Some Minnesotans stranded abroad in pandemic find their way home

Several Minnesotans who found themselves unexpectedly stuck abroad amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic last week are now safely home, while others are finding it difficult to book flights back to the United States.

Reports have surfaced in recent days of Minnesotans stranded abroad in Peru, Morocco, Latvia, Ecuador and other countries. Some were on vacation, others were studying abroad or working.

Burnsville native Ashley Vetter, 26, was still nine months from completing her two-year stint in the Philippines when she got word that the Peace Corps was evacuating all of its volunteers around the world.

In an open letter on March 15, the organization’s director wrote: “As COVID-19 continues to spread and international travel becomes more and more challenging by the day, we are acting now to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where volunteers are unable to leave their host countries.”

Vetter had about 24 hours to pack, say her goodbyes and try to find ways to ensure the village could carry on the work of building the water wells she had helped start.

“I was devastated,” she said. “It was exhausting. I cried a lot. You work so hard to build these friendships and then you just have to leave.”

When in Manila, Vetter’s asthma flared up, creating concerns that she might be ill. On Wednesday, when it was clear she had no other symptoms, she boarded a plane through Los Angeles to Minneapolis. Many people she spoke with in the Philippines worried that she would be at higher risk by traveling through international airports than staying put.

The Peace Corps advised all evacuated volunteers to quarantine for 14 days after returning to the United States. For Vetter, that has meant staying in a hotel in Apple Valley keep from exposing her father, who is high-risk. Monday marked her fifth day in quarantine. The Peace Corps is offering reimbursement to those quarantining in hotels, she said.

Vetter is also eager to see her family after so much time away from home — she briefly saw her mom at the airport, but only from a distance.

“I feel like I was suddenly thrown back to reality, but it’s a far different reality than I even expected,” she said. “There’s just so much uncertainty.”

Facebook groups for returned volunteers are flooded with requests for places to stay or job leads for those returning abruptly.

“This is all unprecedented,” Vetter said. “[The Peace Corps] is doing the best they can to get everyone home, but once we’re here, everything is so uncertain.”

Laurel Hunt, 24, was just two weeks away from leaving for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru when she got the news that her program was postponed. She’d already quit her engineering job in Minneapolis and ended her lease. She plans to stay with a friend for awhile before moving in with her parents in Madison, Wisconsin, and starting a job search.

“I’ve wanted to do the Peace Corps since I was in middle school,” she said. “I’m just kind of in limbo now. I hope I still get to do it.”

Others have returned from travels abroad after days of uncertainty.

Donn Driver arrived home in Edina Sunday after catching a charter flight from Lima, Peru, to Miami on Saturday. Driver was part of tour of Peru and the Amazon that was supposed to return Monday. But the tour was canceled abruptly, leaving the group quarantined in the Peruvian capital trying to find a way home.

Jayson Wold, his wife and 12-year-old daughter were on the same series of flights as Driver’s group that originated in Peru and ended at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The St. Louis Park family, which was on vacation in Peru, will quarantine at home for 14 days, Wold said in an e-mail.

Corrine Schmaedeke, 21, of Roseville, was studying abroad in Morocco when the country’s airspace was essentially shut down amid the pandemic, according to her mother, Jennifer Schmaedeke. Her daughter was able to get on a commercial flight from Morocco to London, then on to New York and Minneapolis. She arrived Friday and is quarantined for two weeks in an Airbnb rental because members of her family are considered high risk.

Many other Minnesotans still find themselves stranded abroad.

University of Minnesota graduate Jonathan Du and his friend Dan West, of Roseville, remain in Cusco, Peru, with no firm plans for departure. Du has been working with the U.S. State Department to help coordinate the exodus of Americans looking to leave, in some cases on flights arranged by private individuals.

“We just really want to get home,” Du said.

janet.moore@startribune.com

 

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