room to himself, his Lebanese roommate having left campus—he has less room to maneuver on campus, much of which is now off limits.

His voice is calm and slightly amused. He’s pleased to be telling his story.
“You called me during a period when I decided to get my wits together. I was in a dark place, mostly slept all the time. I shut my friends out, missed classes. I was hopeless.”

Ubah Ali
Nargis Naseris
His dark period came when he learned that his mother and brother were forced into medical quarantine for fifteen days and Bank Audi would no longer let him draw dollars, forcing him to convert at the official exchange rate of 1,500 LL to the dollar. “I lost a lot of money. In the summer I could spend sixty dollars on groceries and live on that for three weeks. Now, with the rising prices and paying in lira, I spend $180.”

At one point, “counseling called to check in and I told them…” he trails off. “My friends really helped me. They stood by me.” His family has since exited quarantine, and he’s made peace with his circumstances. “It’s really peaceful on campus. The cat passes by and naps in your lap. I can go jogging, walk, especially during the day.”

Ubah Ali, a political science student from Somaliland, also lives in Kerr, in the women’s section. “I wanted to go home to see my family, but I didn’t have my passport. I applied for a program at Edinburgh [University] and sent my passport as part of the application. It was scary. But now seeing how the virus is affecting everyone, I’ve gotten used to it,” Ali says. Ali, an activist and cofounder of an organization called Solace for Somaliland Girls Foundation, has kept up the fight against female genital mutilation in Somaliland and elsewhere, as well as against racism in its various forms. She recently posted under the hashtag #AfricansAreNotLabRats in response to one European scientist’s suggestion that Africa serve as a testing ground for COVID-19 treatments.

Down the hall from Ali lives Nargis Naseri, a business major from Afghanistan who came to AUB through the Education for Leadership in Crisis Program. “I wanted to go back to Afghanistan but couldn’t since my family is not there. They’re in Malaysia, stuck there because of the virus.”

“The first days were challenging. It suddenly became very quiet. It was a bit chaotic. Two or three weeks ago, all the exams and finals and some other personal issues crashed together, I was anxious about my performance. My exams, my grades. I contacted the Counseling Center. They guided me.”

For now, she’s enjoying the solitude. “We are all humans, we need solitude. I’ve found solitude very enjoyable and the most productive time during my stay at AUB. I made some important personal decisions. I have this opportunity to give myself more. There are so many things that I used to consider ordinary and useless that I now value so much.”