India ignores Kashmiri students trapped in coronavirus-hit Iran

India ignores Kashmiri families' desperate pleas to evacuate students from coronavirus-hit Iran
6 min read
Kashmir's families are being left in the dark over the fate of their children studying in coronavirus-stricken Iran.
Cancelled flights, no money and no masks: Kashmiri students are trapped in coronavirus-hit Iran [Getty]

For the last 10 days, 45-year-old Mushtaq Ahmad from Kashmir's capital city Srinagar has been receiving incessant calls from worried parents whose children are studying in Iran.

These calls are mainly to enquire about what further steps he is going to take in the wake of the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus in Iran that is spreading like wildfire in the Islamic Republic. With a death toll of 237 as of Monday, Iran is one of the worst hit countries, after China and Italy.

Ahmad's 20-year-old daughter, like hundreds of other Kashmiris, studies medicine in the sanction riddled country's city of Shiraz. Last year when his daughter secured admission in Shiraz, Ahmad accompanied her and 15 others in the group to the country. 

"I get hundreds of calls every day from distressed parents who ask me questions about the wellbeing of our daughters and how to evacuate them. They feel I am an authority as I had recently been to Iran to see my daughter. The truth though is that I am no authority. I am as hopeless as them," says Ahmad who sports a salt and pepper beard.

He says that he accompanied his daughter to the country to have a first-hand account of the facilities and security for a girl child in Iran. 

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"Contrary to our belief here, it's quite a developed country and it is very clean too. Shiraz is like Kashmir: clean and serene. I don't understand how corona reached there," says Ahmad flanked by his family members.

"I request Narendra Modi (the prime minister of the country) to please evacuate our children. I request everyone to, please, use any means but rescue our children," Nabla says as tears overflow her face.

Apart from taking calls from parents of those studying in Iran, Ahmad also has to console his septuagenarian mother, Nabla, who is tense because of the distressful coronavirus news.

"She does not sleep and cries whenever a death is reported from Iran," says Ahmad. Adding that the reports of even Members of Parliament getting infected and dying is a real cause of concern.

"Na cham rat kuni na duh – I am not able to sleep and get nightmares. Please save our children. For God's sake, please evacuate our children as we are very concerned," she pleads. 

"My grandson has kidney failure. We are already suffering. I don't want my granddaughter to get infected with corona now. We can't handle this pressure."

Just a couple of kilometres from Ahmad's house in Srinagar's Eidgah lives another such concerned family.

Fifty-five-year-old Mohammad Hussain Khan's daughter is studying Medical Sciences at Tehran university. The Iranian capital has the most number of coronavirus cases and it is something that has aggravated his wife's depression and anxiety.

"She has been taking a double dose of medicine since the news about the virus broke out," says Khan.

He further says that he had booked a ticket for his daughter for February 25 but that got cancelled after India shut down flights from Iran.

"I am not concerned about money, but the safety of my daughter and wife who is on the verge of collapsing. My wife has been more anxious and has suffered multiple panic attacks ever since the fights got cancelled," Khan states.

When there were no social media sites working in the valley, it became increasingly difficult for the families to ascertain the well-being of their children.

"We could not even video call or see pictures of our children in Iran when the internet was not working here at one point. If we could then, it would have helped my wife's anxiety, and assured the wellbeing of our children to us," Khan rues.

In Kashmir, low-speed internet was restored on January 25 with access to only a few whitelisted websites, while social media and access to all websites were recently restored on a slow-paced 2g internet in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Another Srinagar resident whose son studies at the University of Isfahan said that many people had booked tickets for their children but they all got cancelled. Khan, much like other families that The New Arab spoke to, said that authorities were giving a cold shoulder to their concerns.

"At least they [authorities] could have issued a statement on the condition of our kids. We do not know what to do. We are just concerned," he says.

"We took it upon ourselves to rescue our children, but then again the flights got cancelled. Now we have no option but to plead before authorities to evacuate our kids," says Abid Ahmad, a worried parent.

They rescued students from the epicentre of coronavirus. Why can't they rescue our children from Iran? Is it because we are Kashmiris?

"They rescued students from the epicentre of coronavirus [Wuhan]. Why can't they rescue our children from Iran? Is it because we are Kashmiris?" Abid asks.

"We had borrowed money while seeking admission of our children for their better future, but we did not expect this treatment from the authorities. We hope someone in the government helps our children," another parent Ghulam Mohammad says.

The New Arab also spoke to Kashmiri students in different parts of Iran. 

"We appeal to the authorities to evacuate us, we are short of everything. We are not studying. Everything is shut, we are restricted to dormitories. We don't have even masks," said Abira Zehra a second-semester student of MBBS at the University of Isfahan.

Mujtaba Shaw from TUMS (Tehran University of Medical Sciences) said that the students in his university were worried. 

We appeal the authorities to evacuate us, we are short of everything. We are not studying. Everything is shut, we are restricted to dormitories. We don't have even masks

"Every day new cases are arriving, it is only getting worse. We are short of money. Also, sanctions make bank transactions hard. I hope there is a way out of this," Shaw desires.

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A group of students from Shiraz University expressed similar sentiments and said that they want to be with their families during this panic situation.

"As corona is spreading in Iran we want to be with our families in this situation. We request to be evacuated as soon as possible," the students said.

They also alleged that the Indian Embassy in Iran was dilly-dallying their return and was not cooperating.

"One of my colleagues went to the embassy, she was told to return via Azerbaijan on her own. They are doing nothing," Mehvish a student alleged.

Coronavirus has infected more than 113,000 people globally and killed over 4,000, according to the most recent figures.  

The growing number of cases and the inability of the Iranian government to control it due to sanctions has worried Kashmiri families and students. 

However, the Iranian embassy in New Delhi did express its readiness to help Indian nationals stranded in Iran following a proper screening and also called on Indian authorities to allow its nationals to return to Iran after due screening.

India on Sunday said that it was collaborating with Iranian authorities to set up a screening process for stranded Indians.

On Tuesday, India evacuated pilgrims from Iran and has said that the facilitation of the students will be done in the coming days.

While it remains to be seen how long the authorities will take to facilitate the return of Kashmiri students, the fact on the ground remains that it will continue to haunt their families who are waiting for the safe return of their loved ones.

Saqib Mugloo is a journalist working with the Kashmir Walla. Follow him on Twitter at @saqibmugloo

Bhat Burhan is a multimedia journalist working with the Kashmir Walla. Follow him on Twitter at @bhattburhan02