It’s 1am when Valentina Sanchez’s alarm goes off. There may be time to make a quick coffee and set aside notes to make room for the laptop on the table. Then the 24-year-old woman immediately entered her first lecture that day.
All of her classmates are sitting in a room at Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences, at the better 9:30 am. But Sanchez is stuck in his hometown of Puebla, Mexico. He could only watch the class through Zoom, his face on the laptop screen put on the table by someone else social distancing students.
Read more: Mexico is ‘flying blind’ in pandemic response
On the other side of the world, Roozbeh Irandoost is battling another problem to attend classes at the Dresden University of Technology from his bedroom in Sari, northern Iran.
The time difference isn’t that bad – he’s only 1 1/2 hours faster than Germany – but Iran’s poor internet connection and blocks on websites like Zoom and YouTube make following courses that much more difficult.
Ultimately, both Sanchez and Irandoost have the same problem: Nobody can get an appointment at the German embassy for an interview to get their student visa, nor can they know when they can get one.
Roozbeh Irandoost said waiting for news of visa appointments added to the pressure on students
Students face ‘pressure’, ‘uncertainty’
They are not alone. Hundreds of prospective master’s students in Mexico and Iran are in the same situation.
When the coronavirus pandemic sparked worldwide closures in March, German embassies stopped taking nearly all visa appointments. Seven months later, in Mexico City and Tehran, appointments have not yet restarted for master’s students.
“We try to contact the embassy every day,” Sanchez told DW by telephone. “But most of the time we don’t get an answer, and when we do, they can’t tell us when they’ll reopen to our pledge.”
“Uncertainty and anxiety are the worst feelings possible. You keep writing and expect them to respond soon.”
Read more: Iran’s coronavirus strategy divides health experts, the government
“We have several social media groups [in Iran] and no one has a visa appointment, “said Irandoost in a phone call.” We understand the pandemic is a big problem, but we can bring negative test results, wear masks and face shields.
“We are facing so much pressure and have no news.”
Other German embassies have acted
Until a month ago, Iranian and Mexican students had support. Hundreds of other masters students from Nigeria, India, Colombia, Bangladesh and Turkey with offers from German universities are in a similar situation.
They joined together online, using the hashtag #EducationIsNotTourism, to bombard the German embassy, ambassador, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas with messages, urging them to provide clarity on visa designations.
Read more: COVID-19 halts studies in Germany for African students
For some, it worked. The embassy reaches out to students and starts looking for solutions. The German Ambassador to India posted the video to social media, personally speaking to students and updating them about the new embassy measures.
Students in Mexico and Iran, however, claim they received sporadic stock replies at best, or none at all, despite the numerous tweets and emails.
“I accepted the university offer in July and immediately tried to make an appointment, but received no reply,” said Mehran Mirmiri, 27, from Tehran. He hopes to study music therapy in Heidelberg.
“I’ve written 15 emails since then and I got no response, not even yes or no. I don’t know why it was so difficult.”
Mehran Mirmiri (center left) is eager to continue his academic career in Germany
Students make sacrifices for studies
There is much at stake for students. Many gave up their jobs hoping they would be in Germany now, and some were unable to work because they had to try and attend classes online. They have € 10,000 ($ 11,800) held in a locked account to prove to the German government they can support themselves – but it’s money they can’t touch.
In addition, expensive language test certificates, which prove that they have a sufficient level of English for international courses, are time-limited and running low.
“It was a huge effort for me and my parents to pay for it,” says Sanchez, “and it is very difficult when your plans are interrupted and so much money is involved.”
Read more: International students have to wait months to get a German visa
In Iran, the situation is arguably worse. Currency is struggling, making studying in Europe more expensive month-to-month, and male students only have six months after completing their bachelor’s degree to move abroad before they are required to start 24 months of military service.
“I only have two out of six months before I have to enter the military,” said Mirmiri. “I sold my house to support my studies and the economy here is unstable.”
“It is very stressful. I need to tell the military what is going on.”
Students bombard Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, and others, with messages for help
The German government blames security measures, logistics
Students do not feel the embassy is following the advice of the German government. “Foreign students who can prove that their studies cannot be carried out entirely from abroad, for example because they are obliged to attend, can enter the country to start their studies,” Research Minister Anja Karliczek said in an August statement.
They are also frustrated that other countries hard hit by COVID-19, such as the United States and Brazil, have not closed visa appointments for master’s students.
“Whether and when the application or visa can actually be applied or issued in such a case remains a matter of the local situation,” the German Foreign Ministry said in an emailed response to questions from DW.
“As a result of the dynamic pandemics in Mexico and Iran, the embassy ‘s ability to work has been greatly reduced since spring for reasons of infection protection for visitors and employees.”
The statement added that the ministry was working to ensure students received visas, and said a total of 310 academic visas had been issued in Mexico City and Tehran in the third quarter of this year. That figure, however, is not specifically limited to master’s students.
Back in Puebla, Sanchez hopes that the number will enter it soon. “I chose Berlin because I wanted to help make a difference in the world,” he said. “I just hope the German government can see that.”