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Coronavirus: Iran flights cancelled, many students among Indians stranded

There are roughly 250 Indian students across Iran, including in Tehran, Shiraz and Kish Island.

Written by Sowmiya Ashok , Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai, New Delhi | Updated: February 28, 2020 7:24:45 am
Indians evacuated from Wuhan, at the airport in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI

WITH INDIA on Thursday suspending all flights from Iran, where the coronavirus outbreak has claimed 26 lives so far, many Indian students — including several medical students from Kashmir — and pilgrims are stranded there.

There are roughly 250 Indian students across Iran, including in Tehran, Shiraz and Kish Island.

“We want to leave the country because our parents are really worried. Since flights are getting cancelled, the only way out is with the help of the Ministry of External Affairs,” said a 22-year-old third-year student from Kashmir studying at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences (TUMS). She said the students compiled a list of names and emailed it to the MEA earlier this week. “Some of our parents even approached the MEA in Delhi,” she said.

Another student, a 21-year-old from Kashmir, said classes and exams have been postponed for a month-and-a-half. “I booked an Air Arabia flight via Sharjah to Delhi but the flight was cancelled; another flight that I tried to book for next week was also cancelled,” he said. “Even direct flights are being cancelled, the border to Kuwait has been sealed off, and if we have to fly via Russia it will cost us at least Rs 2 lakh.”

Students said they contacted the Embassy of India in Tehran. “We were told that since it is not an emergency situation as yet, the Embassy cannot help us,” said a student.

In an advisory on Tuesday, the Indian Embassy in Tehran noted: “We are closely monitoring the evolving situation in Iran. All Indian nationals should observe advisories issued by Iranian authorities and World Health Organisation. All Indian nationals are requested to observe necessary hygiene sanitation measures, including wearing masks, and avoid going to crowded places and public gatherings. It is important that you remain calm, maintain caution and not fall prey to rumours.”

Many students said they were under self-quarantine and expressed concern over the shortage of N-95 masks and sanitisers — some said they were using a double layer of surgical masks to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, the TUMS administration, in a letter on Wednesday, appealed to the Indian Ambassador to Iran to make arrangements to facilitate the return of 159 students to India. “…I would like to inform you that based on the request of TUMS Indian students and given the upcoming (Nowruz) holidays and the cancellation of classes and exams ahead, if possible please make necessary cooperation to provide or facilitate the process of Indian students’ return to India,” it said.

At the TUMS campus in Kish Island, a 22-year-old student, also from Kashmir, said many tourists head to the island during the Nowruz holidays. “Right now, none of the places have been quarantined. Our university has been really helpful and is providing us with food and doctors on call,” a student said.

Another student said while they were all in good health for now, he was “afraid that once this virus gets into any of the dormitories, it will spare no one”.

Meanwhile, groups of pilgrims are among those stranded in Iran. “Our flight from Tehran to Mumbai was scheduled for Friday, 6.45 am. It has been cancelled. My father is a heart patient and suffers from paralysis. I only got his medicines for 10 days. We don’t know how we will manage,” said Kesar Tabassum, from Nagpur. She is also accompanied by her mother, who is wheelchair-bound.

“The Embassy officials said the Iran government is not allowing us to exit. The Iran Air officials said India has refused entry,” she said.

Another pilgrim, Inam Raza from Uttar Pradesh, said he was with 11 others. “I am on a train to Tehran. From the station, we were supposed to catch a bus to the airport. Now, we don’t know where to go in Tehran,” he said.

Raza said they tried to book their return journey as soon as they heard about the coronavirus outbreak, but could not find so many empty seats on the same flight. “We heard about the outbreak after we left Qom city. The panic has spread in the last four days,” he said, adding that his group includes a pregnant woman.

Afzal Heerji, a tour operator in Mumbai, said about 40 Indians who had made their travel arrangements through him were stranded in Tehran. “They were supposed to fly back on Friday,” he said.

Several pilgrim tours in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have also been affected. Mustafa Soni, another tour operator, said a group of 60 pilgrims from Mumbai were stranded between Karbala and Najaf. “They are not being allowed to enter either city. There is total chaos. We are trying to bring them back to Mumbai,” he said.

Abid Umar Kadiwal, who is leading a group of 36 pilgrims in Medina, said: “Today, airport officials informed us that pilgrims from Bangladesh landed at the Medina airport but could not enter the city, they were sent back. The situation in Medina seems normal, we are allowed to visit the holy sites, but new pilgrims are not being allowed.”

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