The 11 program participants and their program leader in Cuenca, prior to the closing of borders. Photo courtesy of Kasia Enriquez.

Two Lewis & Clark students and professor stranded in Ecuador after borders close

Ecuador closed its borders on Monday, March 16 at 11:59 p.m, trapping two Lewis & Clark students, Kasia Enriquez ’21 and Channing Stirrat ’21, and Associate Professor of Physics Stephen Tufte in the country. They had been on the LC overseas program in Cuenca, and are now awaiting a solution in Quito, the country’s capital. The other nine students on the program flew out just before the borders closed.

Many other Latin American countries (including Argentina, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru) have closed their borders to foreigners. In Ecuador, nobody, including citizens and residents, can enter the country until April 5.

Over the course of the last week, the 11 participants watched as the Europe and Morocco programs were canceled, and case numbers grew in Ecuador and throughout South America. After their trip to Yasuni National Park was canceled on March 14 due to the public closure of the park, the students decided that their program should be canceled.

“We were hearing rumblings of the closing of airports, and we were hearing about things happening in other countries in South America and Latin America as a whole,” Stirrat said. “We were like, well, when is this going to happen in Ecuador because at this point it felt not like an ‘if,’ but a ‘when.’ We didn’t know if we felt comfortable staying, knowing what could be coming.”

Tufte, the professor, communicated the students’ concerns to the Overseas and Off-Campus Programs office. On March 14, the office responded by giving students the option to return home and continue course work online, but did not cancel the program.

“Basically what this email meant was that they were not helping us buy tickets out of Ecuador, and that it was basically up to us to decide whether or not we wanted to stay in Ecuador and wait this all out, or return home to be with our families during a crisis, during a pandemic,” Stirrat said.

The students had been informed by the program’s in-country leaders that Ecuador’s borders would likely close by Tuesday, so they decided to proceed with booking flights out of the country.

Both Stirrat and Enriquez’s flights were booked for early Tuesday morning, although borders closed and most flights were canceled starting at midnight.

“The reason my flight was at 4 a.m. (Tuesday) morning is because that was the cheapest flight for me to get back to the States because I do not have the funds to be paying for my own tickets last minute,” Enriquez said.

Students were entirely responsible for paying for their own flights back. Although their program was not officially canceled, Enriquez felt she had no choice but to leave because the rest of the group was leaving.

All of the students flew from Cuenca to the international airport in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The 9 other students had a connection flight through Lima just before Peru also closed its borders at midnight. Although Enriquez and Stirrat were not as lucky.

“My flight had been canceled because it was after midnight and it’s an international flight,” Enriquez said. “So basically what was happening with Peru, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, is that all of these borders are closing to incoming and outcoming international flights.”

Enriquez, Stirrat and their professor, Tufte, were the only members of the group to not fly out in time. 

They have since been in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Quito, although have received little help so far since international flights can still technically fly out.

“But the thing is, the airlines aren’t allowed to land full flights in Ecuador and if there aren’t flights coming in, then there are no planes to take flights going out,” Stirrat said.

“It’s very likely that we will be stuck here for a few weeks until Ecuador and other Latin American countries start offering these international flights again,” Enriquez said.

The group had booked a hotel, however, it closed down due to the strict restrictions and curfews imposed in Ecuador. They had to scramble to book an Airbnb. 

“Since all of these hotels and hostels and anywhere that you can stay are becoming so inaccessible to people here in Ecuador, there really is no place for foreigners to stay if you don’t have a house here,” Enriquez said. “I booked our Airbnb with a lot of luck … We were able to get in, but we were even stopped by security guards getting into this building, asking how long we have been in Ecuador and taking our temperatures.”

The group is in communication with the Overseas and Off-Campus Programs office, which is calling on government officials and the U.S. embassy in Quito to repatriate them. The office is also paying for their Airbnb, food and possible flights home.

“Since it has evolved to the point where we are stuck here, (Overseas and Off-Campus Programs) has been very helpful and they’re working tirelessly updating us constantly — they’re talking to senators, they’re talking to anyone and everyone,” Stirrat said. “But it was a little disappointing that it took them until we are actually physically stuck here, supposedly until April, if not even later, to actually jump and start making things happen to help support us.” 

The students have been in communication from a non-LC study abroad leader in Quito, who is helping get students and Peace Corps volunteers on charter flights out of Guayaquil, which is an eight- to 10-hour bus ride from Quito. Due to the restrictions on movement in Ecuador, Stirrat and Enriquez are not hopeful that they will be able to make these flights.

In order for them to leave Ecuador, they say that either borders need to open or government officials need to step in to repatriate them. They are calling on the LC community to call representatives in Oregon, as well as Arizona and Illinois (Stirrat and Enriquez’s respective homestates) to make noise to get them home. For updates from Stiratt and Enriquez, follow their Instagram account @lcstuckin_ec.

“Our biggest hope is for the LC community to know what’s going on with overseas programs,” Enriquez said. “I do want the LC community to really be posting about this and really spreading awareness that there are not just us stuck in Ecuador, but there are also people stuck in Morocco … and so the more people know about it, the more noise that’s going to be produced.” 

As of Friday March 20, all 12 students in Morocco and the professor have returned home. Stirrat, Enriquez and Tufte also flew out of Ecuador on March 20 on a flight Lewis & Clark helped charter with another university.


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