From her apartment in Lima, Peru, Elana Liebow-Feeser attended to her job on Skype, chatted online with friends and family, watched “Harry Potter” movies, tried out dance moves from YouTube, and fashioned new recipes suffused with Old Bay — an homage to her Maryland roots.
She tried not to worry that a window seemed to be closing on returning soon to Baltimore, so she could ride out the coronavirus pandemic with her parents and begin planning for medical school in the fall.
But the situation seemed to growing dire. As COVID-19 has spread, many nations are closing borders and mandating quarantines. State Department and embassy officials have been signaling that their repatriation efforts are becoming more complicated.
"It’s getting harder and harder,” said U.S. Rep. David Trone, a Maryland Democrat. “Every country is basically eliminating all international flights. You’ve got to get separate approval for a State Department flight to get in.”
The U.S. State Department says it has coordinated the return of more than 38,000 Americans from 78 countries since the end of January. But an untold number of Marylanders are still waiting to return from overseas.
The offices of Maryland’s Democratic U.S. senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, said recently that they were still working on dozens of cases involving Marylanders in such countries as Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Peru, Taiwan and Ukraine.
Liebow-Feeser’s mother said Cardin called her at home in Baltimore during the anxious period, and that his staff members regularly relayed information.
Sensing that time was running short, Liebow-Feeser, 23 — who had been coordinating a pediatric pneumonia study in Peru through a Johns Hopkins program — woke up before dawn on Friday and took a taxi to the U.S. embassy even though there were long lines outside the door and she was not among those on a manifest for a flight home.
“She wasn’t on the list for Friday or Saturday, and Sunday was supposed to be the last day flights would leave. She was kind of freaked out,” said her mother, Elisabeth Liebow. “She didn’t make the first standby and she texted and said: ‘I didn’t get on. I don’t know what to do.’ ”
But then she got a break.
“She asked someone to check a list because Sen. Cardin had expressly sent her name to the embassy yesterday,” the mother said.
Elana soon texted her mother: “I don’t know what happened but I’m the last one. They hand-wrote me and I had to run.”
Her flight to Washington’s Dulles International Airport left late Friday afternoon.
“The way she got out is like a scene out of a movie,” her mother said.
Liebow-Feeser arrived home early Saturday. “It really felt like a very strange dream,” she said.
She is self-isolating at the family’s home, making sure to keep her distance from her mother, who has asthma. “I’ll hug my mom in 14 days,” she said.
In a statement after her return, Cardin said: " I am grateful Elena can be with her family today and I am appreciative of the tireless diplomats in Peru, and around the world, who continue to facilitate travel for those who want to come back to the U.S. These are tough times around the globe, but I will keep pressing until every Marylander who is still stranded has made their way back home.”
She appeared to make it with little time to spare. On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Lima sent a memo to stranded Americans saying: “We will continue to facilitate daily travel and coordinate flights to repatriate Americans from all corners of Peru through April 5. U.S. citizens who remain in Peru beyond that date should continue to shelter in place.”
The State Department in Washington declined to elaborate on the memo, referring a reporter to transcripts of recent department briefings. In one such briefing Wednesday, department official Ian Brownlee urged U.S. citizens seeking to return from abroad “to make arrangements to do so now,” saying there is “no guarantee the Department of State will be able to continue to provide repatriation assistance.”
Upon hearing that, Van Hollen said in an interview: “We cannot abandon any Americans who are trying to get home."
“What has been most challenging for me is the uncertainty of the situation.”— Elana Liebow-Feeser of Baltimore
Van Hollen wrote last month to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the many inquiries he was receiving from Marylanders across the globe.
“In most cases, the Department of State has provided no assistance, or clear guidance, to facilitate their safe travel back to the United States," Van Hollen told Pompeo.
The senator said Thursday that the department appears to have “significantly stepped up its efforts" since then, but more work remained.
Trone said more than two dozen of his constituents were stuck in Peru, but most are out now. Among them were Sarah Gleason of Montgomery County, who was living with a host family in a study abroad program. After her mother reached out to Trone and other elected officials, the daughter flew home March 25 with her sister, Julie, a Towson University graduate student. The American Embassy helped them get seats on the flight.
“Hope this helps others not give up and continue to get their loved ones home during this very stressful time in the world,” said their mother, Kim Gleason.
Even the trip home can be harrowing.
Kelsey Day, a 22-year-old University of Maryland, Baltimore County, student, returned to late Thursday to Baltimore after an exhausting, two-day trip that was a logistical feat. She had taken a semester off to travel, but had been under lockdown in Italy for the last month.
Amid strict Italian travel protocols, she hitched a ride to a train station an hour from where her host family lives, took a train to Rome and spent the night on the airport floor. After various health screenings, she endured a strange flight to the United States on which each passenger was isolated in a separate row.
Day’s parents drove from Anne Arundel County to meet her at the BWI Airport Rail Station, one driving their car and one driving Day’s car. They greeted her at the station from 10 feet away, tossed her car keys to her, and told her how happy they were to have her home.
It was “the biggest, craziest whirlwind,” she said.
“We cannot abandon any Americans who are trying to get home."— Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland
Liebow-Feeser can certainly relate. She was to have completed her 18-month program at the end of April, but began trying to get home March 15 after Peru announced a state of emergency because of the virus.
She speaks Spanish and said she is usually quite comfortable in Peru, which she calls “a wonderful country.”
But this situation was disorienting.
Outside Liebow-Feeser’s apartment, she said, there was a heavy police presence. Martin Vizcarra, the country’s president, announced Thursday that — to minimize the number of people going to grocery stores at the same time — men would be permitted outside on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Women are permitted outside on alternate days, except Sunday, when nobody is permitted on the streets.
As of Friday, there were more than 1,595 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Peru, and 61 people had died from the disease
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article