Home is where the heart is: ‘It’s hard not to be with your family’

Natalia and Ojasvi talk about the social unrest in their home countries.
Natalia Moreno Ramírez

For many internationals, studying and working in Wageningen is an exciting chapter of their lives. But when your home country is in turmoil, being thousands of kilometers away can be difficult. Two stories.

Natalia Moreno Ramírez

Natalia Moreno Ramírez (27) from Colombia recently finished her Master’s degree in Organic Agriculture and is currently working on her PhD research proposal.

‘I came to Wageningen almost three years ago for my Master’s in Organic Agriculture. My family comes from the Tolima region of Colombia, which is known for its coffee. For my PhD, I want to gain insights into how we can produce coffee in a more sustainable way with biological pest control.

My family and I are very close, so it is really hard to be so far away from them. But I soon made friends here who became my Wageningen family. And every summer, I flew back to Colombia to spend the holidays there.’

‘When I left home, my biggest fear was that something would happen to my family. Last November, my father got Covid. He passed away while I was here in Wageningen. On the day he died, my friends and I went to the river. A nice place, close to nature. Even though I could not be with my father, you have to find a way to say goodbye when these things happen.’

When I got home, the funeral had already taken place

‘The next day, I flew to Colombia. Even though I really wanted to be there with my family, it was a hard decision to make. Because of Covid, but also because I was still applying for my search year visa. At that point, it was not certain whether I could come back to Wageningen. Such things increase the stress at a time that’s already difficult. When I got home, the funeral had already taken place. People are not allowed to wait too long because of the virus. But it was still really good to be with my family.’

‘When I returned to Wageningen in January, I started working on my PhD proposal. In the last few months, there has been a lot of social unrest in Colombia. It all started because the current government wanted to implement tax reforms. I understand that tax reform is necessary, but these reforms would increase the taxes for lower- and middle-income classes while these groups have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.

Many people feel desperate: they have no jobs, hospitals are overfull, they cannot go outside because of Covid, and so on. At the same time, there are stories in the news about government corruption and disappearing money, while around 40 per cent of Colombians live in poverty. So the people were angry and started to protest.’

One day we want to go back to a country that is safe

‘The police and the army responded with so much violence, attacking the protesters. Many people died — they were just students. Can you imagine going to a protest and you or your friends are killed by the police? It is crazy that you cannot feel safe in your own country.’

‘For Colombians in Wageningen, there is always the anxiety: will our friends and family be safe? These protests take place when it is night here in the Netherlands, so it’s hard to sleep. We feel a responsibility to support the social movement, because one day we want to go back home to a country that is safe, where our families are safe.’

‘Having a Colombian community here is very important for me. They understand where I come from. Before Covid and the social protests, many of my Colombian friends wanted to go back home to start a career. Now it can feel like there are no opportunities there anymore. I hope things get better soon, because Colombia has a lot of potential, with its coffee, its nature and its beautiful people.’

Ojasvi Uppal

Ojasvi Uppal (24) from India is a Master’s student of Food Safety.

‘I grew up in New Delhi, the capital of India. It’s a very big and busy city. In 2019, I came to Wageningen to study Food Safety. The first thing I noticed here was the space: there is a lot of it. Wageningen has so much nature and many students. It’s a lively place with many events and activities, which makes it easy to get to know many people. I joined the Indian Student Association, of which I am currently president. Before you know it, you feel like you are part of this place. Those first six months were really welcoming.’

‘Before Covid-19, besides studying, my friends and I were exploring the city and the country. We were in a nice flow. Then it all stopped. Suddenly, it became difficult to make new friends. Because the first wave of Covid hit harder here than in India, many Indians were looking forward to going back home for a break in the summer of 2020. But at that time, you needed to self-quarantine for fourteen days. If you only have a month, fourteen days is a lot, so many people including me cancelled their trip. I haven’t seen my family for almost two years now.’

Online prayers are just not the same

‘In February this year, cases started increasing exponentially in India. At that time, many students were working on finalizing their thesis. Imagine the stress: a severe lockdown here and a second-wave crisis back home, combined with the stress of writing a thesis. It is just too much.’

‘At the end of March, the situation was getting really bad. First extended family and friends of my parents started getting the virus. Then my maternal grandparents got sick. My grandfather was 85 years old and had Parkinson’s. He passed away before it was even clear whether he had Covid or not.

For me, this was a super-stressful period. You want to be with your family at times like these, but you are here in Wageningen and you cannot do anything. I kept silent about my stress and my grief, because I knew others had it worse than me and I didn’t want to give them more stress.

I feel guilty: I am here, safe in the Netherlands, while my loved ones are back in India

‘When I left India in 2019, I didn’t expect it would be the last time we would see each other. It is so weird when you cannot join a funeral of a loved one or be there for your family. My family organized online prayers, but it’s not the same as actually being there.

‘I also experience guilt. I am here, safe in the Netherlands, while my loved ones are back in India where there is not enough oxygen and there are not enough vaccines. I think all Indians here struggle with that, one way or the other. Thanks to Covid-19, I am always worrying about what is happening or what could happen. Because of that, I cannot be present in the moment. I am also reluctant to plan ahead because I don’t want to get disappointed again.’

‘I try to stay sane by going on long walks in the nature and meditating. It helps that the situation in the Netherlands has improved, which meant that people can meet with more friends again and have dinners together. The Indian community in Wageningen and the Netherlands in general has also started raising funds, by cooking and selling Indian food for example (check out the Instagram account mealdonations_wur, ed.). That gives a sense of relief: you can always find a way to contribute.’

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