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Natural disaster at home while studying abroad? Here’s what to do

When a natural disaster strikes and you're not there it can be stressful - follow these steps to keep yourself safe. Source: AFP

Studying in a different country presents a wonderful opportunity for you to spread your wings and fly the nest, but sometimes things beyond your control can make you want to fly straight back home.

While we hope nothing more than a little homesickness is making you want to return, sometimes situations can be a lot more serious.

Natural disasters are a fact of life in some parts of the world, and if you grew up in an area that’s prone, you’ll know they are no reason not to live your life to the fullest – but that doesn’t make it any less scary when something happens and you aren’t there.

From the recent earthquakes in Indonesia to the more predictable hurricane seasons in the US, emergencies can be stressful when you’re studying abroad, making you desperately want to be reunited with your family and friends.

Reunited with family can feel like the most important thing – but you need to consider your own safety. Source: STRINGER/AFP

While this is a natural response to something happening back home, you have to think about what’s best for you. Here’s what you should consider before booking your flight home…

Contact your embassy

Before you do anything, you should get in touch with your embassy. They’ll be able to provide you with updated information, highlight your transport options and confirm you’re not in the country if there’s a rescue mission going on for missing persons.

They should be able to advise you on the best plan of action and provide you with direct information rather than relying on media reports.

Can you get in touch with your family?

If you want to return home, it’s a good idea to try and contact your family first. They’ll be able to provide you with a personal update on the situation and let you know if everyone is safe.

During natural disasters, people can be evacuated, often having to leave things behind where personal items can be lost or destroyed. If you know your loved ones have been displaced but can’t yet contact them, returning home could make it even harder for you to find them.

Reaching out to your loved ones should be one of the first things you do. Source: Shutterstock

In this case, you should visit your embassy and tell them you can’t reach them. They should have up-to-date records on people’s whereabouts, whether that be in refugee camps, hospitals or temporary accommodation.

If your embassy doesn’t have any information, they will be able to add your loved ones to the missing persons’ list, giving authorities a much better chance of finding them.

Speak with your university

At this point, you have a better understanding of the situation at home, and it’s time to decide what you want to do. But first, you should arrange a meeting with your personal tutor or a senior member of staff to discuss how this will impact your academics.

You might have deadlines coming up or be approaching exam season, so you need to factor academic options into your decision. The university will be able to tell you if you are eligible for extenuating circumstances or time away from university to be with your family.

Even if you already know you won’t be able to return home for a while, speaking to the university as soon as possible means you can plan ahead and keep them up-to-date with what’s going on in your personal life.

Is it safe to return?

It can be tempting to jump on the first flight home, but in reality, this could make the situation a lot worse. While it can be hard to be away from loved ones in times like this, you need to rationally consider what will happen if you go back.

It can be tempting to get on the first flight home but it’s important to weigh up your safety. Source: Erik Odiin/Unsplash

Has the natural disaster neutralised, making it safe to return? Is there a risk of it repeating or getting worse? For example, Indonesian islands have suffered a string of earthquakes over the past few weeks, and it’s unclear whether more will hit. In cases like these, it’s probably unwise to return as more damage may occur and you risk putting yourself in danger if you return.

Are flights running?

Even if the immediate danger from the disaster has subsided, many natural disasters will stop flights running for days or even weeks, including volcanic eruptions and extreme weather conditions. Even if you can book flights, you should check they aren’t being canceled or you risk wasting your money.

Alternatively, the affected area may have been evacuated, stopping you from returning to your home. Flights could be canceled for a long time if the airport was damaged or people can’t return to the area. While we understand this may be distressing, it’s important to remember this is to keep everyone at home safe until help is received.

Once you’ve established whether you can return home, it’s time to asses your financial situation.

Is the government offering financial aid?

It’s unlikely you factored a last-minute plane ticket into your student budget, so even if you can return home this may not be financially viable for you.

Finding the funds to go home may not be possible – but there may be government aid. Source: Shutterstock

Sometimes, the government will provide free transport to reunite families and recall international students during national emergencies. If you’re on a government scholarship, the government may request that you take a break from your studies to return home for a while and lay on transport for you.

Not only does this give you a way to be with your loved ones, it’s also an indication that it’s safe to return home – the government is unlikely to call more people into the country if the situation is still unstable.

Once you’ve established with your embassy whether it’s safe to return home and contacted your loved ones, you can then make a game plan for your return. This might mean booking a flight for the next day, or it may entail holding off until things normalise.

But this isn’t meant to scare you – studying abroad is a life-changing, sometimes challenging experience, and situations like this will give you the resilience to overcome hurdles you will encounter throughout life.

It’s important to remember that wherever you’re studying, your local embassy is there to represent you and offer you advice. You are never alone.

If you have any more questions on what to do during emergencies while studying abroad, email us on editor@studyinternational.com.

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