After the United States banned travel from several countries in southern Africa due to the emergence of a new coronavirus variant, Harvard undergraduates from the region lamented that they will not return home over winter recess for fear of not being able to return to campus.
Last month, scientists identified a new Covid-19 variant in South Africa named Omicron. In response, U.S. President Joe Biden enacted a ban on travel into the U.S. from eight countries in southern Africa — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The policy currently does not exempt students from those countries who attend American universities.
As a result, Zimbabwe native Jordan Mubako ’22 said he had to cancel his plans to return home over winter recess — which lasts approximately five weeks. Mubako said that quickly changing his travel plans was “very frustrating.”
Mubako has not visited home in more than two years. He said he has stayed on Harvard’s campus since fall 2019.
“There’s something a little bit sad about watching everyone go off at the end of the semester, go home to their families,” he said. “This place becomes a bit of a ghost town when everyone leaves.”
“I’d say I’ve given up on hopes of international travel until I graduate,” Mubako added.
Other students from southern Africa said they canceled their travel plans home because they do not want to risk being stranded abroad.
Colombe C. Obono Eyono ’25, who is from South Africa, said she has not finalized her winter recess plans but is “erring on the side of not going home.”
“The hardest part for me is probably just trying to figure out whether it’s worth it to go see my family,” she said. “I’m not sure whether or not there’ll be an exception made for international students by the time spring semester rolls around.”
The Harvard International Office urged international affiliates planning to travel over winter recess to monitor evolving travel restrictions.
“New public health requirements, including travel restrictions, can be added with very little advanced notice,” the office wrote in an email sent last week. “If you need to apply for a visa while abroad, be aware of the potential for limited consular appointments, possible delays in visa issuance, and potential appointment cancellations due to COVID-19 conditions in your home country.”
Matthew H. Andrews ’25 said he had hoped the travel ban would make exceptions for students studying in the U.S. on F-1 visas. But since the policy currently provides no such guarantee, Andrews said it is “very unlikely” he will fly home to South Africa during winter recess.
“It’s the uncertainty that is putting everyone through the most at the moment,” he said. “It’s an additional pressure on top of, obviously, what is normally a stressful final season.”
Andrews said he will likely spend the break at one of his roommates’ homes.
Lerato Takana ’22 has not visited his home in Lesotho in two years. Takana wrote in an email that he had already bought his tickets home and Christmas presents for his family but had to scratch his plans due to the ban.
Takana also wrote that he was “devastated” that he lost funding for a research project on farming in Lesotho that he and two other Harvard students had planned to conduct over winter recess.
“It has been helpful knowing that other African students will also be staying on-campus — we will console each other,” he added.
Takana also wrote that he is concerned his family will be unable to attend his graduation ceremony in the spring.
Obono Eyono said she is frustrated that the travel ban disproportionately affects students from Africa.
“For a disease that is global in nature, it feels more than just a bit unfair,” she said.
—Staff writer Alex Koller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.