Time running out for more than 800 Canadians stuck in Peru with deadline to fly home hours away

There is a new urgency for 800 Canadians in Peru desperately trying to make their way home amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic — the country’s minister of defence has announced that as of Sunday, Peru will no longer support any repatriation efforts by foreign governments.

All borders and airports were shut down on March 16, but the Peruvian government continued to co-ordinate with foreign governments like Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico to get their citizens home.

But now the Peruvian government says it must do more to contain the spread of the coronavirus — so foreigners have just a few hours to get out of the country.

The  announcement is what Toronto resident Maria Andreeva — stranded in Lima, Peru — was dreading.

The 39-year-old was on a 10-day retreat in the jungle near Tarapoto in the northern part of the country.

But on March 16, the day she was supposed to head home to Toronto — and back to her two boys, ages four and six — the government announced it was shutting the border down effective at midnight.

Andreeva arrived at the airport to find chaos.

“That evening was stressful and scary,” she said. “A lot of people like me looked really shocked and scared and lost.”

The country’s military lockdown closed borders and stationed police on street corners in major towns and cities. President Martin Vizcarra also declared a state of emergency, calling for 15 days of mandatory quarantine. The only exceptions are to obtain food or medicine.

The stranded Canadians have started a Facebook group to share information, tips and encouraging stories of other overseas Canadians who are finding their way home.

Greg Bestavros, 29, was one of the first to join, along with his fianceé Marina Fanous. They left Toronto for Lima on March 12 for a friend’s wedding.

“At the time, the Canadian government wasn’t indicating we shouldn’t go to Peru,” Bestavros told CBC News. “But things quickly took a turn for the worse.” 

Greg Bestavros and his fiancee Marina Fanous are now not allowed to leave the hostel they are staying in Cusco. (Submitted by Greg Bestavros)

He and Fanous travelled to Cusco, an hour’s flight southeast of Lima, on March 15 when they learned the country was closing its borders.

“Being polite and patient while our government has dragged their feet has put us in a very scary and very real situation,” said Bestavros. “We are prisoners here and have no chance to get home unless our government intervenes immediately.”

Adding to his frustration, says Bestavros, people from Mexico they met on their trip saw their government swing into action and get them home. He says two fellow travellers boarded a bus organized by the Mexican government, which drove them for nine hours to an airport in Arequipa, where a plane was waiting to get them home.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday he was working on bringing home a group of Toronto-area high school students in Lima. 

“There have been conflicting stories about that,” said Niti Patel, a 25-year-old health-care worker from Calgary who was trekking through Machu Picchu when her hike was stopped short. She, too, is now stuck in Cusco, near the ancient city, with no way to get to the capital — and, presumably, any flights out — because of the lockdown. 

Niti Patel’s trek through Machu Picchu was cut short when the government declared a state of emergency and locked down the country. (Submitted by Niti Patel)

Tensions are high, she told CBC News. The military is present at every intersection, restricting movement in the town of about half a million people.

Ford’s announcement only added to the frustration and confusion. 

“I’ve been hearing that Lima airport is completely shut down and they’re not letting anyone through,” she said.

“I really don’t know what to believe, which is really frustrating.” 

When CBC News asked Ford’s office for an update on the repatriation of the students, a spokesperson referred our questions to Global Affairs.

Melissa Cortijo and her husband Raul, from Burlington, Ont., were on a trip in South America that started in Chile in February, making their way through Argentina and finally Peru. 

Melissa Cortijo rebooked her flight to get home early, but it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Melissa Cortijo)

They arrived on March 13 and heard from family that the COVID-19 crisis was intensifying around and the government was urging Canadians to come home. They rebooked their Air Canada flights to come back several days early, but that flight was cancelled.

“We need our government to take us home,” said Cortijo.

“They say there are going to be other planes being sent elsewhere, but they weren’t specific as to where,” said Cortijo, referring to what she has seen on the news. She and her husband are relying on the generosity of parents of her friends back in Canada who are hosting them.

“That uncertainty is really causing a lot of angst and stress.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said a flight has been arranged to bring home Canadians stranded in Morocco, and said his government is working with the airlines to bring more Canadians home.

Bestavros and other Canadians in Peru received a notification on Thursday, asking them to fill out a form — detailing things like passport information and whether they are residents or Canadian citizens.

The notice said that the information collected “would be used to organize a possible return,” from Peru.

“We need support … immediate action, before we become prisoners in Peru for an undetermined amount of time,” said Bestavros.

CBC News asked Global Affairs what the plan was for the hundreds of Canadians stranded in Peru. A spokesperson said it would provide a response, but none was received by publication deadline.

Meanwhile, Andreeva says waiting for answers “is excruciating.”

“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t do anything,” she says. “My mind is there, in Canada.”

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