Sarah Ramberran is a rising junior at Harvard College pursuing an A.B. degree in Government and Comparative Religion. Her wider research interests include comparative political institutions, South Asian religious thought and identity, and political secularism. She is currently doing her internship in Civil.ge.
South Asian medical students constitute a large part of the international student body in Georgia. In Tbilisi State Medical University alone, about 26% of the student body consists of international students. 2,000 students hailing from India come to Georgia for studies and approximately 500 of those pursue bachelor-level programs. While they are grateful for the education they receive here, they report facing instances of xenophobia and racism, which diminishes their perception of the country.
Why do South Asian students come to Georgia?
The excellent quality of education, the low tuition, and the reasonable cost of living make Georgia an ideal destination for international medical students. A fourth-year Indian medical student who wishes to remain anonymous out of concern for his privacy says that he picked Tbilisi State Medical University because it is cheaper and is on the list of Indian medical council-approved universities. A fifth-year medical student from Bangladesh at TSMU stated that whilst Georgia was not his first choice, the admissions process was much easier than options he considered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and his parents recommended it to him.
Two third-year Indian medical students say they did research about Georgia prior to applying to medical schools and appreciated the medical programs’ versatility. “We were excited, the country seemed peaceful and has a very unique culture,” one student said.
However, when asked whether they would advise students to come to Georgia, given their experiences thus far, they had mixed feelings. The two third-year students would encourage students to be mindful of the international circumstances when trying to decide where to study abroad, but for now, they recommend studying in Georgia. Like other foreign students in Georgia have warned him, the fourth-year student would urge his peers to be wary of the inevitable discrimination they would face.
Problems at the Border
Right upon arrival, students become aware of their new reality in this country. The fourth-year medical student recalls, “It’s a common sight for dark-skinned tourists and students with all the proper documentations being denied entry and sent back on the next flight with zero explanations. But if you have an EU passport or any passport from the western world, you’re cool. They’ll send you right through.”
He explained how an Indian and a Nigerian student were both sent back from Georgia for no apparent reason. The fifth-year medical student also recalled immigration officials pulling him aside and questioning him when he first came to Georgia.
When the COVID-19 pandemic became a global threat, many countries were shocked by how pervasive it was and limited travel to try to contain the spread and protect their citizens. However, in Georgia, the Indian students faced the brunt of these travel restrictions.
Anzor Khatiashvili, a lawyer for the Tolerance and Democracy Institute, a local civil society outfit, says that the government imposed particularly stringent measures because they were “especially fearful of the virus that was in India.” The students coming from India had to go into mandatory quarantine at their own expense at certain hotels, even if they were vaccinated and had a negative PCR test.
While Khatiashvili argues that the intention of the policy was not to racially target the Indian students, its effect was still discriminatory. Indian students had to come to Georgia via charter flights which were not organized by the government. This put the students in danger of having their student status suspended and wasting their tuition fees because universities were requiring them to physically come to Georgia to sign documents to continue their studies, though there were no charter flights available at the time. Khatiashvili stated that the “approach of the universities and the government were contradictory to each other, ultimately causing chaos.” After seeing the statements made by the TDI and the media attention they got, the universities eventually changed tack. However, Khatiashvili assumes that there are still pending problems, even though the TDI has not been contacted about South Asian students for a while.
One of the third-year medical students detailed his personal experience navigating these restrictions. He described the process as exploitative. Careful not to include the university that he attended out of concern for any backlash he might receive, he described how the universities were struggling financially due to the pandemic and had partnerships with the hotels in which students were quarantined. “We were definitely overcharged, and it was extremely overwhelming,” he states. Both he and Khatiashvili agreed that there was a significant delay in solving these problems.
Housing discrimination, social alienation
Khatiashvili says getting housing for South Asian students here is difficult. The fourth-year medical student agrees — on some rental sites, they openly tell Indian and African students not to call. The students shared that sometimes, their older peers would leave negative impressions on the homeowners, making them less inclined to house other South Asian students. While they understand these concerns, they are still negatively impacted.
The students are already separated from the rest of the class based on the language of their instruction. When the South Asian students interact with Georgian students, they report passive discrimination. The fourth-year medical student recalls that most people he interacts with in school have a stereotypical view of Indians being poor and coming from starved and unhygienic areas, and such perspectives slip out directly or indirectly. That is a common barrier, but once he overcomes it, the rest of his interactions are fine.
The third-year medical students note that while many of their friends are other Indian students in their batch, they have mixed interactions with Georgian students. They can be welcoming, not willing to interact with them, or just indifferent.
Does the bad outweigh the good?
The students do not intend to stay in Georgia after their graduation. They were originally planning to stay temporarily, but the xenophobia they experience encourages them to settle elsewhere. Khatiashvili thinks the perception of foreigners overall is getting worse.
The students also say the current strains in international affairs impact their quality of living. Though some believe that they are not being fully supported by the universities, or that they are being mistreated in society, they internalize this as part of their medical school journey. They are not sure if their situation will get better, but in the meantime, they urge prospective international students to learn Georgian, as they cite the language barrier as one of the worst obstacles and claim that it is highly necessary to live well in the country. They also urge local Georgians to try to understand them more, as they are making the effort of learning the language and culture.