Several Seattleites and University of Washington students are among many U.S. citizens in Peru who are scrambling to return to the U.S. after Peru closed its borders.
Over the last week, the Peruvian government has declared a national emergency, suspended international flights, closed its borders, and instituted a mandatory 15-day quarantine to guard against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Peru announced the closure of all borders, effective March 16. Now, Peru has announced that Saturday will be the last day the country will allow official flights to repatriate visitors from abroad before the country closes all borders on Sunday.
Upon first hearing the news last Sunday, Daniel Voznyarskiy, a UW student who was on vacation in Cusco, says travelers flocked to the Cusco airport trying to book flights out before the borders closed. The airport was overrun, many flights were canceled, tickets sold out and the tickets that remained were priced at nearly five times their usual cost.
Unable to get a flight home, Voznyarskiy is hunkered down in a hostel in Cusco along with about 160 other travelers from other countries. Many have tried contacting the U.S. embassy in Lima, but say they have received little helpful information.
“They were unwilling to cooperate and gave standard responses with information we already knew, being the ‘state of emergency’ guidelines,” said Voznyarskiy.
Reports from other U.S. travelers corroborate Voznyarskiy’s claims.
On March 19 and 20, the U.S. embassy’s website posted links where U.S. travelers could sign-up to “express interest” in chartered flights back to the U.S. via Chilean airline Latam and Colombian airline Avianca.
Diana Kawczynski, another UW student in Peru for a study abroad program, said she filled out the sign-up sheets as soon as she heard they were posted, but she has not heard back about the flights.
After Saturday’s announcement about the border’s permanent closure, Kawczynski says she saw Canadian travelers boarding buses to Lima to be flown back to Canada, but U.S. travelers have heard nothing from the embassy.
According to the U.S. Embassy’s website, it flew out several Peace Corps Volunteers, U.S. Embassy personnel and their families on Friday, along with a group of medically vulnerable U.S. citizens in Peru.
It is unclear if the embassy has been evacuated. Emails and phone calls placed Saturday morning to the U.S. Embassy in Peru and the State Department were not immediately returned. The Seattle Times got an auto-reply email from the embassy that reiterated general information similar with what’s on the embassy’s website. As of Saturday afternoon, the U.S. Embassy in Peru website had no updates about Peru’s decision to close its borders even to repatriation flights.
“They actually abandoned all Americans there who are desperate to get out,” Janet Rose Kawczynski, Diana’s mother, wrote in an email Saturday morning. “What has become of this country? I am pleading that the U.S. government orders the defense department to send in planes to get the Americans, including my daughter TODAY.”
The U.S. State Department’s website states that it can only help evacuate U.S. citizens under certain conditions — such as, if commercial transport is unavailable, if there are officers at the embassy and “if the conditions permit.”
Several UW students stranded in Peru also emailed UW seeking help, and they say the school initially replied only with “general recommendations,” including resources for mental health care and medical assistance, and directed them to contact the U.S. embassy.
“When I told them [the embassy] was not available and they were closed, they just said ‘I’m sorry’ and to prepare food and water for weeks and wished [me] ‘best of luck,’ ” Diana Kawczynski said.
The university has since “stepped up” said Janet Rose Kawczynski, adding that Vice Provost of Global Affairs Jeff Riedinger gave her his cellphone number and told her to call anytime.
“He is doing everything above and beyond to get Diana home from Peru,” Janet Rose Kawczynski said. “I recognize that they, themselves, do not have the power to bring a plane into Peru to get her home, but they have tremendous influence and they are using it.”
“We understand this is an incredibly difficult and uncertain situation and we are deeply concerned about members of the UW community who are stuck overseas due to various travel restrictions,” UW spokesperson Victor Balta wrote in an email to The Seattle Times on Saturday afternoon.
Balta said there are fewer than 10 people affiliated with UW who are in Peru studying abroad, conducting research or on personal travel, and that the school has been in touch with all of them “to offer support and resources.”
“We have communicated to the travelers about guidance from the Department of State about commercial flight options and our Federal Relations team has been working with our members of Congress to advocate for other resources, such as charter flights, in an effort to get everyone home safely,” Balta wrote.
Voznyarskiy says he is coping with the uncertainty of the situation by using WhatsApp to keep in touch with a group of more than 100 Americans who are also stranded in Peru. He’s also talking to friends and family back home and trying to spread awareness about their plight.
“I’m not feeling very hopeful,” said Diana Kawczynski. “The increasing restrictive measures being taken by the Peruvian government and the lack of action from the United States has made me feel scared and abandoned.”