I Left My Fulbright In Spain and Do Not Feel Safer for It

Written by Amad Amedy ’19

I woke up in my apartment on the morning of March 12 to a phone flooded with messages from friends in the US. President Trump had announced a travel ban on people living in the European Union. Suddenly a wave of panic and uncertainty overwhelmed me. I was in Barcelona, Spain, where I conducted neuroscience research on a Fulbright grant. Although coronavirus had been growing in Barcelona, normal daily life had continued. 


The next day, things rapidly began to change. As I received an email from the Fulbright Spanish Commission that urged us to evacuate Spain, the government was quickly moving forward with national restrictions in response to COVID-19. That night, I met with my other Fulbright friends at our favorite Mediterranean restaurant to sort out what was going on, knowing it was probably our last meal together in Barcelona. Through the weekend, things progressively worsened. 


By March 15, the government of Spain had issued a state of emergency. All businesses closed down with the exception of banks, grocery stores, and pharmacies. People were confined to their homes for quarantine with few exceptions, and police were patrolling the streets to enforce it. Scrambling to find my way back to the US, I was in a state of disarray. Just days before, Barcelona was a lively city, streets filled with locals walking to work and eating outside of cafes. And now? Empty. All within 48 hours. 


Though Fulbright grantees were strongly recommended to leave Spain, we were given a choice to stay. We were told by our Fulbright commission that if we left immediately, we more likely to get out of Spain and would continue to be supported by the Fulbright. On the other hand, staying posed greater uncertainties. If the situation worsened, there was no guarantee that we could go back to the US, and there was a chance that we could lose our grant benefits. 


In making my decision, I couldn’t help but think about how many refugees have chosen to come to the US, despite all obstacles, during times of crisis. My parents had done the same just 23 years ago when fleeing genocide in Kurdistan. Here I was, given an easier opportunity to come back to the US, my home country. Riddled with anxiety about the uncertainties, I decided to come back – though I preferred to stay. 

It seemed counterintuitive, but in reality, staying in Spain was safer for me and my family. I put myself at greater risk of getting the virus in traveling back through airports and taxis. 

Though I may not have received the virus, let’s imagine I did. Why would I bring it to my community? To my loved ones? To my parents who have underlying health concerns? I could have remained quarantining in my room in Barcelona, away from others. Not to mention, I don’t even have health insurance in Tennessee. I am ineligible for Medicaid, despite being a low-income student. I had health insurance in Spain. Even if my Spanish health insurance were taken away, the cost of treatment would likely have been less than the cost of private insurance here. 


Despite widespread flight cancellations, I narrowly evacuated Spain on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, I was on my final flight from Boston to Nashville. Normally, I would be at my local coffee shop in Barcelona, as I was every morning, preparing for work as I sipped a café con leche. Instead, I parsed through a flurry of thoughts while clutching a black coffee courtesy of Delta. 


My plans after the Fulbright were to apply to medical school, in hopes of becoming a physician that could serve the same community that raised me, ensuring their safety and wellbeing. However, I can’t help but feel troubled knowing that, in the face of this pandemic, I felt safer in Spain. 

*This article was reprinted by permission of the author from The Tennessean.*