How ESN Bulgaria helps international students during the quarantine

"I came here for the people and lifestyle, and now I can't even go for a walk."

Written by Neli Stoylova, edited by Tamar Weisert, photos courtesy ESN Bulgaria.

Michel Dubna, an international student in Economics from Slovakia, decided to return to Bulgaria after falling in love with it during one of her trips:

"I chose Bulgaria for my Erasmus exchange for many reasons. One of them is the fact that I worked here in the summer, and I really liked the people, the way of living, and the sea."

However, after the announcement of the State of Emergency, she went through a difficult period:

"The coronavirus puts at risk our health, education, financial stability, families and many other aspects of life. I no longer have the opportunity to spend my Erasmus exchange exploring the country and Sofia. I don't even know when or how I'll go back home. At first, I was very stressed and confused. After a while, I came to terms with the situation. I feel so much better now."

The pandemic outbreak affects our professional, personal, and social lives and presents us with new challenges. The measures are tightening every day, and the situation for foreign exchange students is even more complicated.

The aim of the Erasmus+ program is for students to spend one or two semesters studying in another country in a language different than their mother tongue. Postponing or canceling all social gatherings deprives them of the opportunity to get to know every aspect of their new home. They can't explore the beauty Bulgaria has to offer, get a sense of its hospitality, witness the centuries-old traditions, or sample Bulgarian dishes. 

The majority of students can choose between staying in Bulgaria or returning to their home country. Most of the students who arrived for the second semester have decided to stay in Bulgaria. They are aware of how serious the situation is and do not want to spread the virus.

"I feel like I'm wasting my time, but it's okay, I guess. If I were home, I would have more things to do. I want to go home, but at the same time, I'm happy I'm not in Italy. I'm worried about my family and my grandparents, but I'm glad I'm here - I don't want to put them at risk of getting infected. I hear from them regularly," says Gabriele Salotti, an Erasmus student from Italy.

According to students, the measures taken in Bulgaria are effective. "I stayed here because I think Bulgaria has managed to cope with the situation, and I appreciate how everyone is doing so far," says Nicholas from Italy.

At times like these, everyone wants to be with their loved ones. For international students who have chosen to stay in their host country, this is quite a difficult period. They are alone in a location where they might not even speak the language.

However, students here receive support from the Erasmus Student Network - Bulgaria (ESN). The passionate ESN volunteers assist them in every possible respect: settling in the university dorms or finding a trustworthy landlord, obtaining the necessary documents for residence and transportation around the country, choosing the best internet and mobile operator, doing grocery shopping, and much more.

Little by little, ESN Bulgaria becomes like family to the students. Even before their arrival, they have become part of online communities on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. In peaceful times, they could find updates on upcoming events, activities, trips, and many other entertainment options.

When the State of Emergency in Bulgaria was declared, relevant information became available in all ESN profiles and groups: new regulations coming into force and safety tips for staying at home and going out, explaining the situation in a familiar language. Nicolas from Italy says:

"I think that the ESN-ers are doing a great job in this situation, as they keep us up to date with the latest news. To be honest, I have Erasmus friends in other countries who don't even know what measures have been taken."

Assistance doesn't stop there. ESN-ers invite international students in Bulgaria to show on Instagram how they are coping with the quarantine with the hashtags #StayHome and #ErasmusInHome. The purpose of the campaign is to emphasize the importance of staying home to limit the spread of the virus and to help reduce stress.

Currently, international students are feeling content. They talk with their families daily, make music, play video games, watch movies, study online, cook, and work out. When we asked Anastasia from Russia if she does anything special to deal with the situation, she replied: "I started a small personal photo project called "The Lockdown," which consists of taking one picture per day indoors during the quarantine."

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Most international students have a "buddy" - an assigned mentor to help them with any matters that arise. The buddies regularly check in with the students and offer support during these difficult times.

ESN stands out as the only organization that takes care of the integration of international students under the Erasmus+ program in Bulgaria, especially during a pandemic, when free movement is severely restricted, and education relies on a good internet connection.

ESN is the largest student non-governmental organization in Europe. Bulgaria became a part of the network in 2008. In the past semester alone, the organization consisted of over 90 volunteers who helped over 1000 international students in six Bulgarian cities through various events aimed at both incoming and outgoing students. ESN Bulgaria has ten local sections working in cooperation with the universities around the country.

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