Colombian students caught by quarantine in Canada were repatriated to Colombia

Oscar Vigil

Toronto. It was the closest thing to a thriller film where moments of tension and fear abounded, where the tears and the frustrations rolled, but in which boundless solidarity and abundant mutual aid also emerged. It was the event experienced by Colombian students and visitors who were stranded in Canada and who finally managed to board a plane this Tuesday that took them to Colombia. In the end, they even had the luxury of witnessing a hand request, with masks and gloves of rigor put on, in full flight back home.

About 300 Colombian, of an approximate of 600 who have been trapped in various cities in Canada due to the quarantine decreed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they arrived in Bogotá, Colombia, Tuesday morning, thanks to a charter flight that the Canadian government had previously chartered to bring home just over 200 Canadians who for the same reason were also stranded, but in Colombia.

Air Canada flight AC2018, un Boing 787-9 Dreamliner, departed at 6:49 a.m. from Toronto Pearson Airport with 298 Colombians on board, that is to say with the total number of seats available throughout the plane occupied, and to the 10:54 a.m., local time, landed at El Dorado Airport, in Bogota.

Gone are still about 300 Colombians more, who are waiting for the Colombian government to establish a second and eventually even a third humanitarian flight in order for these citizens, mostly international students and visitors, can return to their homes in Colombia.

The trip of this first group of Colombians was an odyssey, a flight against time and adversity in the midst of a pandemic that has actually caught many governments and institutions of the world off guard, and that to prevent its spread, it has closed borders and canceled flights.

Until last Tuesday 21 of April, the Colombian government had not yet scheduled a humanitarian flight to repatriate its stranded citizens in Canada. But nevertheless, by that time a very well-organized number of those affected had created a WhatsApp group and was making arrangements with the Colombian government for their repatriation.

In their efforts, began making public requests for help in Colombia, through the most important social networks and media, At the same time, they also sought the support of Latino organizations in Canada to support them in achieving their goals.. A) Yes, the Canadian Council for Hispanic Heritage (HCHC), based in Toronto, knowing that the Canadian government had scheduled a repatriation flight for its stranded citizens in Colombia for Tuesday 28 of April, made arrangements with the Canadian government and obtained a concrete and positive response from the Ambassador in Colombia, Marcel Lebleu.

The Ambassador said that “The Canadian government does not impose movement restrictions on Colombian citizens who wish to leave Canada.. But nevertheless, the Colombian government has banned international flights to Colombia (Decree 436, signed by President Duque el 23 of March), except humanitarian flights that must arrive empty to Bogotá ”.

And then he opened the door to help solve the problem of Colombian citizens trapped in Canada:

"If the Colombian government changes its policy to accept the return of Colombians on a humanitarian flight sponsored by the Canadian government, simply inform us. I am sure that said request will receive a positive response ”, he explained.

Since that day, events began to take a somewhat slow but effective turn, and on Friday 24 April officials of the Colombian Embassy in Ottawa and the Consulates in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver began to refine the census they had of their compatriots trapped in this country.

The priority for an eventual humanitarian trip, explained without specifying a specific date, would be minors, short-course English learners and seniors. Then, the flight would fill up with the rest of those affected.

One day later, Saturday 25 of April, the selected travelers began to receive codes with which they could buy the tickets on the official Air Canada website, being clear that the flight would leave on Tuesday 28 April from Toronto and that those who lived in other cities in the country had to travel on their own to that city. The codes arrived little by little between Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and not all received them.

It was also clear from the beginning that upon arrival in Bogotá they should keep forty during 14 days in said city, and that each one should cover the costs of their stay during the quarantine.

The cost of the air ticket was CAD $ 839 more taxation, and who resided in Vancouver, Calgary and other cities in the west and center of the country had to additionally buy the ticket to get to Toronto. Montreal and Ottawa travelers arrived by train, and mostly, all non-Toronto residents arrived directly at Pearson Airport on Monday afternoon or night and stayed overnight waiting for Air Canada check-in to open at 4:00 Tuesday morning.

Tired and with stress on the surface, but with the peace of mind that they had almost set foot on the plane, most settled in waiting chairs or on the floor to count hours or, in the best case, sleep a little.

Others took the opportunity to fill out documents that, for asking them at the last minute, they couldn't fill and print, but that other members of the group, unknown until that day, they printed them for them and took them to the airport. Others also wore gloves, masks and hand sanitizers extra for those who had not been able to buy them, since it was mandatory to have them to board the flight.

At dawn on Tuesday the boarding was easy and without complications, the plane took off at 6:49 in the morning, 19 minutes later than scheduled, and the flight was calmer than expected until, as they flew over the Atlantic, one of the travelers stood in front of all the passengers and, with the consent of the cabin staff, took the plane's microphone and proposed to his girlfriend. After brief seconds of silence in surprise, and amid the applause and the cheers of all the adventure companions, The girl said yes!

Everyone happy. Back to silence and good behavior, just interrupted by a bagel, a bag of peanuts, Water, cookies and chocolates, the only menu on board, Courtesy. And later, That forced tranquility was interrupted until those who went by the windows literally saw the land that saw them born., the captain announced the arrival and the landing gear hit let them know that they were definitely back home.

Already in your promised land, after a slow and exhaustive immigration check in which their passports were held until the process was completed, and after several talks and endless indications related to preventive measures in the face of the pandemic, several hours after arriving, they left the building where they started to pick them up, slow, very slowly, buses guarded by police elements that would take them to places where they must maintain the quarantine of 14 days, and which had to declare before arriving in the country.

Many were taken to their homes in and around Bogotá, but many more were driven to hotels, to friends' houses or rented apartments. They are the ones who live in the interior of the country and, once the quarantine is over, they must request a special permit to be able to travel to their places of residence.. That is to say, probably a new adventure.

Meanwhile, in Canada, Those who were not selected to board the plane this Tuesday do not lose hope that the Colombian government schedules a second flight.. And to make sure of it, have already formed a new WhatsApp group, because if something became clear to them after these weeks of tension it is that only united can they achieve their goal sooner.