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When Hemshree Pandey got the news that Australia was opening its borders to international students and visa holders on Dec. 1, she quit her job and booked her flight.
Stuck in India since the start of the pandemic, she thought she’d finally be able to see her fiancé in Australia again and start studying for her master’s degree. For a week, she was overjoyed. The paralyzing uncertainty she’d been living with since March 2020 — over how long Australia’s borders would be shut, how long she was willing to put her life on hold, what she could do at home in India knowing she might have to drop it at any second — was coming to an end, she thought.
Then the Australian government pushed the border reopening back at least two weeks because of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
“I ended up crying when I got the news,” Ms. Pandey, 26, said. “We finally got a date. We were so relieved. And now suddenly it’s like: now what?”
The emergence of the new variant has plunged everyone into another exhausting round of uncertainty. Holiday plans and trips to visit family interstate or overseas are suddenly up in the air as we hold our breath and wait.
Making plans for the future when a new coronavirus variant could come at any moment is difficult. But it’s been particularly so for those who’ve been stuck between countries, waiting to start or resume their lives in Australia.
As countries tighten border controls, and with the discovery of new cases in Australia who haven’t traveled overseas, international students like Ms. Pandey fear that the two-week ban could be extended, plunging them back into limbo.
“I have lost sleep, I have lost appetite, I don’t know what I should do,” she said.
Does she keep waiting, potentially for two weeks, potentially for months? She’s already spent months doing research on Australia, choosing the right degree to study, applying for admission and for a visa, on top of the 20 months she’s been waiting. Her fiancé has already spent years in Australia and started building a life for both of them.
“Should we just wait and keep waiting? In that case, I lose out on time. I’m already 26. I need to do my master’s, build my career,” she said. “If not, if we move to another country, how much more expenses and how much more processes would we have to go through? We’d have to start all over again.”
Unwilling to study online because of significant time differences, often inadequate internet infrastructure and wanting their education to be worth the tens of thousands of dollars they’re paying, scores of international students who have put their lives on hold waiting to come to Australia are making difficult decisions about what to do in an ever-changing situation.
Janees Abbas, 22, a student from Pakistan waiting to start studying for his construction management degree in Victoria, has paid $5,800 to first book a flight to Australia on Dec. 1, and then change it to Dec. 23.
After two years of what he characterizes as being strung along by state governments’ aborted plans for pilot programs to bring students back, and noncommittal statements by the federal government, he’s grown cynical about any positive border news.
He didn’t tell anyone around him about his imminent departure, not wanting to deal with questions if he couldn’t go. And he’s pretty sure the borders are going to stay closed and he’s wasting his money, he said, but he’s pressing ahead on the off chance that Australia opens its borders for a week or two after Dec. 15 but then closes them again as the flood of arrivals brings more cases.
“Let’s say they open on Dec. 15, and they close after a week and I’ve booked a flight in January,” he said. “I’ll have the regret that I didn’t try my level best to go to Australia.”
An Indian student, Dhanashree Marge, who is studying at the Queensland University of Technology, has set herself a deadline: If the borders don’t open on Dec. 15, she says, she’s going to withdraw and switch to a university in a country with open borders.
Throughout the pandemic, “I thought ‘be a little more patient.’ Wait for Australia,” she said. But she’s getting to the end of her rope.
“It’s been two years. I cannot wait anymore,” she said.