Montreal

Laval mother desperate to bring home teens stuck in Nigeria since start of COVID-19 pandemic

Amara Onyebuchi's three children were getting to know their roots by spending time with family and friends in eastern Nigeria when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in mid-March.

'It's like hell': hefty prices and cancelled flights are keeping a family apart

For the past two months, Amara Onyebuchi and her husband have tried to get their three children home from Nigeria. But the options are expensive and tricky. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

For the past two months, all Amara Onyebuchi has been able think to about is how to get her children home from Nigeria.

"It's very, very stressful," said the Laval, Que., woman. "I go to my bed crying. I wake up crying. I miss my babies. It's really killing me."

Her three children, Canadian citizens aged 12, 13 and 15, were getting to know their roots by spending time with family and friends in eastern Nigeria when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in mid-March.

By the time Onyebuchi and her husband tried to arrange an early flight home for them, the airport in Lagos was closed to international commercial flights.

Every attempt to get them on a plane back to Canada has been hit-and-miss since then.

In early April, Onyebuchi found out the Canadian government was organizing a flight out of Nigeria with the help of Ethiopian Airlines, but it cost $5,000 per passenger.

The government made available six-month interest-free emergency loans to pay the fares, but Onyebuchi and her husband still couldn't swing it.

"I don't know how many Canadians would be able to take on $15,000 extra on their current debt, but it would be extremely difficult for us," she said.

Other options fell through

By mid-April, with the airports still closed, Onyebuchi grew increasingly worried.

She heard about a flight from Lagos to London organized by the British government that might include space for foreign nationals. This flight was much cheaper — about $850 dollars each — but the children could not fly unaccompanied.

"I was so desperate that we went as far as asking the consulate in Nigeria to ask anybody who was coming to see if they would be willing to accompany them," said Onyebuchi.

Amara Onyebuchi is pictured here with her daughter Kamsy, 15, son Chineme, 13, and daughter Chimdy, 12. The children were visiting family in Nigeria when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. (Submitted by Amara Onyebuchi)

She and her husband then worked the phones, calling every Nigerian they knew, finally finding someone from Montreal who agreed to fly back with them. But last weekend, they found out the children were no longer eligible for that flight.

Next, the Canadian High Commission in Nigeria let them know about a flight organized by a private Nigerian airline. But by the time Onyebuchi went to pay, it was fully booked. They were later told it was cancelled and no longer leaving from Nigeria.

Out of options, Onyebuchi contacted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria this week. The embassy encouraged her to register with them but told her there's no guarantee a flight will happen.

"I want to be with my kids, you know? It's like hell," she said.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nigeria is now just over 5,100, but Onyebuchi doesn't know what kind of testing capacity the country has. She's also nervous about her children getting sick.

"It's very worrisome for me because my 15-year-old is asthmatic. And I keep wondering what would happen if she caught the virus," said Onyebuchi. "I'd feel much safer if they were here."

"If anything happened, I could trust the health-care system here."

Remaining repatriations tricky

The federal government has committed to do its best to get Canadians home, but in the case of Nigeria, the problem is one of volume.

There aren't enough Canadians left there to send a whole plane, said Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs.

There are very few carriers flying in Africa, so the Canadian government has to work with other countries or airlines when they can, or piggyback on a United Nations flight if a group of workers is being transferred out, he said.

There may be a sliver of hope.

Recently, the Nigerian government approached Canada about organizing a two-way flight: Nigerians stuck in Canada who want to go home would be put on a flight, and that same plane fly Canadian citizens back to Canada.

"This would be a win-win. However, finding a carrier that is flightworthy and has all the clearances and approvals is quite challenging," said Oliphant.

To date, the government has brought home about 32,000 stranded Canadians. Oliphant believes the repatriation process is about 80 to 85 per cent complete.

Small pockets of people are still waiting to be repatriated in many countries across the globe.

"There may be a dozen here or 50 there or 75 there, and we're having to work with other countries to get repatriation flights that amalgamate different countries, get them to a central location, and then we get them home from there," said Oliphant.

Oliphant understands Onyebuchi's frustration, but said some Canadians may need to shelter in place.

Dashed hopes?

Early Friday, Onyebuchi got news about another flight with Ethiopian Airlines flying to Toronto on Monday. It is not organized by the Canadian government, and the fare is $2,500 US each.

Amara Onyebuchi said her children keep asking her when they can come home. She recently sought help from the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, to see if she could get them on an American flight out of the country. (Submitted by Amara Onyebuchi)

That's too expensive for the man who was supposed to accompany the children.

Onyebuchi said she emailed Canada's deputy high commissioner in Nigeria to find out if the children can travel alone but was told she has to speak to the airline directly.

She tried all day to get through and book seats, but no one is answering.

She'll keep trying through the weekend.

The last time she spoke with her children, she could tell they were in low spirits. They keep asking when this will be over and when they can come home.

"It's very stressful," said Onyebuchi.

With files from Marie-Hélène Hétu

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