‘All these hurdles’: Family of exchange student stuck in Peru trying to get her back to Alaska

A street in Tumbes, Peru. Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Alethia Belleque)

Alethia Belleque grew up in Dillingham. She’s been studying abroad at a high school in Peru since August, and she was planning to stay until June. But as the coronavirus pandemic escalated, several developments changed that.

“There’s like no transportation coming to Tumbes, where I am right now,” she said. “And there’s no transportation coming into Peru from other countries. So getting back home, like they’re trying to figure out how they can get airplanes and buses and stuff running so people can go to their homes.”

LINK: Read Alaska Public Media’s most recent coverage of the coronavirus

Alethia is doing fine — she’s still staying with her host family in Tumbes, a city of about 100,000 people in the north of Peru near the Ecuadorian border.

Her study abroad program, the American Field Service, decided to send its participants back to their home countries soon after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, but at 11:59 p.m. March 16, Peru closed its international borders to commercial travel in and out of the country. It also enacted 15 days of mandatory quarantine. Today, that quarantine was extended until April 12. For thousands of Americans, that means staying put instead of returning home.

Alethia’s dad, Kyle, has been trying to get her back to Anchorage, where the family now lives.

“Essentially, she’s in Peru, she’s had her bags packed for a week, and as soon as she can come home, she’s ready to come home,” he said. 

Part of the issue is that Tumbes, where Alethia is staying, is a 20-hour drive from the U.S. Embassy in Lima. Since Peru has halted domestic flights, getting to the Peruvian capital has been a challenge.

Kyle said he has been working with the U.S. Embassy in Lima, as well as the Peruvian Embassy in Seattle, and Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office. But it’s been difficult to navigate travel restrictions on multiple levels of government.

“You’ve got a nationwide quarantine, you’ve got no commercial flights, she’s two days away from Lima, and we’ve got this bureaucratic requirement, and we’re trying to clear all these hurdles,” he said.

On the Senate floor last week, Senator Murkowski touched on how Peru’s closure is affecting Alaskans.

“We’ve got about 19 Alaskans that are stuck in Peru, trying to get out of a country that has literally gone on lockdown,” she said. “We were in long conversation yesterday with the folks in the state department trying to figure out how to help them, how to help their families that are back home in Alaska, calling my office every day, sometimes multiple times a day, saying, ‘What are you doing to help?’”

In an email, a staff member said Murkowski encourages Alaskans with family members abroad to register with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP: “Senator Murkowski and her staff are continuing to communicate with those Alaskans and are working with the highest levels at the State Department on potential flights and logistics for their return.”

AFS International, the study abroad program, did not respond to a request for comment in time for this story. In a statement updated Wednesday on its website it said, “Some students will be unable to return right now due to travel and logistical challenges. While these students wait to return to their families, AFS-USA will continue to provide all support and services from staff and volunteers in the communities where students live, including insurance, until students can travel.”

In the meantime, Alethia is doing well, and she’s looking forward to getting back to Alaska.

“It’ll be nice to see my parents, see my siblings, see my dogs,” she said. 

Kyle is working to make that happen. He receives daily updates from the embassies — he said that keeping tabs on these developments is exhausting but necessary. 

In a release on Tuesday, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Peru said that the Peruvian government had authorized an American Airlines flight between Lima and Miami. But later that evening, LATAM Airlines told the embassy that the Peruvian National Institute of Civil Defense had not approved an in-country flight from Cusco, a city in the Andes, to Lima. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that no U.S. flights had been approved by the NICD. Ultimately, Peru declined to grant the necessary clearances for the domestic flight from Cusco, and the American Airlines charter flight from Miami to Lima had to turn around because its permits were declined. 

“I don’t know what kind of international political mumbo jumbo is going on, but you know, I just want my daughter home,” Kyle said.

According to the Peruvian embassy, as of Wednesday afternoon, two flights made it out of Peru and more than 1,000 Americans had been repatriated.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200

Previous articleThat $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill — What’s in it for Alaska?
Next articleAs number of COVID-19 cases grows, Alaska officials warn of a limited healthcare system