On Feb. 29, over a dozen students from several universities arrived in Cusco, Peru, for an experience of a lifetime.
For several weeks, students from Augusta University, University of Georgia, Lenoir-Rhyne University and the University of Alabama embarked on a program to complete their clinical rotations for their health programs.
For the first week, the students went to rural areas where they conducted breast exams, cervical cancer screenings and other medical examinations at local clinics and hospitals in Cusco.
But by the second week, a number of clinics began to cancel their site visits as a precaution due to the worsening coronavirus outbreak. A few days later, the students met with other foreigners in Peru, who informed them that the government planned to halt all of its inbound and outbound flights.
Panic quickly settled in.
Those 15 Georgia students are among hundreds of Americans stuck in Peru after the government closed its borders, canceled flights and implemented martial law in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
Last week, President Donald Trump said he was aware of the situation and that the U.S military was working on a solution to bring back the more than 1,400 Americans stranded in the country. But according to Peru’s defense minister, the deadline for the U.S. to coordinate the exit of its foreign nationals has passed. Argentina, Chile, Israel, and Mexico all arranged exits for their citizens to leave Peru. The U.K. government announced last week that rescue flights to bring back hundreds of British tourists stranded in Peru will begin this week.
“We did not at all expect Peru to close its borders to let anybody out,” said 26-year-old Erica West, an Augusta University student stranded in Cusco, a southwestern city over 600 miles away from the capital. “They didn’t give any indication or warning.”
HuffPost spoke to the Georgia-based students on a call who described how hard it was to find a way out of Peru. On March 15, the students stayed up all night trying to book flights out of Peru earlier than their original March 26 date in order to meet Peru’s 24-hour window to leave the country, but everything was already booked. The group also tried to find flights to other nations, including Canada, in order to get closer to American borders, but the flights were either sold out or unaffordable.
Their attempts to reach the American consulate, by phone and online, were unsuccessful. They tried going in person, but they discovered the building was closed. On the front door was a notice with a nonworking phone number. They asked local cab drivers to take them to an airport, where they decided they would camp out until they found an available flight ― but the driver refused, noting it was closed.
Defeated, the students went back to their residence hall.
“Things change so rapidly here. One minute we felt really comfortable and safe and the next minute, it’s just filled with a lot of uncertainty,” Nurin Ghazzawi, a 26-year-old in her second year of physician assistant studies, told HuffPost.
She said that the situation was becoming more dire with each passing day. The students just spent their last Peruvian Sol, the local currency.
During Ghazzawi’s last trip back from the grocery store, she said she was forced to go through a checkpoint where a military officer told her she needed special paperwork to be outside and was only allowed to shop from one specific grocery store.
The students said they were grateful to be residing together and are in touch with their families. Their universities have also been in touch and are working with local advocacy organizations back in Georgia to find ways to get them home. But there is only so much they can do.
“They’re just limited with what they can do because, ultimately, this is on the federal government to help coordinate for us to be able to leave,” said Ghazzawi.
Last week, the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent two letters ― one to Secretary Mike Pompeo and one to the consulate in Cusco, noting that the “American government’s response has up to now lagged behind that of other countries” and urged officials to act immediately.
“We just want to like make sure people are aware that there are like over 1,000 plus U.S. citizens here, some of who are children, some who have medical issues that need to get home to get their medicine, some who need to return to their children,” said Erin Hill, another student at Augusta University, who noted that they are not the only ones.
But like the rest of those Americans, all the students can do is wait.
- Read our live blog for the latest updates from HuffPost reporters around the world
- The world is facing a crucial test this week in flattening the curve
- 8 things people diagnosed with coronavirus want you to know
- How to grocery shop for a quarantine
- Doctors answer the most common coronavirus questions
- Health care workers are struggling with a shortage of protective gear
- 27 comfort shows to watch while self-isolating
- The HuffPost guide to working from home
- 10 ways to practice solidarity while social distancing
- What coronavirus questions are on your mind right now? We want to help you find answers.