FARGO — From Pakistan to Albania, Ireland and Gambia, Fargoans have been trying to come home, but are facing flight cancellations, exorbitant airfare prices and panic, all because of the coronavirus.
Since President Donald Trump’s ban on flights from Europe, Americans are having a difficult time returning home. In a press conference Wednesday, March 18, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said there was an option for American citizens to fly to Canada and then into the United States, but that window was quickly closing.
“We know there are some North Dakotans overseas that are unable to get home, and we’re trying to work on that,” Burgum said.
Disruption is an opportunity for creation, he added, coming close to tears when he said this is a time that North Dakota and families can become stronger.
“I mean, come on, North Dakota. This is the time to do it,” Burgum said.
Callie Nelson, of Moorhead, flew to Dublin on Aer Lingus in early March. Her 15-year-old daughter, Ella, lost her father to a drunken driver last year.
“We thought that she needed a pick-me-up to help her with the grief process, and it was her first trip on a plane and first time out of the country,” Nelson said.
The vacation went well at first, until the European travel ban. Coronavirus was still a far away disease in a far away country, but even castles they visited had hand sanitizer available. By the time they were preparing to return home, “everything went nuts,” Nelson said.
People in Ireland started testing positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Their flight home was canceled. And then a second flight was also canceled.
After being forced to return their tickets for a fraction of the original price, Aer Lingus wanted to charge them about $6,000 for one new ticket.
“It’s been a living nightmare, and this trip was all for my daughter so that she could have a happy moment after she lost her dad last June,” Nelson said.
Nelson and her daughter waited in long lines in a "live-action reenactment of Ellis Island" to finally board a flight home.
“Bodies on top of bodies. No such thing as social distancing,” Nelson said. “If we don’t have it, we might ... (after) being in such close quarters with the other travelers.”
After nearly 24 hours of lines and flying, they are back home and under quarantine. On Thursday, Nelson developed a “wicked cough, sore throat and body aches,” and contacted Sanford for an e-visit. Hospital staff then tested her for COVID-19, and she is awaiting results.
“They shove that swab so far up your nose that you think for a brief moment the Egyptians are mummifying you,” Nelson said.
Fauzia Haider returned home to Pakistan to participate in family outings and to be involved in the Women’s March while there. Because she’s with immediate family, she’s not worried about surviving on a tourist’s budget.
She was scheduled to fly home to Fargo with her son, who is dealing with health issues, on March 31, but she canceled the trip because of coronavirus-based uncertainty, she said.
“With all the uncertainty and chaos at the airports and people being quarantined and flights being canceled, I decided to play it safe because of my son and stay back in Peshawar,” Haider said.
All schools, weddings and large gatherings have been shut down in Pakistan, she said. People are buying more goods, but not panic shopping.
“People haven’t panicked yet. The only shortage here is of hand sanitizers, face masks and disposable gloves. Masks are short because Pakistan sent a lot of masks to China to help the fight with the coronavirus epidemic there. Now, China is helping out Pakistan,” Haider said.
The Pakistani government is already converting buildings into makeshift quarantine areas, she said. As of Wednesday, 15 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Pakistan, and most carried the virus home after visiting holy sites in Iran.
“There is a lot of misinformation out here, too, and one has to sift through the social media posts and news to figure out what is true and what is a rumor,” Haider said. “The government officials are quick to counter the rumors, but people have their own conspiracy theories, too.”
Drew Krull was part of a Peace Corps group evacuated from Albania due to the coronavirus, he said. Krull, 23, arrived safely in Moorhead Tuesday, but the forced removal was exhausting.
“The evacuation process was very quick and difficult for us mentally, physically and emotionally as we had to leave just about everything behind in a matter of days,” Krull said. “We were able to return home safe and not get stuck.”
In Albania, Krull taught English in a TEFL program, he said. He graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in elementary inclusive education.
“The virus didn’t seem too bad there, but the country was taking necessary cautions to limit the spread as it is so close to Italy,” he said. “I felt safer there as I was in a small mountain town. There was really no panic there and things were very relaxed. People were following the distancing almost instantly even though close relationships on a daily basis is a big part of Albanian culture. It’s really ridiculous with all the panic here, especially for supplies.”
Albania became his second home because of his host family, Krull said.
“They showed me hospitality, care and love for a complete stranger from thousands of miles away. And I saw that trend follow as I met more and more people in Albania.”
Another Fargoan currently abroad is Jacques Beau Harvieux, a political science major from North Dakota State University who has spent the last 10 months working as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Gambia. He was in the process of being evacuated when reached for comment, and because “everything is crazy here right now,” he could not discuss his adventures at length.
He said he was en route to Turkey, but was worried his flight from Istanbul to Chicago will be canceled.
"With the pace of the escalation and the closing of borders and airspace in other countries, besides the U.S., it's difficult," Harvieux said.