“Right now we’re in Italy. We’ve booked the ticket to Kerala and we’ve reached the check-in but the Italian government is saying that the Indian govt. is not permitting anyone inside the country right now. Where are we supposed to go? . . . They should have informed us earlier. There are pregnant women and children with us and right now we have nowhere to go. . . . It’s like we’re in purgatory.”
Dr Bindu Satyajith received this video appeal from a group of students on the morning of 10 March. These students were stranded at the Rome airport and were not being allowed to return to India without a COVID-19 negative certificate. Dr Bindu, the founder of Kerala-based NGO, EUnnathi already knew that Italy was under lockdown due to the thousands of new COVID-19 positive cases being reported daily from 1 March.
She instantly forwarded this video to Shyam Kurup, a Naval architect from Alappuzha. Shyam had been an active volunteer for relief missions during the Nepal earthquake (2015) as well as floods in Chennai and Kerala (2018). Dr Bindu had a feeling that he wouldn’t hesitate to help the students and surely enough, both of them got to work immediately.
For seven days, the duo worked tirelessly to provide essentials to the students stuck at the Rome airport and brought 14 of them back home by paying for their flight tickets.
The Rescuers From Kerala:
In March, certain restrictions and regulations were put into place for people flying to India from highly affected places like Italy. For instance, all existing visas (except diplomatic, official and International Organisation employees) and visa-free travel facilities granted to Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) were suspended from 13 March. Those who were to travel a few days before this rule was implemented had to carry a COVID-19 negative certificate. Over 200 Indians stuck in Rome had given their samples but were yet to receive the results.
Mounika Midasala, one of the passengers stranded in Italy tells The Better India (TBI),“On 10 March, I and more than 80 students were stuck in the Rome airport because Air India wouldn’t allow us to travel without a negative certificate. The flight was already delayed by 12 hours. Our parents contacted many influential people. But no use. We started making videos and posted them on social media explaining our situation.”
Below is the audio clip from Saidas Sivadasan, another student, speaking about the incident in Italy.
By the following day, Dr Bindu and Shyam had assembled a team of volunteers who could aid in the evacuation of the students stuck in Rome. This team consisted of campaign designers, counsellors, co-ordinators, mentors, fundraisers and volunteers from the World Malayalee Federation (WMF).
WMF, headquartered in Vienna, has its branches in 120 countries. It’s support was crucial for on-ground work in Rome where Shyam’s team couldn’t reach physically.
“We managed to reach out to a few students at the airport and added them all in a common WhatsApp group. The students were stuck at the airport for four days with no food and no way to go back to their residences. They were not allowed back without a COVID-19 negative certificate which the hospitals said will take a few days to arrive,” Shyam tells TBI.
The students were naturally getting desperate, tired, angry at the sense of helplessness. “We contacted the Indian Embassy in Rome. They wanted us to go back to our residences. But we had no place to go to because of the lockdown situation. In return, we asked the embassy to find us accommodation but that didn’t work out either. I don’t know who told the EUnnathi group about us but they are like angels to us. I owe so much to Shyam,” Mounika shares.
By the next day, Shyam and Dr Bindu’s team sent an SOS email to the Ministry of State for External Affairs, Kerala. They received a prompt reply assuring that the matter was being looked into.
Acting quickly to gain as much traction as possible, Shyam posted an appeal to government officials on his Facebook wall to take urgent steps in rescuing the students.
On 15 March, Shyam received an update that one among the stranded people was a pregnant lady from Bengaluru who was in severe pain. Akshita, (name changed) is in her first trimester. Shyam posted another video appealing for help, this time tagging the Karnataka government too. Soon enough, ministers and other influential personalities were tweeting his videos in an attempt to make the government aware of the situation.
Meanwhile, the team started working on addressing the second problem – that of providing food to the stranded students. Since the Indian Embassy in Italy was yet to arrange for food and accommodation, volunteers from the WMF got to work.
Deepak Dasari, another student, shares, “We were stuck in the airport for two days without proper food or shelter. Only on the third day at the airport did we receive food from a restaurant and accommodation from the embassy . . . Shyam contacted us out of the blue but kept us informed about the updates right when we were feeling hopeless.”
On the backend, Shyam and Dr Bindu had already added several influential people and media personnel to the students’ WhatsApp group. In the meantime, an Air India flight reached Italy to evacuate stranded Indians. But unfortunately, the flight was scheduled only for Milan. Students in Rome still lived with uncertainty.
Finally, A Flight Home:
“Truth be told, we were also not in favour of evacuating the entire lot without confirming that they were all COVID-19 negative. But we had to act fast. From the entire group stuck in Rome, 20 had enough resources to book an airline that was still operating to India. They took the opportunity and flew back. It was the people with limited resources that were suffering,” Shyam tells TBI.
By 16 March, Shyam and other members of the team had found out about an Ethiopian Airline that could take the students from Rome to Addis Ababa (the Ethiopian capital) and from there to Mumbai. They informed the students about this and asked them to contribute as much as they could. Each ticket cost about Rs 68,000. The total amount for 13 students and Akshita came to over Rs 950,000. Shyam could afford to sponsor four tickets.
Dr Thomas, who worked for rescue operation contributed Rs 3.75 lakh. Everyone else in the team pitched in as much as they could and bought tickets for the Ethiopian plane that took off from the Rome airport on the 17 March.
Of the 200 people stranded in Rome, 20 booked a new flight. Fourteen were evacuated by Shyam, Dr Bindu and their wonderful team. The remaining students were finally evacuated by an Air India flight on 22 March.
There were many players in this rescue operation. Shyam and Dr Bindu stand out for their proactive efforts in setting the wheel in motion. Krishna Teja, an IAS officer who worked with Shyam during the Kerala floods was happy to comment on his efforts. “I can describe him as energetic and empathetic. Wherever there is a need, he makes sure his services are available.”
But we also want to highlight the contribution made by Dr Thomas, the Flood Volunteers Family group and the students themselves who showed resilience in a situation full of uncertainty and panic. The evacuated students are under home quarantine as of now and so far, haven’t shown any symptoms of COVID-19. Their results from the hospital came back and all of them are negative.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)