Photo courtesy of Nic Nerli

Lewis & Clark students leave Morocco after days in limbo

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. Seven of the participants were able to fly home over the weekend, but 12 students and Assistant Professor in Political Science Leah Gilbert were trapped in the country when Morocco’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that all international flights in and out of the country are suspended.

11 of the 12 students who were trapped were able to fly to England on Wednesday, March 18, leaving one student and Gilbert in Morocco because they were not able to get seats on the flight. Gilbert and the student waited in line for nine hours on March 17 to get tickets for a flight from Agadir to London on March 18. 

“Two of the students (who received Gilman International Scholarships) are currently heading to Rabat for a flight from there to Washington, D.C.,” Nicholas Nerli ’21 said via WhatsApp. “They are joining the flight that the State Department assembled to evacuate Peace Corps volunteers.”

According to Nerli, the rescue flight that he and eight other students took to England was arranged by the Brits, not the U.S. government.

Lauren Pichard ’22 was still able to fly out of Morocco on Monday, March 16 when some flights were still leaving the country despite the borders being closed. After days purchasing up to five flights at a time in desperate efforts to get out of the country, the remaining students went to the airport with their bags packed on Tuesday, March 17, to try to board a flight to London, but it appeared that all flights in and out of the country were formally grounded.

“It’s becoming more and more evident that we’re reliant on the U.S. government to do something,” Nerli said via WhatsApp on March 17, before the British government came to the rescue. 

During an interview on March 16, President Wim Wiewel said he has been in contact with government officials to try to find a way to get the students and professor out of the country.

“I just an hour ago got off the phone with Congressman Earl Blumenauer,” Wiewel said. “We’ve been in email contact with Senator Merkley’s office, and they are working very hard to put pressure on the Department of State to get our students out as soon as possible. So we are literally going to the highest authorities we can call on to take care of those students.”

Jacob Muscarella ’21 and a few other students were contacted by congressional offices. Muscarella is from Colorado, so the constituent advocate for Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse contacted him. The constituent made sure that all of the students signed up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) because the consular in Washington will use that number to determine whether or not there is a “critical mass” of Americans in Morocco who need to be evacuated. If they determine that there are enough people, they will send a repatriation flight.

The students made an Instagram @morocco_shabaab to update followers on their well-being. Mary-Claire Spurgin ’21, who has returned to the U.S., made a resource sheet and template to encourage people to write letters to representatives. 

Before they were able to fly home, the group is staying in a hotel in Agadir, a town on the coast of Morocco. 

“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 on March 15. “A hotel, just with how many tourists there are, isn’t ideal.”

Participants were assured that they would be taken care of until they are able to get home in an email sent on March 15 from the Director of Overseas & Off-Campus Programs Blythe Knott and Dean of the College Bruce Suttmeier.

“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 cancelations 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.”

The school has authorized Gilbert to purchase food, lodging and flights for the group on an LC credit card. 

“They have money, we have put them in safe living situations, they have food, if we need to get them tickets or whatever we upped the credit card for the faculty member, so all the things that need to be in place for them to do that (fly home) are there — it’s that (the Moroccan government has) to let us,” Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students Robin Holmes-Sullivan said on March 16.

The U.S. and Moroccan governments implemented travel restrictions so quickly, that Wiewel says he wishes in retrospect that they had canceled the programs sooner, but that there was no way to predict the Moroccan government’s extreme response.

“We didn’t know that Morocco was going to close the borders, just like I think it was on Thursday, our partners in France and Spain said, ‘Students can stay or they can go. We’ll deliver the program online, but they’re welcome to stay’ and then, 24 hours later, they reversed themselves,” Wiewel said. “I’d like to point out that just this morning at 10 o’clock, Governor Brown said that restaurants and bars could stay open and at three o’clock this afternoon, she said, ‘Oh, no, we’re closing them all.’ 

The Overseas office planned to cancel programs once the country was assigned a Level 3 Travel Advisory by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unfortunately, the Moroccan government closed its borders without warning, before it was designated Level 3, so the College did not have a chance to get the students out in time. Knott said that the college will revamp its protocols once the dust settles. 

“Normal protocols didn’t work in this situation, Knott said. “It’s not a normal situation on any level. We always evaluate our protocols after any emergency situation. Certainly we will do so again once the dust settles from this one.”

All of the participants emphasized how amazing Professor Gilbert was throughout the crisis.

“(Gilbert’s) positivity and guidance has served as the backbone for us all on this program, stranded or otherwise,” Marian Hampe ’21 said. “The woman is a trooper and a saint and I can only hope that the school steps forward and officially recognizes her efforts in some formal capacity.”

“Leah (Gilbert) has absolutely gone above and beyond her role as a program leader,” Spurgin said. “She has done everything in her power to make sure that we all get back to the U.S. quickly and safely – she stayed with us at our hotel until 2 a.m. the last night that I was in Morocco helping us find flights – while also routinely checking in with us about our physical and emotional wellbeing. This is especially impressive because she’s been working on getting her own family out of the country at the same time. She has stayed constantly calm and resilient throughout, and I couldn’t imagine how we’d be dealing with this situation without her.”

This article will be updated as new information becomes available.

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