WASHINGTON -- After an 18-hour Peruvian bus trip, three flights and a lot of help from the U.S. government, a group of study abroad students are back in Arkansas.
Participants in the Harding University Latin America program returned home Monday after being in limbo for much of the past two weeks.
"It was a really good feeling as soon as we hit U.S. soil, but bittersweet," said Layne Pace, a Harding University sophomore from White County. "This was like the ultimate goal, to get back."
Nineteen students returned to the country with help from the State Department, according to U.S. Sen. John Boozman's office.
With a pandemic raging, bringing Arkansans home is sometimes a challenge, the Republican from Rogers said in an interview.
"We have people stuck all over the world," Boozman said. "It's been difficult because some of these countries have just shut down, period."
"The good news is that our State Department is doing a very, very good job in being responsive to us and responsive to our citizens," Boozman said.
Many of those trying to get home have been students, but missionaries, tourists and aid workers have also been affected, he said.
The Harding students had arrived in Arequipa, Peru, on Feb. 19 for what was supposed to be a three-month adventure.
At the time, federal officials were doing little to discourage travel.
In early March, however, as the number of covid-19 cases began skyrocketing, foreign countries began implementing barriers to international travel.
On March 12, Harding revealed that it would be closing the Arequipa campus and bringing its students home.
The following day, the Peruvian government announced that it was suspending all flights to and from Europe and Asia after March 16; a ban on other flights soon followed.
Harding managed to obtain one of the last flights home for its students ahead of the ban. But weather-related delays prevented them from making it to Lima in time.
The airport in Arequipa is at an elevation of about 8,400 feet. Because of fog, the plane was grounded, according to Harding University International Programs Executive Director Audra Pleasant.
With commercial flights grounded and most bus service suspended, the students were stranded in the shadow of the Andes, along with roughly 100 other Americans in the area.
School officials and relatives reached out to the State Department and to members of the Arkansas congressional delegation for help.
"With the support of the US Embassy, we made the decision to keep the group in Arequipa where we could best care for the group until transportation back to the US could be arranged," Pleasant said in an email.
There are worse places than Arequipa to bide time, Pace noted.
"It's surrounded by mountains. The weather is perfect. It's always sunny and 75 [degrees]. It's gorgeous. It's just an ideal place to be. So being quarantined there wasn't so bad," she said.
Boozman reached out to the Peruvian ambassador to the United States after problems arose.
"[He was] so, so very helpful," the senator said.
Delegation members also appealed to the State Department for help.
Julie Chung, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, personally traveled to Peru to assist with repatriation efforts for Americans stranded there, the State Department announced.
Federal officials eventually chartered buses to carry Americans from Arequipa to Lima.
The 630-mile journey, which began Saturday, took roughly 18 hours.
"The roads were bumpy and curvy and had pot holes," Pace said. "Along the way, we were stopped by the police, I would say, 10-15 times."
Because of quarantines and curfews, travel in the country had been severely limited.
After reaching the Peruvian capital Sunday, they were ushered onto a chartered "repatriation flight" that carried them back to the U.S.
When they landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., Pleasant was there to greet them and make sure they made their flight connections.
"All students have now arrived to their home airports across the US and are following CDC guidance to self-quarantine for 14 days in addition to any relevant state-specific guidance in their home state," Pleasant said in an email Monday evening as she headed home.
Pace praised program officials for their handling of the crisis.
"We've been in good hands the whole time, but not knowing when we're going to be home has been kind of crazy," she said.
The young men and women weathered the challenge admirably, according to Pleasant.
"These students have continued to be resilient and positive, even in difficult circumstances. While under quarantine in Peru, they continued to meet for class every day and even completed midterms ahead of schedule," she wrote. "I am thankful for the patience and understanding of each of these students and their families throughout the many unforeseen changes to their semester abroad."
At a special State Department briefing Monday, Ian Brownlee, the principal deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs, announced that the 120 Americans had safely made it home from Arequipa.
Thus far, he said, roughly 2,800 U.S. citizens "have been brought home" from Peru. Other evacuations are imminent, he added.
However, the window for returning is narrowing, he warned.
"We are seeing more U.S. citizens decide to stay abroad and ride out this crisis where they are. If people decide not to take advantage of these flights now, they will also need to hunker down where they are," Brownlee said.
Pleasant praised the U.S. Embassy and members of the state's congressional delegation for working to get the students home.
Kathy Watson, Boozman's constituent service director, said the Harding students weren't the only ones scrambling to get home.
"A week ago, we were working cases in Liberia, Peru, Canada, Honduras, Argentina, Pakistan, Guatemala. ... We've had some cruise ships, too," she said.
So far, she has worked on 21 separate cases, she said, but the number was likely to increase.
Metro on 03/31/2020