Kristin Monesmith is stranded in Peru with no way to get back to North Carolina, where the ER nurse is desperately needed at her local hospital.
Arizona resident Gabrielle Almeter and her parents are marooned in Marrakesh after the Moroccan government said it would close its borders and cancel international flights.
Chris Pierce is stuck in the Philippines with his wife and 9-year-old son after that government shut its borders and went into lockdown.
They are among hundreds of Americans suddenly in limbo amid a global freeze on international travel and mass quarantines as the U.S. and other countries respond to the coronavirus pandemic with unprecedented restrictions.
Besieged by pleas for help, the State Department and its embassies around the world have offered little to no assistance, these stranded travelers say. More than 400 Americans are stuck in Peru alone, according to Monesmith and others who have been tracking the problem.
Chris Pierce and his wife, Nila, have contacted American embassies in both Manila and Cebu in the Philippines via email and phone – 70 times in all. They haven’t received a single response.
“I’m a realistic person. I do realize they are probably overwhelmed,” Chris Pierce said. “But at the same time, all U.S. citizens should be a priority. … I can’t help but feel we are abandoned.”
In an interview Wednesday with Fox News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the State Department is “working to try and solve problems for each of those American citizens,” and he urged patience.
“We just learned about them over the last couple of days,” Pompeo said, referring to a group of American students in Peru, among other cases. “It’ll take us some amount of time.”
‘Unable to return’
But some lawmakers are growing frustrated with the lack of clarity or a coordinated response.
“I have heard from an alarming number of Virginians in the past few days who are abroad and unable to return to the United States due to restrictions on movement, closed borders, nationwide lockdowns, and canceled flights,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., wrote in a letter to Pompeo on Wednesday.
In an interview, Warner said his office has received more than 20 pleas for help in recent days from constituents stranded in Peru, Honduras, Morocco, China, Guatemala and other countries.
“I’m not sure that department is providing the kind of clarity, outreach and assistance that Americans need,” Warner said. “We really just need to reach out to our fellow Americans and make sure we get them back safe.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the State Department to begin chartering commercial airplanes to bring stranded Americans home. He said the Trump administration should use an existing civil airfleet program for such evacuations.
“No American citizen should be abandoned overseas as we confront this unprecedented pandemic simply because of a failure of government to provide them the support that they need,” Menendez said Thursday. “If there ever was a need to increase our nation’s aircraft capability during a national crisis, this is it.”
The New Jersey Democrat said the Pentagon should also explore the use of military aircraft to repatriate Americans.
A State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the agency could not provide an estimate of how many Americans are trying to get back to the U.S. from overseas amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are considering all options to assist U.S. citizens in these countries and are continuously assessing travel conditions in all areas affected by COVID-19,” the official said. “We will continue to update our travel advisories and safety information for U.S. travelers as situations evolve.”
Other countries bring citizens home
Meanwhile, other countries were busy arranging emergency flights to bring their citizens home.
Israel has brought 380 students home from Moldova and planned to send a plane to Peru on Thursday to bring back a group of young Israelis stranded there after Peru’s president, Martín Vizcarra, announced Sunday that he would close his country’s borders, according to The Jerusalem Post.
“The young people will be brought to Israel free of charge,” Foreign Ministry Israel Katz said.
French authorities were arranging emergency flights from Morocco to bring back dozens of French nationals, according to Reuters. And Germany’s Foreign Minister announced an “airlift” for thousands of German citizens stranded abroad.
For Americans in similar situations? Shuttered embassies, recorded phone messages and automated emails.
As soon as Candace Kaiser and her friends learned of Peru’s lockdown, they scrambled to find flights home to South Carolina.
“Airlines booked up incredibly fast and websites were crashing,” she said. “Then came the price gouging.” For a one-way ticket back to the U.S., she said, prices ran as high as $6,000.
“I’m 28 years old. I can’t afford something like that,” said Kaiser, who works in marketing and communications. They’ve called the embassy, but no one has answered. They tried emailing and received one automated response.
“Due to COVID-19 concerns, the US. consular section in Peru is reduced to emergency services only,” the message reads, in part. “While the U.S. government has successfully evacuated many of our citizens in recent weeks, special flights do not reflect our standard practice and should not be relied upon as an option for U.S. citizens abroad who may be impacted by the ongoing spread of COVID-19.”
When Monesmith, the North Carolina ER nurse, learned of Peru’s lockdown, “the last flight from Cusco to Lima had already left,” she said.
So she went to the U.S. Embassy.
“The doors were locked, with a sign on the door just referring people to their website, which said nothing,” Monesmith said. “The embassy has been no help at all. The State Department has said that they do not send flights to bring Americans home, that is not their practice so we should not expect it.”
She noted that Peru’s government has deployed its military to enforce the lockdown and has suspended some constitutional rights.
“Life in Cusco is a little scary. Police are all over the streets,” she said. “We now have a curfew” from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
“There are 420 of us here in Cusco. We just want to go home,” Monesmith said. “I’m far more needed at home in the ER helping patients.”
Possible good news
Chris Pierce said his family received some potentially good news on Thursday; Philippine’s tourism authorities may try to arrange flights out of the country for foreign nationals.
“Glad to hear the Philippine government is doing their part on helping us get home,” he told USA TODAY, as his wife tried to reach the local tourism office about the possible exit plans.
If they can’t get out, Pierce said, he’s worried about the consequences of being stuck for as long as a month: Their jobs, their bills.
After speaking with their employers, Chris and Nila have been assured they will have jobs to return to, he said. But they aren’t being paid while they are away.
“We will be in debt and then some,” Pierce said.
President Donald Trump has continued to refer to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” causing many to double down on their calls to avoid stigma.
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