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OPINION

Stranded in Kenya and abandoned by my country. Again.

By KARIE FUGETT | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 20, 2020

Soldiers stood at the entrance to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi brandishing automatic weapons and bottles of hand sanitizer. My boyfriend and I were on our way home to the United States — or so we thought.

We had been on a safari I booked almost a year ago, enticed by an ad for a cheap flight. My family never had money for vacations when I was growing up, but as an animal-obsessed kid, I fantasized about seeing the most beautiful ones in the world. Elephants! Hippos! Zebras! Lions! This was my dream trip. And Kenya seemed like the perfect destination for commemorating the 10th anniversary of my husband's death. Years before we married, when we were friends in junior high, I told Cleve about my dream, and we both laughed — Africa might as well have been another planet to two teenagers from rural Alabama.

The Kenyan air was welcoming after a long, rainy winter in Oregon, where I now live. It reminded me of summers growing up in the South. And the trip was everything I imagined it would be until my boyfriend Brent and I tried to get back to Oregon as the coronavirus charted its deadly course around the world.

We never boarded the plane that day. Delta canceled the flight, as it did the next three we booked, one after the other. And for the second time in my life, when I needed my country to step in and help me navigate desperate circumstances, it let me down. It was disorganized, inconsistent, arbitrary, not exactly indifferent, but glacially slow.

I'm not saying that being stranded abroad compares to losing my husband. Just that in both instances, the government failed to play what I believed was one of its primary roles: to keep the country and its citizens safe.

My husband died on April 20, 2010, from an accidental overdose of the prescription opioids he had been taking for injuries he had sustained after an explosive device in Ramadi, Iraq, ripped apart his Humvee. America was the richest, most powerful country in the world, I'd been taught as a child, but we didn't even have the resources to keep alive a Marine who had survived war. I believe that neglect, ultimately, killed him. The day he died, four punishing years after the explosion, I felt abandoned, and my naive sense of security in our country's ability to protect me and the people I loved slipped away. I was 24.

Over the years, I have tried to put that feeling of abandonment behind me. It roared back in recent weeks when I was among tens of thousands of Americans traveling overseas as the coronavirus struck, and, without warning, flights were canceled and borders closed. Ultimately, as I had when my husband died, I was forced to rely on the generosity of friends while my country ignored my pleas for help.

I had thought 2020 would be "my year," a turning point since Cleve's death. In February, I sold my memoir about being thrust into the role of caregiver at age 20. The book represented a decade of working through that grief.

My boyfriend and I combined our credit cards to afford the trip. In the days leading up to it, alarming reports were coming out of Wuhan, China, about the coronavirus. But President Donald Trump insisted it wasn't a big deal. "We have it totally under control," the president assured us on Jan. 22. And on March 4, the day we left, he said, "It's very mild."

It was hard to tell how much to worry about the virus, which felt a world away. "How bad could it possibly get in two weeks?" I said to a friend as my boyfriend and I made the decision to go ahead with the trip, which represented the beginning of a new life as I honored my old one.

In Kenya, travelers ate at buffets cheek-by-jowl, booked massages, ordered piña coladas at poolside bars. I had bottles of hand sanitizer on me at all times, just in case, and was personally not interested in massages. When I saw hundreds of elephants on a trail headed toward the base of Kilimanjaro, I knew I had made the right decision. Cleve would have cried with the biggest smile. I wept thinking about how much life he had missed out on. I also felt like a survivor. "Look how far I've come," I thought. "I'm gonna be
OK."

Seven days into our trip, I woke up to Facebook messages from friends saying Trump had announced he was closing the borders to travelers. "Are you OK?" they asked. "Come home now." And then there were more messages saying the president had corrected himself and would allow American travelers to return.

Reports of congested airports and canceled flights flooded social media. The first case of coronavirus in Kenya was confirmed on March 12. On March 14, Delta canceled our return flight by email. "We apologize for the inconvenience. . . . We will notify you again once your rebooking is completed," it said.

It didn't. I rebooked myself. But this flight, too, was canceled, as we found when we arrived at the airport. As were the next two. Brent and I had budgeted just enough for the trip. We were already planning on putting off some bills until our next payday. We were nervous because both of us work in the school system and were out of jobs until schools opened again. We didn't know yet if we would be paid. I wasn't sure how we would afford to stay in Nairobi any longer.

I updated a friend about our most recent canceled flight, and she warned me that the State Department was advising U.S. citizens "currently abroad to return home immediately, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period." My mind raced. Our latest booked flight was six days away. I called Delta. When I asked if they could help with shelter and food, the representative said, "Sorry, there isn't a way for us to help."

I called the U.S. Embassy. The representative told me that if I became destitute, I could apply for a loan. He didn't take my name.

The ambassador himself, Kyle McCarter, messaged me on Twitter after I publicly announced I was stranded. He asked about my circumstances and expressed concern but did not follow up further.

I called the offices of my local congressman, Peter DeFazio, in Oregon, and Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, where I was raised. Staffers at least took our information, but they couldn't tell us how to get home, either.

Brent and I were running dangerously low on cash. I was just about to overdraft on my account to pay both our daily expenses and a place to stay in Nairobi as we awaited a flight when I decided to give in and ask for help through Facebook. Friends and family and even strangers delivered. But on March 22, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya's borders would close in three days. The idea of being stuck indefinitely during a pandemic was terrifying. We had to get out right then.

A friend of mine, a mother of three whom I'd met at Walter Reed Hospital when Cleve was recovering there — her own husband had lost both of his legs in Afghanistan — offered to charge new tickets to her credit card. "You're family," she said. These tickets, for March 24, cost $4,447.36. The original tickets cost $1,200.

Just as when my husband died — and I'd felt abandoned by my wealthy and powerful country as I buried him — it was friends and family who came to my rescue.

Brent and I are home now, but only because we were lucky. If it weren't for this friend from the veterans community, we might have ended up like the thousands of Americans who are still stranded abroad today. I hope they have places to live and enough food to eat. I am worried for them and for all Americans who are losing their jobs, their businesses and their homes right now.

In late March, the Trump administration said it had "launched an unprecedented global effort to bring home our citizens." But which citizens? From what I can tell by the emails I still receive from the embassy in Nairobi, only the ones with money. Last week, the State Department said that it had "been coordinating with our embassies and airlines to facilitate over 280 commercial rescue flights. These flights have been used to repatriate more than 27,000 American citizens, and at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer." The cost is borne by the stranded citizens.

As for those who can't afford a rescue flight even if they could find a seat on one, it looks as if they are on their own. "For an indefinite period."

Fugett is a contributing writer for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which supported this essay. Her forthcoming memoir, "Alive Day," is about being widowed at 24.
 

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