Panic sets in for Canadians stranded in Guatemala by pandemic

The government of Canada offered the promise of evacuation today to two thousand Canadians stranded in Guatemala. But many of those Canadians say they're becoming more and more alarmed as time passes without word on when they'll be allowed to leave.

'It's like being in a prison' - humanitarian aid worker Hilda Rossi

A traveler plays her violin prior to getting on a charter flight coordinated by the U.S. embassy at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, Monday, March 23, 2020. Canadian citizens stranded in the country by the COVID-19 pandemic say they're growing more and more alarmed, and are waiting for the federal government to tell them what to do. (Moises Castillo/The Associated Press)

The government of Canada offered the promise of evacuation today to two thousand Canadians stranded in Guatemala. But many of those Canadians say they're becoming more and more alarmed as time passes without word on when they'll be allowed to leave.

The Central American nation imposed a sweeping border and airport closure on March 16, stopping all flights in and out. Hilda Rossi, a Guatemalan-born humanitarian aid worker who has lived in Canada for more than 50 years, was due to return to Canada on March 18 and now finds herself stranded.

"It's like being in a prison," she said, describing the strict lockdown in the country. She is staying with her 87-year-old sister in Colonia Primero de Julio, a suburb of Guatemala's capital. "I am really desperate to get home."

Meds run out

Oakville resident Rossi is president and founder of the aid organization Canadian Central American Relief Effort, which has worked for several years in Guatemala's impoverished Merendon mountains.

She said she is relieved that a group of 18 Canadian and American volunteers who came to work in the country this year have been able to get out. But Rossi, who is 73, has no idea when she will be leaving herself.

She takes thyroid medication, which has run out, and she has an 82-year-old husband waiting for her at home.

She said the Canadian Embassy gave her two suggestions. The first was that she take a bus to the Mexican border and then try to get a second bus to Mexico City. The second option was a much shorter bus trip (14 hours) to Belize, but went through a particularly dangerous corner of Central America.

Rossi said that, given her health, she did not feel able to do either.

'Largest repatriation effort ... in peacetime'

A total of 1,998 Canadians have registered with the embassy in Guatemala, and there are almost equally large contingents in Honduras and El Salvador.

Hilda Rossi, seen here in a family photo with her 82-year-old husband Riccardo Rossi, says she was due to return to Canada from Guatemala last week and now finds herself stranded. (Submitted by Melody Johnson)

Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that some will soon be coming home.

"We've also helped secure an Air Canada flight from Spain, as well as Air Transat flights, including two from Honduras, and one each from El Salvador and Guatemala. If you're a Canadian abroad, register with the government now so we can send you updates and contact you.

"You need to do this if you haven't done it already."

PM Trudeau says the government is trying to get Canadians home

2 years ago
Duration 0:50
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government is working with airlines to try and get Canadians who are stuck abroad home. 

Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told CBC News this morning that his department had fielded 10,000 calls and 14,000 emails in the previous 48 hours, adding that this was "probably the largest repatriation effort in Canada's history in peacetime."

"This scale and the complexity that we're facing has never been seen before," said Champagne. "This is a book yet to be written because no one has ever seen anything like that, where you have all these things at the same time, and you're trying to bring people back to Canada."

Stranded with a sick baby

Shy-Anne Hickey and her boyfriend of nine years Yan Durand left Montreal on February 24 for a month-long backpacking trip in Guatemala. They brought with them their 8-month-old baby daughter Aly-Rose.

"Little did we know our trip would spin into a nightmare three days before our departure back home to Canada," she told CBC News, saying the couple "were in a state of panic" after the country's government decreed the closure of the border and also banned all public transportation.

"We contacted Delta airlines, who at that time cancelled our flight home. They couldn't help, except tell us that in 21 business days we will get an email with a partial refund.

"We contacted our travel insurance, who referred us to the Canadian Embassy. They couldn't help either. The SOS email they keep talking about on all the news channels responded with an automated email due to high volume."

Shy-Anne Hickey, seen here with her partner Yan Durand and their daughter Aly-Rose, says they "were in a state of panic" after Guatemala's government decreed the closure of the border and also banned all public transportation. (Submitted by Shy-Anne Hickey)

The couple was able to persuade the host of an Airbnb property where they had stayed to allow them to return. That meant a trip by Uber to the village of San Pedro la Laguna, in violation of the country's ban on transporting tourists.

Hickey said she was appalled to see a police roadblock at the entrance to the village.

"Looking down at my daughter, who was sound asleep in my arms, for the first time in my life I was scared of what could happen."

On village lockdown

Their Uber driver was able to talk his way through the blockade, and now the couple are in a village where there is a 4 pm to 4 am curfew, with 30-day jail terms for those who violate it. The ban on intercity travel remains in place, making it unclear how the three Canadians would even reach the airport in Guatemala City.

"We are terrified that one of us will get sick, even with all the precautions and isolation. Medical services are very limited in this part of the country. Our daughter was hospitalized various times due to lung issues, so we are terrified. We just want to get back to Canada."

Hickey said that the baby girl is now sick.

Her sister Lacey Hickey, who is also her neighbour in Bois-Des-Fillion, Quebec, said the family is desperate. They tried to book seats on a flight last week at a cost of $6,000, but were told it was full.

"We've asked her if money could help, but she says no, money is not the problem," said Lacey.

A man wearing a face mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus walks near a bus station in Guatemala City, Thursday, March 19, 2020. As part of emergency measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Guatemalan government has restricted public transportation. (Moises Castillo/The Associated Press)

Shy-Anne Hickey said she is now full of regrets and doubts.

"I'm sitting here in my bed, tears rolling down my cheek, looking at my eight-month daughter, who doesn't have a clue.

"How did I not know to protect you more? How did I not know to go home earlier? How did the president of Guatemala not let us leave and bring you to safety ...

"Since March 16th, I feel like a prisoner of my own decisions. It is rare to find food. Markets are closed. Groceries stores are empty … We are living off rice, eggs, pasta and bread."

More people than seats

Although Guatemala has approved one evacuation flight, neither Air Transat nor any other airline in the world has a plane that could accommodate even half of the Canadians looking to return.

Passengers waits for a charter flight coordinated by the U.S. embassy at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, Monday, March 23, 2020. (Moises Castillo/The Associated Press)

Air Transat's largest Airbus A330s can only handle 363 passengers.

If those are used for the three Central American evacuations, the flights already authorized by the three local governments could bring out only 1,452 of the 5,264 Canadians who are present in the three countries and who have registered with the Canadian Embassy.

The Central American governments would have to approve about a dozen more flights to be able to bring out all Canadians who have registered with the embassy.

Canada negotiating 'case by case' with countries for flights home

2 years ago
Duration 3:39
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne says there are unprecedented consular challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and he's negotiating one-to-one with jurisdictions where there are no inbound or outbound flights to bring Canadians home.

Today, Champagne acknowledged that it will be difficult to get everyone out.

"It's almost like a chess game. Every time that something is closed we need to find a way to bring our people [home] and that's what we're doing on a 24-hour, seven days basis," he said.

About one million Canadians have made it back to the country since borders began to close around the world — approximately half of them from the United States.

"But we have to admit that there will be Canadians who won't be able to come back home and we'll do our utmost to support them wherever they might be," said Champagne.

Both the Rossi and the Hickey families say they remain unclear about the basic facts of the repatriation flights — when they are, how they will know if they have seats, and how they are supposed to get to an airport that is officially closed in the middle of a transportation freeze.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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