NY – Anuja Jaiswal was helping a friend move out of her student dorm when she received the news: she had eight days to vacate the dorm and find a place to move as New York City struggles to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
"My heart sank to the bottom of my chest," he says of the time he confirmed the news through a WhatsApp chat with other residents of International House, popularly known as I-House, in New York.
The private nonprofit housing facility houses hundreds of international students attending different universities and colleges throughout New York City. For many like Jaiswal, a master's student, the news was shocking.
Even when universities sent their students home to help combat the virus threat, the administration had assured I-House students that the dorm would remain open and that they could be trusted, according to more than five people who spoke. with Al Jazeera
But late last week, that message changed after an I-House staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Residents living in the south wing of the building, which is designed in a bedroom style and requires sharing common spaces such as bathrooms and kitchens, were told to leave before March 27. The north tower of I-House, which is apartment-style, will remain open.
On Saturday, a resident died of "complications related,quot; to the coronavirus. By Monday, a third case had been reported.
Students say I-House is using a loophole in the contract, which states that I-House residents are "members,quot; of the community, and not "tenants," to absolve themselves of legal responsibilities, especially since there are currently 90 days stop all evictions in New York State.
Nowhere to go
I-House said in a statement that it was imposing financial penalties and reimbursing security deposits and unused room and meal fees. He also said he was working with universities and other resident affiliate organizations to help identify safe housing options.
I-House added that it would guarantee "that while residents must vacate the South Building, no resident will be left without a viable housing alternative."
Jaiswal, an Indian from Bahrain, was particularly horrified that the announcement came a day after Canada closed its borders. Otherwise, he could have gone to live with his sister in Toronto. Because he still has an Indian passport and, due to his visa concerns, he will not be able to return to Bahrain where his parents live.
Jaiswal is not the only being evicted. Since more than half of the dorm students are from abroad, most students suddenly don't have a place to go in the United States.
"It is definitely putting those of us who are already financially unstable in more instability because now we need to quarantine hotels or Airbnbs Before speaking to our parents, "Grace Wacuka Njoroge, a master student from Nairobi, Kenya, told Al Jazeera:" Not to mention the risks involved in going through an Airbnb and trying to find food. "
Jaiswal said it also made it very difficult and uncomfortable for residents to search for a place now, since they are now at risk of being carriers.
"An important factor in this decision making and it may be different from a normal eviction is infection," he said. "The real risk is not whether I get it, but whether I pass it on to someone else and I just don't like being put in that position. You're forcing me to make morally awkward decisions."
I-House is a home away from home for hundreds of students from all over the world. Extremely saddened to learn of the death of a resident due to a covid. Students are being asked to evacuate and many now do not have to go in the middle of a pandamia. Pls share / help https://t.co/3KMCiUTHNS
– Deepashri V (@deepalearning) March 25, 2020
The saga continued until Sunday night, when another notice was sent to the students urging them to leave the site on Tuesday. But the students, including Njoroge, said they would fight to stay in the house until Friday.
An elected member of a committee representing I-House residents told Al Jazeera that since the story of Saturday's death became known, some people have been rejected by apartments or other residences initially willing to receive them. The member spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of a backlash from the administration. Al Jazeera could not confirm that the students had been rejected.
Al Jazeera spoke to two students who were afraid to share their information due to the same fears. They shared similar accounts of the administration's handling of the matter, as well as the panic that followed.
In a letter seen by Al Jazeera, Manhattan County President Gale Brewer condemned I-House's decision and demanded that the institution "reconsider (the) eviction of countless students."
"We consider this plan to be unacceptable and dangerous to its residents and the general public," the letter said. "We firmly believe that International House, as a member of our community and this city, has an obligation to its resident students, who may have been exposed to the virus on its premises, to allow them to remain in their units to provide time necessary for them to observe symptoms. , quarantine and, if necessary, be cured in their homes. "
I-House, in a statement to Al Jazeera, said its staff "realizes and regrets the difficulty and disruption these measures have caused the community and wishes that a less disruptive option be equally effective in preventing the spread of the virus. "
He added: "The health and safety of residents is our primary concern."
But experts are concerned that forcing hundreds of people to enter general society and requiring them to move in with others may raise dangerous health concerns in this pandemic, where social isolation has repeatedly been named a key factor in helping to stop it.
"From a public health perspective, it makes much more sense to keep students where they are: isolate sick people and quarantine exposed people while promoting social distancing measures for all," said Dr. Michael Sinha, researcher at Harvard Medical School, to Al Jazeera
He suggested measures that would require limiting access to common spaces such as gyms, dining rooms, and recreation rooms.
"The eviction exposes them to a much higher risk of exposure than allowing them to stay at the International House: homeless shelters, food pantries, crowded public spaces – all at high risk of exposure to COVID-19," he said.
But Dr. Sinha also said there is a challenge with "strictly tax blocks,quot; similar to those that occurred on cruises in Japan and the city of Oakland in California.
"These measures grouped sick / exposed individuals with unexposed individuals. In that context, they are all eventually exposed," he said.
Lack of preventive measures.
The students said they understood that the institution had to take certain measures, but given the unique demographics, the administration should have been more transparent, clearer in its communication, and taken preventative measures.
Anindita Chakroborty, a student from India, said that given the large number of students residing at I-House who are part of different institutions and campuses across the city, it was only a matter of time before someone contracted her.
"Being a little prepared for this would have been much more helpful," said Chakroborty.
She had been in Philadelphia for two weeks when her classes at Columbia University moved online. When he received the news about the closure of I-House, he feared that all his belongings, including important documents, were still in the building. She had also relied on what she said were repeated assurances from the administration that they would be open.
What a shame to see what I used to call home in New York @IHouseNYC he's kicking people out like that a week in advance. Most of the people in these buildings are international students and have nowhere to go. @CNN @guardian @BBCWorld
– Randistic (@randistic) March 19, 2020
She was afraid to return to I-House to clean her room, a process that would require her to travel from Philadelphia and potentially expose herself during the trip or at I-House. After a day of repeated phone calls and emails with automatic responses, Chakroborty said he was allowed to keep his things in the bedroom for now.
"Many residents feel that they could have made provisions for testing or quarantine," said Njoroge. He added that learning about someone who tested positive as well as a notice to leave in the same email was overwhelming.
Despite the panic, students used their alumni network to find and share listings and resources for everyone to use in a matter of days. A Njoroge petition demanding the resignation of the president has already received more than 170 signatures.
For now, Njoroge is heading to a friend's house in Massachusetts, something that will require her to take a bus, while caring for an injured foot. Jaiswal moves in with a friend in Brooklyn, who invited her to stay. As they leave the facilities, students do not carry with them the sense of security and respect they once felt about the mission of the I-House movement.