by Drew Nickels 23

Crowds gather in early at the Sale-Rabat Airport in Morocco. Photo courtesy of Sophia Nissler ’21

For the 50 Davidson students studying abroad this semester, the transition from in-person classes to an online education was a stressful and uncertain process; many encountered substantial difficulties returning home due to the rapid spread of the virus and countries’ varying responses to the outbreak. One of these students, Sophia Nissler ’21, was studying in Morocco on a School for International Training (SIT) program. Nissler, a double major in Arab Studies and History with a desire to go into immigration law, originally planned to spend her entire junior year in Lebanon. However, following widespread protests against corruption and the Lebanese government, she applied for her SIT program due to its focus on migration and transnational identity. 

During her program, Nissler stayed with a host family in Rabat. She attended classes in the medina (the old part) of the city, where she spent three hours each day improving her Arabic  skills while also learning from guest speakers about the language and culture. Every week, the program took students to visit an organization related to migration. Nissler also went on three excursions with the program before its cancellation.

 “The first was a weekend in Fez and Meknes that was more touristic,” Nissler shared. “The second was a week in the north (Tangier, Tetouan, and Chefchaouen) that we spent conducting site visits to [Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)]  and to the border of Ceuta (a Spanish enclave), meeting sub-Saharan African migrants, and learning about border politics. The third was right before I had to leave Morocco. We went to Amsterdam for a week to learn about the impact and experiences of Moroccan migrants across generations in an EU country.” 

In Amsterdam, Nissler visited several NGOs and learned about Moroccan migrants and the Moroccan-Dutch population. It was during this time when President Donald Trump enacted a travel ban barring European flights from entering the United States in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, beginning Nissler’s harrowing journey back home. 

Nissler explained, “On Saturday, when we flew back to Rabat, we were on the literal last flight [to Morocco].” SIT placed students in a hotel, only permitting them to return to their host families to gather their belongings. Several of the program’s members began to panic due to the uncertainty of how they would make it home. Not long after returning to Rabat, the Moroccan government, in a similar fashion to the United States, stopped all international travel in hopes of containing the virus, furthering the stresses of students attempting to return home.

 After talking with her parents and witnessing numerous flight cancellations, Nissler decided to book two flights to Paris, one of which did get cancelled. A representative for AirFrance instructed Nissler to go to the airport early in the morning in order to check in for  her flight to Paris (a select number of flights were still available in an attempt to repatriate French citizens). Arriving at 4:00 a.m., Nissler saw a huge crowd already forming and began to wonder if she would make her 10:30 a.m. flight. After the check-in area opened at 7:00 a.m., the crowd became so disoriented and angered that a fist fight broke out between two men.

 “Some of the crowd seemed scared by the fist fight, but the main reaction was people scolding them for being disruptive and chaotic,” Nissler expressed. “I was scared that more people would get frustrated by the crowding and react badly.”

During her extended wait in the check-in area, Nissler befriended an elderly Canadian-Moroccan couple, bonding over shared hand sanitizer and talking with them in order to keep calm.

 “We had been making conversation while we waited, and because their niece worked for SIT Morocco, I think they felt a little responsible for me. They were also worried about getting home. Unfortunately, the couple was bumped to a flight the next day, with no guarantee of seats. After they were bumped,  the man used my phone to call their taxi driver so that they could return to their relative’s house. He was really frustrated and agitated. I didn’t get his contact information, but I’m hopeful that they made it home to Canada.”

Nissler was eventually able to check in for her flight. Following a 14-hour layover in Paris, she successfully flew back to Atlanta and returned home, entering a two week self-quarantine. Following her return home, she learned that her friends still in Morocco were able to leave the country on US government-chartered flights out of Casablanca. However, there were still US citizens stranded in Morocco. 

SIT provided resources, including the hotel stay, up until April 4. Nissler is confident that her two program directors, Badrdine and Tibari, would have tried to help their students after the April 4th deadline. Nissler, while frustrated with the response during the situation, is happy to have made it home safely: “There were so many logistical issues in leaving Morocco that we see SIT and/or the US government holding responsibility for, and it’s deeply frustrating that we were in that situation of quasi-limbo for so long, but we were lucky enough to make it home, which many others were not.”

Along with the rest of Davidson, Nissler is now finishing her semester online and beginning an independent study project. The project would have consisted of a month of field research studying how sub-Saharan migrant women informally educate their children and how they interact with the formal education system in Tangier 

“My adjustment has been pretty easy because I was just so relieved to get home, but I really miss my host family. Our program is not really conducive to an online platform — beyond having to do field research and having a bunch of site visits and literally being abroad, even my Arabic classes consisted of daily field exercises in the medina that cannot be replicated over Skype.” Nissler and her host family continue to communicate a couple of times a week as she, along with the rest of the student body, tries to finish the semester in an unexpected fashion.