18. May 2020

Signs of Life: International researchers in the “corona crisis” Signs of Life: International researchers in the “corona crisis”

On travel restrictions and support for international researchers at the Welcome Center

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, researchers are currently facing strong restrictions with regard to scientific exchange and mobility. For many, travel restrictions and curfews mean that long-planned trips cannot be undertaken and new positions cannot be started in person. At the University of Bonn, the Welcome Center offers support for those who are “stranded”. Campus reporter Alexander Mertes on the role of “Signs of Life”.

Signs of life:
Signs of life: - Hostel room of Dr. Adam Morris, © Photo: private
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Text: Campus reporter Alexander Mertes (who dedicates this report to Ulrike Eva Klopp)

After a day at work at CERN, Dr. Adam Morris enters the small hostel room in French Saint-Genis-Pouilly he recently moved into. He takes off his jacket and hangs it inside the closet by the small sink. He passes a small desk and puts his bag on the bed. He glowers at the noisy refrigerator, even though the noise is not bothering him as much as it did on his first day here. He shares a kitchen and bathroom with other residents. It is late February 2020, and little does physician Adam Morris know that the coming weeks of his life will be quite different from what he had planned.

Only recently, Adam Morris moved out of his apartment in Marseille, in which he had lived for three years during his work as a postdoc at the local university. As of April 1, 2020, after one month at CERN, he is to start working at the Helmholtz Institute for Radiation and Nuclear Physics (HISKP) at the University of Bonn. Adam Morris goes over to the sink and washes his hands with water and soap. He does this quite frequently since SARS-CoV-2 has arrived in Europe. He also avoids going to the canteen and brings his own lunch to work. As most other people in Europe, Adam Morris cannot yet imagine the restrictions on daily life soon to follow. At CERN, he starts to notice first changes fairly quickly. At first, visitors are banned from the premises. Adam Morris is disappointed because he wanted to arrange a guided underground tour for some friends. A few days later, all important meetings at CERN are held exclusively via video. Shortly after, CERN announces that as of March 16, 2020 external researchers are also banned from the premises unless they are in charge of special tasks. This is when Adam Morris decides to go to Bonn earlier than initially planned. He books a train ticket and accommodation for two weeks. With the start of his job at the University as of April 1, 2020 Adam Morris will be renting an apartment in the international guest house of the Studierendenwerk Bonn.

One day before departure, on May 15, 2020, Adam Morris receives bad news: Germany is closing its borders to France and Switzerland effective March 16. He cannot find an earlier train connection to Bonn to reach Germany before the borders are closed at such short notice. As he does not know whether his British passport will allow him to enter Germany, he decides to cancel his accommodation and extend his stay in the French hostel. On March 16, 2020 he receives more bad news: France issues a curfew effective the following day. Adam Morris hurries to buy food for a week. In the following days, he is only allowed to leave the hostel to buy groceries with a filled-in form. Because he does not have a printer, he is forced to complete the form by hand each time. Adam Morris is more or less a prisoner in his small room with a wardrobe, sink, desk, bed and–not to forget–a noisy refrigerator.

(c) Dr. Adam Morris is only allowed to leave the hostel with a filled-in form, Photo: private


Contact point for international researchers

The Welcome Center of the International Office, which is part of the University administration, is the first contact point for international researchers on postdoc level or higher. Three permanent members of staff and one research assistant provide support, advice and information for researchers before and during their stay in Bonn, a city on the Rhine river. All guest researchers are welcomed there, regardless of whether they stay in Bonn for a few months, years or permanently. On the Welcome Center’s website, international researchers can find information on all relevant topics, e.g. registration with the city or opening a bank account. Checklists for the time before the stay in Bonn, after arrival and before departure are also made available online.

Researchers can register with the Welcome Center via an online form in which they provide their personal information. After a welcome email, the researchers receive regular updates with information and invitations to events such as German language classes, hiking tours, visits to museums or the annual summer festival. Naturally, it is also possible to contact the Welcome Center directly. The Welcome Center mainly supports international researchers with applying for visa, arranging health insurance and making appointments with authorities. Other large work areas are pension insurance and taxes.

The Welcome Center also supports researchers in finding accommodation in Bonn. Accommodation in the international guest house of the Studierendenwerk Bonn, situated in Bonn Endenich, is exclusively arranged via the Welcome Center. The guest house has more than 60 furnished apartments, divided into five different categories.

