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Oregonians stranded abroad try to find a way home as borders and airports close due to coronavirus

They are among thousands of Americans who have been stranded in countries across the globe as nations restrict international travel

PORTLAND, Ore. — Lewis and Clark College professor Stephen Tufte was preparing to lead a group of 11 students on a trip to the Amazon last week as part of the college’s study abroad program in Ecuador when the South American nation abruptly announced that it would stop allowing international flights to land in the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

They are among thousands of Americans who have been stranded in countries across the globe as nations restrict international travel and close borders to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Multiple Oregonians stranded abroad told The Oregonian/OregonLive that they had received little guidance from local embassies or the U.S. State Department, and remained concerned that they would be stuck for an extended period of time with commercial flights unavailable.

“We understand that the State Department is flooded with requests,” Tufte said. “But we think what needs to happen is the United States government needs to make a concerted effort and set aside special money for bringing home people that are trapped all around the world.”

Merkley and nine other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Wednesday asking that the State Department step up efforts to assist Americans in pandemic-affected countries and provide Congress with an immediate update on the situation.

“Providing support and assistance to Americans abroad and ensuring their safety and wellbeing are among the Department’s most fundamental responsibilities,” said the senators in the letter.

“We know of students that are in Peru, some other travelers that are there as well,” Pompeo said. “There are other countries, too, where those countries have shut down their airports. We are working to try and solve problems for each of those American citizens. We just learned about them over the last couple days; it’ll take us some amount of time. But know that President Trump has made clear that we’re going to do everything we can to get every American home safely.”

Some Americans stuck in Morocco, which has suspended flights in and out of the country, have been able to return home after the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Monday that it would allow emergency flights in to repatriate tourists.

“When they left for Morocco -- this is moving fast -- it didn’t seem like a dangerous thing to do,” said Gehring on Thursday morning. “But then last weekend the government of Morocco just shut the airport without any advance notice whatsoever. Information from the embassy was hard to come by. It took them days to hear from the embassy ... They all theoretically have tickets now, but the flights haven’t left and they’re multiple hours delayed.”

Other Portland residents remained stranded Thursday morning. Stephanie Goldberger, 29, and Tom Williamson, 53, and his son, Walter, 21, all remained in Lima, Peru, and had not heard any updates from the State Department about efforts to facilitate the return of Americans.

“I’d really like to get home,” said Williamson, who works as an environmental consultant and hires seasonal employees to conduct field surveys. “I own a small business and this is starting to have some repercussions for the folks that work with us. I just need to get home.”

Goldberger, who arrived in Peru on March 7 and had plans to visit Machu Picchu to celebrate her 30th birthday, has been quarantined inside a hostel in Lima since Monday. While she and other Americans have remained stranded for now, several other tourists at the hostel have managed to leave as other countries, including Britain, Israel and Germany, have taken steps to repatriate their citizens.

“We just haven’t received any clear response from the government,” she said. “It would be nice to get some clarity.”

Goldberger managed to book a commercial flight back to the U.S. scheduled to depart on April 1, but is worried that the flight will be canceled if the quarantine in Peru is extended. Williamson has also tried booking flights online, only to have them canceled. He and his son had originally booked flights with Delta and American Airlines, who were both partnering with LATAM Airlines, before their flights were canceled. They have faced two-hour wait times when they’ve tried to call the airlines.

In Ecuador, Tufte is trying to work with a study abroad group from Boston University to charter a private plane.

But chartering a flight or booking a last minute flight amid changing travel restrictions is not practical for everyone. Enriquez, one of the Lewis and Clark students stuck in Ecuador, said she didn’t have the financial means to pay for a more expensive flight home that would have left before Ecuador stopped allowing international flights to land in the country.

“With the pressure of only being able to have 24, 48 hours to buy a ticket last minute, a lot of Americans might not even have the funds right now to make it back to the States,” Enriquez said.

As they wait for the government to intervene or another option to come through, Enriquez and Stirrat are desperately trying to get the word out about the group’s situation and the stories of other Americans stranded abroad.

“Really, at this point, we’re not just trying to get ourselves out,” Stirrat said. “We’re trying to make enough noise that the U.S. government will feel pressured into following the examples of Israel, of the United Kingdom, of Germany, of all of these countries that are mandating repatriation efforts.”

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This article was originally published by The Oregonian/Oregon Live, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.

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