Outtatown site stranded in Guatemala hopeful for speedy repatriation

Outtatown site stranded in Guatemala hopeful for speedy repatriation

While main campus and government officials work together to bring the group home, 36 students, six leaders, and two program staff wait patiently in Guatemala, putting the semester's lessons to the test.

Since early January, CMU's Outtatown Discipleship School 2019/20 cohort have been travelling in Guatemala. Initially scheduled to return April 2, the team booked early flights back to Canada last weekend, amid the swiftly evolving conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 13 flights were booked to bring the entire group home on March 18, however the airline cancelled that flight two days later on March 15. One day later, the Guatemalan government banned all flights from North America, leaving no viable options to return to Canada.

"Before those flights could actually be taken up, the [Guatemalan] borders were closed. That happened quickly," says CMU President, Cheryl Pauls.

Since March 14, CMU has been in touch with Canadian Global Affairs and the Canadian embassy in Guatemala, receiving good guidance and working cooperatively to bring the group home as soon as possible.

Now living in a secure compound in San Pedro Las Huertas, the team must practise patience. Though confined to a large house they share and a small terrace outside, (everyone is thankful for the lawn sprinkler,) the students are safe, well fed, and well informed. Site leader Luke Wahl says students are coping admirably with the uncertainty of their situation:

"This has been a time for us as a group to see how we respond to strange and potentially difficult circumstances. [Many students] are more capable and willing to put others before themselves now than at the start of program. Many came into this year looking to grow, to be challenged, to leave their comfort zones, and this is a perfect experience to further that learning. Some have stronger faith after this year and are doing well as a result. They are able to be open and honest about how they are doing, and they are supporting each other well. Overall, we're approaching this as a team rather than a bunch of individuals."

Outtatown is a cross-cultural, experiential learning program delivered at the first-year university level. By the end of the year, students walk away with 18 credit hours worth of transferable credit awarded through CMU. Most alumni will attest, credit is the least of what they gain: throughout their term abroad, students live with host families, study Spanish, learn about the country's colonial past, and serve with local partner organizations. These service projects are intermittent opportunities for students to give just a little something back to the country and people that have given them so much.

Pauls agrees that, having developed resilience and creativity as a cohort throughout the year, the group is coping remarkably well: "I feel that when these students come back they will be able to help others with the stress of new situations because of what they've experienced through this," she says.

Among the university's concerns at this time is that if the Guatemalan healthcare system were to become strained under a serious outbreak of COVID-19, it would not be desirable for Canadians to take up Guatemalan hospital beds.

March 19, Canada announced it was developing a repatriation plan and that the government was negotiating well with Guatemalan authorities to open airport borders enough to let repatriation flights through. March 22, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Francois-Philippe Champagne announced flights heading for Guatemala and six other countries starting today, March 23. The Prime Minister says Air Transat will run more than 30 flights abroad for Canadians stranded overseas over the next three days.

Printed from: media.cmu.ca/nr-covid-19-6