American study abroad students stranded in Morocco find alternative means to evacuate
March 25, 2020 1:04 PM
(NEW YORK) -- Claudia Danford sat on the couch in the living room with her host mother in Rabat, Morocco last week, watching an announcement on TV that the country was effectively shutting down due to novel coronavirus concerns.
Danford, an American student from the University of Vermont in Burlington, was less than two weeks into what was supposed to be over a month of education and cultural immersion in Moroccan life.
"We went from thinking we might stay there for the whole semester to leaving as soon as possible," she told ABC News.
Following the announcement on Sunday, March 15, Danford said the next four days were a blur of finding any option for her and at least 27 classmates to get home -- all of whom were enrolled in a study abroad program focused on climate change through the School of International Training.
Her group was only a small fraction of the more than 1,000 Americans who found themselves suddenly stranded in the popular tourist destination. But she and others quickly realized they would have to rely on their universities and their connections instead of the U.S. government to get them out, an advantage that hundreds of other Americans did not have.
"I remember sitting in the hotel lobby at 2 a.m. with probably 8-10 other students, everybody kind of frantically on the phone with their airlines or checking online to see what seats were still available," Valerie Chia, a graduate student who was also in Morocco, told ABC News. Her study abroad program was through the business school at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).
Amid the growing threat of COVID-19, the Moroccan government suspended all international passenger flights and passenger ships to and from the country beginning Sunday evening -- canceling every contingency plan Chia had made for the upcoming week.
That's when she turned to the U.S. Embassy in Morocco, hoping to get more information on the possibility of repatriation flights for American citizens. She said she didn't hear back for almost four days.
"What was challenging was just not knowing or having a timeline," Chia said of the lack of response from the embassy. "Are they working on it? Are they going to have an update? They're not picking up the phone or not responding to emails, is this all in vain?"
While empathetic to the high volume of questions the embassy was receiving, she said she wished there had been more communication to alleviate the uncertainty many Americans were feeling.
"A lot of the frustrations could have been saved if they even had an automated email of like, 'Hey, we're going to send an update once a day, just to give you a recap on where things stand,'" she said.
Danford decided early on that she wasn't going to rely on the government to help her return to Boston.
"It seemed like getting back via the State Department was kind of a shot in the dark," she said. "A really, really long shot in the dark."
In the end, neither Danford nor Chia ended up waiting for the government's response.
Jaime Molyneux, the director of international risk management at UPenn, chartered a private plane for eight students -- including Chia -- from Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport to London Luton Airport on March 19.
From there, the students took ground transportation to London Heathrow Airport and booked commercial flights to their final destinations. According to Molyneux, the university was able to cover costs of the private flight with an emergency fund.
Chia and two other UPenn students filled three of the available seats -- and the rest went to students from Brown University and Princeton University, she said.
"One thing when it comes to international emergencies -- something that's really important that some universities just don't have -- is access to emergency cash," Molyneux told ABC News.
Asked about how much it cost to charter the plane, Molyneux declined to give an exact number, but said it was "significant" and shared with the two other universities.
She said she wondered how her partners at state schools have managed the "crisis" in getting their study abroad students home, especially for those without access to the same financial resources.
"We are very privileged to have lots of systems backing us up that other travelers who are traveling alone wouldn't have," Bailey Kroop, a junior at Brown University and one of the passengers on the private plane, told ABC News.
Kroop said the trip would not have been possible without the support of Brown, SIT and her travel insurance company, International SOS.
"What ended up getting us out were connections and money and institutions," she said. "I really feel like institutions were so much more powerful than the U.S. government."
Danford echoed those sentiments, telling ABC News that she and 23 of her peers secured seats on a Ryanair flight, which had been chartered for European citizens, also on March 19. They found out about the flight through a travel agent that a student's parents knew.
The flight went from Marrakech to London Stansted Airport, then the students took a bus to Heathrow and booked commercial flights back to the cities closest to their respective homes.
Danford said the entire trip cost her around $1,100, which was covered by SIT.
Kate Casa, the communications director for SIT, said the program covered up to $1,000 in change fees for every student -- and anything beyond that was assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Because of the increased risks of exposure to coronavirus from the extra stop at Stansted, Nicholas Stahelin, the director for SIT's climate change program, said the Ryanair flight was not SIT-endorsed. However, he said their staff still offered support to the students who chose this option.
"We had to take them from Casablanca to Marrakech very early in the morning," Stahelin said. "We provided support at the airport. We let them know that we will reimburse them for their flights and other travel expenses."
Putting aside the risks associated with the Ryanair flight, Stahelin commended the group for taking initiative.
"I admire how some students decided to take matters into their own hands and be very resourceful, self-organize and get themselves out," he said.
Before they had a definitive way home, both Danford and Chia contacted their respective senators and representatives, asking their family and friends to do the same.
Danford said she leveraged her university connection when contacting Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. In a statement to ABC News, David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy, said the office has advocated not only for Vermonters stranded in Morocco, but also for those in other countries, including Peru and Ecuador.
"Thanks to his many years as Vice Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the State Department and the relationships he’s developed over many years, they’ve been particularly responsive to his inquiries and concerns," Carle said in the statement.
Chia said she felt her group's attempts to reach their lawmakers helped "drum up momentum," even though she ultimately found an alternative way back.
"I do think the combined efforts of having coverage across multiple offices and showing that this is a situation affecting citizens of all different states probably accelerated the response on the ground," she said.
After initially encouraging Americans to get on flights chartered by the United Kingdom and France that were repatriating European citizens earlier in the week, the State Department began chartering its own flights, which started departing March 20.
A single ticket had a sticker price of $1,485, which covered a flight from Marrakech to London and a connecting flight from London to the individual's choice of 10 cities in the U.S.
Around 1,200 Americans have evacuated Morocco on these flights, according to a senior State Department official.
Danford touched down in Boston on March 20, calling the experience "surreal." She said she was prepared to be stuck in Morocco for weeks, just as many other Americans still are.
"It just seemed like this near impossible, miracle travel," she said. "It was just insane that it actually happened."
NOTE: The State Department is urging all Americans stranded overseas to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at step.state.gov so that they receive the latest information, including on possible repatriation flights, from the local U.S. embassy. Americans can also call the department and its new repatriation task force at 888-407-4747 within the U.S. or 202-501-4444 outside the U.S.
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