Photo courtesy of Nic Nerli

Morocco suspends all travel, trapping 13 Lewis & Clark students

The Lewis & Clark Overseas and Off-Campus Programs office formally canceled the Morocco study abroad program on Friday, March 13 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Six of the participants were able to fly home, but 13 students and the program leader, Assistant Professor in Political Science Leah Gilbert, might be trapped in the country indefinitely now that Morocco’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that all international flights are suspended, effective at 11:59 p.m. on March 15.  

Countries have been implementing travel restrictions so rapidly that the remaining 13 students have five flights booked at a time and cancelled them as restrictions were implemented.

“From the program being cancelled to the borders being shut down, I am in a state of disbelief,” Kayla Barrera ’21 said. “I’m scared to check my email because of the risk of something else going wrong.”

Airlines are not removing flights to countries with travel bans from their websites, so Gilbert and the students have had to do the research themselves.

“I would say the biggest logistical challenge that we face is we’ve had to understand that each individual country has its own individual travel bans,” Nic Nerli ’21, former managing editor of The Pioneer Log, said. “So we have this massive list on a whiteboard, like, okay, here are the countries that Morocco has blocked, here are the countries that Canada has blocked, what the U.S. has blocked, what the UK has blocked, what Qatar has blocked. Finding the perfect flight to get out of here without being detained has been insane.”

Everyone in the group currently has flights booked for next week, however, unless the king of Morocco lifts the travel ban, those flights will be cancelled. 

The group is in Agadir, a town on the coast of Morocco. They are staying in a hotel until March 18. Given the current restrictions, they will likely need to find long-term lodging. 

“We’re starting to look at booking long-term homes and apartments for us to stay in just because there’s now an outbreak (of COVID-19) in Agadir, and so we’re trying to isolate and quarantine ourselves as much as possible,” Nerli said. “A hotel, just with how many tourists there are, isn’t an ideal.”

Today, the Director of Overseas & Off-Campus Programs Blythe Knott and Dean of the College Bruce Suttmeier sent an email to the students in Morocco and their families assuring them that they will be supported so long as they stay with the group. 

“We are reaching out to the U.S. Embassy in Morocco and to our other study abroad colleagues with students there,” Suttmeier and Knott said via email. “We are researching all options to help our students leave Morocco. In the meantime, our faculty leader and program provider are organizing housing and meals for the students for as long as they remain on-site.”

At first, students had to buy their flights home and airlines have not been refunding cancellations due to an unprecedented amount of refund requests.

“I’ve spent $4,000 on flights, and I don’t have any money left,” Nerli said. “So, right now, it seems like most of the travel is on Lewis & Clark’s dime now.”

According to multiple sources, the flights to Qatar next week that will most likely be cancelled were purchased using an LC credit card.

For now, the participants are waiting to hear what the next travel regulation will be and are working with the Overseas Office to find them a way home. They have contacted their government officials and U.S. media outlets in hope that an outcry will trigger repatriation (which is when a government extracts their citizens from a country). 

While awaiting a solution to get home, Nerli said they are experiencing street harassment.

“People taunt us and scream ‘Corona Corona’ at us,” Nerli said. “You can’t walk outside without someone screaming something at you. No matter whether you’re a guy or girl, white, we have some people that are presenting as Asian on the trip, it doesn’t matter — everyone’s experiencing it.”

Many participants said that it is likely that if the program had been cancelled a couple days earlier, all of the participants would have been able to avoid the travel bans and make it home on time. 

“I’m just frustrated that if they had cancelled our trip even one or two days earlier we would have had a better shot of getting out,” Lauren Pichard ’22 said.

“Frankly, if we would have had even a day sooner to figure out flights, we would all be out of the country by now,” Nerli said.

The Overseas and Off-Campus Programs office and Suttmeier have not yet responded to request for comment. Reporting on the status of LC overseas programs is ongoing.

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