uga students in peru

A group of students from the University of Georgia, Augusta University, University of South Alabama and Lenoir-Rhyne University are still in Cusco, Peru, as the Peruvian government closed its borders on March 16. 

UPDATE: The students and faculty from the clinic in Cusco, Peru landed in Atlanta on March 26.

On March 15, University of Georgia students Aya Mansour and Juliann Marmal were hiking Rainbow Mountain in Peru when a Canadian tourist asked them how they were planning on getting back.

The question caught Mansour off-guard.

The tourist told Mansour and Marmal that American Airlines’ last flight out of the country was that night. After reconnecting to the internet later that evening, Mansour and Marmal were met with messages alerting them of flight cancellations due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

As the COVID-19 outbreak escalated across the world, countries closed their borders and limited international travel to contain the spread. Mansour and Marmal interned at CerviCusco, a women’s clinic in Cusco, Peru, before the COVID-19 outbreak closures hit.

Their group at the clinic booked a flight for March 18, but it was too late. The Peruvian government declared a 15-day state of emergency with a mandatory quarantine and border closures beginning midnight March 16. The next morning, the group at the clinic went to the U.S. Consular Agency in Cusco only to find it closed. On March 22, Peru’s government closed all borders and airports until further notice, according to the U.S. Embassy in Peru’s website.

Along with 15 other students from Augusta University, Lenoir-Rhyne University and the University of South Alabama, Mansour and Marmal have been under quarantine since March 16.

Peru has 416 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of press time, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. repatriated approximately 700 U.S. citizens on flights from Peru as of March 24.

On Monday night, the U.S. Embassy in Lima emailed the students’ group saying a charter flight would arrive Tuesday to bring them to Miami. However, an email Tuesday morning said the initiative was delayed because they did not have landing rights from the Peruvian government.

While Mansour said her group is ready to leave once the moment arrives, emotions are running high amid the inconsistent announcements.

“At this point, we stopped hoping because it’s a letdown,” Mansour said. “We still feel very much defeated and frustrated with how everything’s being handled.”

‘A waiting game’

Mansour and Marmal, the two only UGA students at the clinic, worked with women’s health education.

Mansour said she noticed the streets were devoid of cars and passersby on the first day of the border closure. When a female police officer approached their gate, Mansour said her group immediately became anxious.

The police officer, as it happened, was there to check on her pap smear results.

Mansour said educating women about pap smears and cervical cancer at the clinic has been a reciprocated learning experience.

When Mansour and Marmal first arrived in January, the COVID-19 outbreak was largely concentrated in China. However, Mansour’s father urged her to come home in early February as the global outbreak began escalating.

After finding no other way out, the students at the clinic are raising awareness by contacting friends and family in the U.S., posting on social media and reaching out to news outlets.

Mansour said they have reached out to politicians across the state of Georgia, from Gov. Brian Kemp to U.S. senators and representatives. U.S. citizens in Peru caught the attention of President Donald Trump and the U.S. Embassy, but not all have been returned to the U.S.

“It’s a waiting game at this point,” Marmal said.

As a public health major, Marmal said she understands the importance of the restrictions and respects the Peruvian government’s decisions. However, Marmal said she was frustrated by the short notice of the border closure from the Peruvian government.

While UGA cannot evacuate U.S. citizens from Peru, UGA President Jere Morehead and the presidents of the three other schools involved with the health clinic program asked the congressional delegations of their respective states to urge U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to bring these students home.

“The university is coordinating with our fellow academic institutions, as well as the U.S. State Department and additional federal officials, to bring the affected students home from Peru quickly and safely,” UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said in an email.

Finding closure

More than a week into quarantine, there are signs of progress for leaving Peru which, at times, turn into false hope.

As she watches other countries, such as Israel and Mexico, successfully evacuate their citizens from Peru, Marmal said, “We’re just waiting for our turn.”

In addition to the closed borders in Peru, Mansour and Marmal are seniors and received news of UGA’s commencement cancellation last week. Marmal said she felt conflicting emotions at the cancellation. While she respected the university for prioritizing safety, Marmal said she was devastated.

“I was hoping to come home and end my undergrad story with commencement,” Marmal said. “Now I’m left to find my own closure.”

For now, the students and faculty are staying in and making the most of the situation. With the closure of government services, they are concerned about running out of Peruvian currency. Mansour said they have been rationing their food as the fresh produce supply has decreased.

They only leave their house for groceries. Toilet paper, Mansour said, is well-stocked in the Peruvian grocery stores.

“We’re very fine on toilet paper here. In the grocery stores, the shelves are full,” Mansour said. “We’re not worried about our TP.”

When they’re not raising awareness through social media and news outlets or reaching out to politicians for a way out, they have been eating pancakes, watching The Emperor’s New Groove and playing the card game Mafia.

“It’s a very interesting paradox because we’re doing these normal things that you do on a normal, day-to-day basis,” Marmal said. “But we’re not living a normal life at the moment.”