WASHINGTON — At least 21,000 Americans are still overseas, trying to return to the United States from vacations, mission trips and work assignments in the midst of a pandemic that has brought international air travel to a near standstill.
“It’s like nothing we’ve ever done before. This is a historic scale,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday on a call with a half dozen regional news outlets. “We still have a big group in front of us, and we continue to get new people identified every day.”
At last count, the State Department had helped to repatriate about 37,000 Americans from more than 69 countries in the last few weeks. Some reached out directly. Some got some help.
“We’ve talked to dozens and dozens of governors and hundreds of members of Congress who have called about particular situations, particular constituents,” Pompeo said.
One such constituent is Constance Jawaid, the principal of Cedar Crest Elementary School in Dallas.
She returned from Cameroon late Wednesday after being stuck for two weeks in West Africa.
“I was thinking about swimming the Atlantic to get home,” she said.
Jawaid had just presented a dissertation proposal to the dean of the School of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Buea on March 17 when she got the good news, and the bad: Her academic proposal was approved — but Cameroon’s borders, ports and airports were closed.
“Things happened so fast, I could not believe it,” she said.
She had packed only one extra day of medicine for her diabetes and lupus.
The next days were consumed with a scramble to find a way back to Dallas, while also coordinating her elementary school’s transition to remote learning.
Eventually, Sen. John Cornyn’s staff secured her a spot on a military flight, which landed at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., late Wednesday. It was one of more than 400 flights the State Department has arranged around the globe.
“It was the roughest ride ever, but I would have done anything to get home to my husband and my children,” Jawaid said.
She caught a flight to Dallas early Thursday after a night in an airport terminal so empty it looked, she said, like the “rapture.”
The evacuations have not always gone smoothly.
Patricia Maldonado, 57, returned to her Carrollton, Texas, home on March 26 after being stranded in Honduras for nearly two weeks. She and her children had flown to Honduras for her father’s funeral. The children returned before the borders closed March 13. Her scheduled flight four days later on American Airlines was canceled.
Her son, Jeffrey Maldonado, 34, said the family, on their own, secured a seat for her on a special repatriation flight arranged by American Airlines. He expressed frustration at the lack of guidance from the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa.
The experience was defined by “miscommunication,” he said. “When Honduras shut down the borders, we completely understood … but we expected some sort of plan of action by the embassy or the airlines.”
Cornyn is hardly the only Texas lawmaker whose office has worked to connect constituents with the State Department.
Wylie residents Teniqua and David Williams got stuck briefly in Haiti with their four children and David’s brother. The mayor of Wylie reached out to Democratic Rep. Colin Allred for help.
The family had flown to Port-au-Prince on March 17 and “everything was fine,” Williams said. But Haiti shut down airports three days later. Their flight home on March 23 was canceled.
They spent days of uncertainty reaching out to the State Department and Allred’s office.
On March 24, the family went to the airport hoping to grab seats on an American Airlines flight they’d learned about. They got on a wait list and, after hours of anxiety, received boarding passes. Williams credits Allred’s office.
“We were all in a panic,” he said. “It was a shock.”
As the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul has no trouble getting State Department officials on the phone.
They’ve been “super responsive,” said a McCaul aide who has spent the last two weeks helping a couple of hundred constituents get home, including a group on a mission trip in Honduras. His latest challenge: an Austin-area resident stuck in Moscow.
An Austin-area family of four had been on vacation in a remote coastal town in Peru, planning to return to Lima by small plane to connect for the long flight to the United States. But Peru halted both air and ground travel. The drive to the capital takes 17 hours. So they holed up in a hotel until the embassy arranged permission for them to travel.
They boarded a bus Thursday for the overnight ride and were scheduled to fly to the U.S. on Friday.
Peru has posed particular challenges, Pompeo said.
Some Americans were in towns at 12,000 feet where, even without pandemic-related restrictions, few aircraft could fly.
“You had people that were backpacking in mountains, you had people in very difficult places,” he said. There, as in other countries, he said, “pilots are no longer flying because of the virus. So the levels of complexity are enormous.”
The State Department has a website and social media accounts for Americans abroad, or their families, to use to ask for help. Pompeo urged Americans trying to return to contact the local embassy quickly if they haven’t already.
“The conditions in many of these countries are not getting better,” he said. “It will become increasingly difficult for us to execute this mission.”
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