Group of 43 Canadians stuck in Guatemala remain hopeful for repatriation flight

By | March 22, 2020

A group of 43 Canadian university students and staff members remain in limbo in a gated community in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, waiting to learn when they can come home. 

The group of 36 students from Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg are from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

The group has been in the country since early January for a cross-cultural experiential learning program and were slated to return home in April. However, the pandemic has changed those plans, and they now want to leave and be with their families as quickly as possible.

But they can’t. The Guatemalan government has closed its borders for at least two weeks in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s a little bit just anxiety not knowing when anything’s going to happen. I think if we knew a little bit more, I’d be a little bit calmer,” Bethany Regier, 18, told CBC Sunday.

The first-year university student, who is from the southern Alberta community of Medicine Hat, said her peers’ spirits seem to be high but she wants to return home to be with her family.

“Sometimes it’s a little bit of confusion about what is going on just because it changes so much and there’s like new news every hour. But all in all, we’re doing pretty good here.”

The group has been in the country since early January for a cross-cultural experiential learning program and were slated to return home in April. (Zoe Matties/Submitted)

The group has to abide by the country’s curfew and has been advised not to leave the compound they’re in.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a tweet Sunday the Canadian government is working with airlines to bring Canadians in Guatemala and six other countries home.

Mennonite University president Cheryl Pauls said the school tried to arrange a flight out for the students about a week and a half ago.

A flight out was arranged but quickly cancelled as Guatemala closed its borders seemingly overnight. Pauls said the group considered going into Mexico by bus but decided not to over concerns about safety and not having pre-booked flights in the country.

Pauls said it’s imperitive the students get home as quickly as possible. “The primary concern was that if there were to be a major COVID-19 outbreak in Guatemala, the local population would not look favourably on medical care and hospital beds being available to foreigners,” she said.
Also, the students are literally under house arrest as they cannot leave their premises because social distancing is considerably more stringent there than in Canada.

“The group cannot leave the premises of the house where they are staying. Beyond the sprinkler on the lawn they cannot go anywhere.”

She pointed out the students’ program is about developing cross-cultural resiliency.

“I feel that when these students come back they will be able to help others with the trauma of new situations because of what they’ve experienced through this,” she said by phone in Winnipeg.

Jamie Hall of Winnipeg is keeping a close eye on the news as he awaits the return of his 18-year-old son. 

“If I could drive down there and pick him up, I would. We want to have him home so badly.” However, he knows the group is in a better situation than many other Canadians who are stuck abroad, he said.

“They have shelters so we’re grateful for that, and they have each other, which we’re also grateful for.”

Help may be on the way soon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday that WestJet will run more than 30 flights abroad for Canadians stuck overseas, over the next three days starting Monday.

He also pointed out Air Transat intends to get thousands more home in coming days. Trudeau said Sunwing is offering free flights home when it has space on planes, as well.

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