Help for “stranded” researchers

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Welcome Center is now also in charge of providing support for researchers of the University of Bonn who are “stranded” abroad. This includes those who had already been abroad for research purposes at the time the pandemic broke out and who now, due to travel restrictions and canceled flights, cannot return to Bonn as planned.

In addition to this, daily work at the Welcome Center has changed very much in the past weeks. All members of staff are working from home, personal consultations cannot be offered and planned events had to be canceled. Appointments with the city registry or the immigration office cannot be arranged for at the moment. Adam Morris and his fellow researchers receive regular updates on the development in Germany. This is done via phone or email.

A majority of international researchers who had planned to come to Bonn in the coming weeks or months have indefinitely postponed their stay. This can be due to restrictions on entering Germany, a lack of travel connections or because they do not feel comfortable following up on their plans, among other reasons.

No way home

Meteorologist Dr. Manuel Felipe Rios Gaona’s research stay is coming to an end. He is currently working as a postdoc at the Department of Geosciences. Afterwards, he would like to return to his home country Colombia. As a Colombian citizen, this is the only place where he does not need a visa. But the country has closed its borders and global air traffic is limited. Manuel Felipe Rios Gaona therefore has no choice but to stay in Bonn with his wife. Until recently, the two were worried that their stay in Germany would soon be considered illegal. But then they received a letter confirming that they are temporarily allowed to stay. They now worry about their health because they do not have health insurance without a job. Rios Gaona is currently negotiating an extension of his research stay with the Department of Geosciences to secure an income and therefore health insurance.


 (c) Dr. Manuel Felipe Rios Gaona, Photo: private

Dr. Manuel Balparda from Italy is currently facing the opposite situation. His employment contract as a postdoc at the Institute of Molecular Physiology and Biotechnology (IMBIO) came into effect on April 1, 2020–but he is stuck in Argentina since March 2020. His Lufthansa flight from Buenos Aires to Frankfurt on March 24, 2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus crisis. Since then, his flight has been rebooked several times and he is now set to travel in May 2020. It remains unclear if this will actually be possible. He has tried in vain to book a seat on a rescue flight for stranded Europeans. In addition to restricted mobility, he is worried about being denied entry into Germany. The current situation is making him feel desperate.

(c) Dr. Manuel Balparda, Photo: private

Finally en route to Bonn

After ten days of quarantine in his hostel room, Adam Morris finally gets some good news from the Federal Police website. In the coronavirus FAQs published on March 26, 2020 it says that entering Germany is possible by proof of a rental contract when moving into a new home. He contacts the Studierendenwerk for a confirmation of his moving into the international guest house and starts planning his journey to Bonn. He decides to book a flight from Geneva to Frankfurt and then take a train to Bonn. This is his fastest and easiest option. He can enter the airport in Geneva from the French side and cross over to Switzerland via the airport building. He considers this a smaller risk than traveling by car. Fortunately, his friend has offered to take him to the airport.

The arrival in Frankfurt is less fortunate. He has to wait in a side room next to immigration for half an hour while Federal Police officers are checking whether he is allowed to enter the country. He did bring the rental contract for his apartment but does not have written proof of his employment at the University of Bonn. The employment contract had not yet been issued at the time. After some bargaining, the officers allow Adam Morris to enter the Federal Republic of Germany. His apartment in the international guest house is significantly more spacious than his hostel room in France. He is now staying there, looking for long-term accommodation in Bonn. The Welcome Center for international researchers will certainly support him in this as well.

The author

Alexander Mertes studies Mathematics, Computer Science and Educational Sciences in a Master of Education degree program at the University of Bonn. He is a graduate student research assistant (WHF) at University Communications. As a Campus reporter, he writes articles and reports on current issues regarding his alma mater in Bonn.

Signs of life—keeping up the conversation!

In “Signs of life—keeping up the conversation!” the University of Bonn is publishing articles written by members of the University, sharing personal impressions of the fight against the coronavirus as well the impact it has on our lives. The format is aimed at keeping the communication going and strengthening our University community in these difficult times. Articles written by members of the University are published, in no particular order, on this website, depicting different perspectives, initiating discussions and exchanging tips and food for thought on the current challenge. If you wish to contribute, please contact University Communications at kommunikation@uni-bonn.de.

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