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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Eagle
AU Abroad - Summer

“Operation: Get me back as soon as possible”

Abroad, alt-break students describe their experiences of returning to the U.S.

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on theeaglecoronavirusproject.com, a separate website created by Eagle staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Articles from that website have been migrated to The Eagle’s main site and backdated with the dates they were originally published in order to allow readers to access them more easily. 

Stranded in Bethlehem, Palestine while setting up AU’s Israel-Palestine alternative break, School of Public Affairs senior Yazan Hanouneh watched as military personnel stalked the streets to enforce the quarantine over the March 7 weekend. Hanouneh had a matter of days to make it out of the West Bank; otherwise, he’d be stuck there indefinitely. It was the most stressful three days of his life.

“Long story short, it becomes ‘Operation: Get me back as soon as possible,’” Hanouneh said. 

As the coronavirus pandemic worsened across Europe, forcing some countries to close their borders and institute emergency isolation policies, the University was forced to cancel all study abroad programs and recall students back to the U.S. The announcement came as a shock to some students and a welcome, long-awaited response to others. 

Still, it upended months of carefully planned programs and experiences, and the resulting rush to return to the U.S. was complicated by inscrutable screening policies, a misleading speech by President Trump and unexpected border closures. 

Hanouneh wasn’t the only AU student with upended plans and a mandate to get home immediately. More than 300 students were called back by the University when the decision was made to cancel all study abroad programs as the coronavirus situation grew more precarious. The week before that, AU decided to cancel most alt-breaks as part of its move to restrict faculty and student travel outside the U.S. 

That was the decision that led to Hanouneh’s desperate attempts to find a way home. 

Hanouneh, a Palestinian citizen, left for the trip a few days before the rest of the group to get a permit to enter Israel. He was called home less than a week later when the government cracked down on travel. 

AU’s Abroad and Global Risk Management offices were his lifeline when the U.S. State Department proved to be “no help whatsoever,” he said. 

At every step of the way, he worked with University staff in the U.S. via phone, WhatsApp and email. Their assistance included letters of recommendation to various governments, coordinating with contacts on the ground in an attempt to get him out, checking on his mental well-being and researching flights for when he finally crossed the border. 

Finally, that Monday morning, things sprang into motion for Hanouneh. 

Three complicated border checkpoints and a quickly purchased plane ticket later, he was headed home. Hanouneh made it into Jordan just in time. The border between the two countries closed eight hours later. 

“If I hadn't left in that exact moment I would be stuck there right now, indefinitely,” Hanouneh said. 

Sara Dumont, the executive director of AU Abroad, said teams worked around the clock on similar cases. When determining whether to bring people home from programs abroad, the University considers what the implications will be, Dumont said. 

“The decision [to pull people back] is made as much on the basis of, ‘How difficult is it going to become for people to get back home?’” Dumont said. “It’s not just people’s physical health we have to protect — we have to protect their academic and financial health. We want to be able to ensure that students’ academic semester can be salvaged.”

Hanouneh’s travel experience wasn’t unique. Other students on trips abroad had to do the impossible to make it back home. 

Sasha Fernandez, a junior in the School of Communication, was studying abroad in London and interning in Parliament when she knew things were about to come to an end. Although at the time both AU and her study abroad institution had “no intention” of sending the students in her program home, she and her friends knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when. 

Even when one of AU’s flagship abroad programs in Madrid was canceled, she got an email saying hers wouldn’t be. Finally, after days of mounting anxiety, she awoke to a series of text messages from friends. The first simply read, “I’m so sorry.” 

“The second I saw that, I knew,” Fernandez said. The University had canceled the program while she was asleep, and Fernandez immediately bought a plane ticket home. 

“I was kind of relieved, because it was nice to know that they had finally made a decision,” Fernandez said. “I had felt for so long like I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know how long I was going to be there.” 

Landing at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, things got even more complicated. When Fernandez explained to a border patrol officer that she’d gone to Paris five weeks earlier, she said she was immediately ushered to the side for an “advanced screening.” 

As Fernandez waited, more and more travelers were pulled aside, until most of the people on the airplane — approximately 100, she said — were standing together. They were told they needed to wait for the CDC to arrive, but even the officers in charge didn’t know how long it would take. 

“It was really frightening,” Fernandez said. 

The mass of people felt claustrophobic, especially when she worried about infection. No one had any water or much food, and they had to beg the agents just to get a drink. When she asked why the situation was being handled this way, one responded, “Stop being hysterical.” She told him not to be misogynistic, and he walked away, refusing to give them any more information. 

Finally, more than an hour later, the CDC arrived. They passed around forms to fill out, but there weren’t enough pencils, slowing the process even more. Finally, an agent took Fernandez’s temperature, then read the results. 

“Oh no,” the woman said, her voice serious. Then she laughed. “Just kidding.” 

The experience was traumatizing, Fernandez said. For now, she is self-isolating at her home in New York City, trying to sort out online classes, her internship and whether she’ll receive any refunds. 

Owen McCoy, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, said the weeks leading up to the announcement that his study abroad program in Brussels, Belgium was canceled were similar to Fernandez’s. 

McCoy knew President Trump was planning on making an address on March 11, so he decided to stay up out of curiosity. The time difference meant he had to wait until 2 a.m. A few minutes into the speech, one of his friends called, simply saying, “Call your mother.” 

McCoy said he didn’t end up sleeping that night, and received the same email Fernandez had from the AU Abroad office just before 3 am. To McCoy, it was simple: “Just get home.” 

He booked a flight home for two days later, then went to a meeting with the entire abroad program at the main campus. After that, he went back to his host family, packed his room and cried for a moment. 

Unlike Fernandez, however, he was barely screened upon landing. While going through security in Canada, where his parents met him, an automated border checkout asked him if he’d been to China, Italy or South Korea. He tapped “No,” and that was it, no other questions asked.

McCoy plans to self-isolate for another week in upstate New York while remote classes and his internship are figured out.

Dumont said that AU was working to refund what it could from pre-planned excursions that were canceled with the end of the trip, but payments made to non-AU entities are unfortunately irretrievable. 

“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Dumont said. “Everyone is working around the clock, but it’s really distressing for all of us to bring everyone home as borders are shutting. We do want students to know that we are working individually on every case, making sure everyone’s okay. We’re making sure … everyone’s made as whole as possible.” 

dpapscun@theeagleonline.com


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