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‘It’s just a job that has to get done’: Alberta couple helps stranded Canadians get home

After two weeks of worry, fear and frustration, hundreds of Canadian tourists are now on their way home from Peru. But many are critical of Ottawa’s airlift effort, and say they might still be stuck in South America if it wasn’t for the work of several fellow travellers who helped mobilize the repatriation campaign on Facebook.

Dr. Ekaterina Turko, who returned home to Vancouver on Thursday, is one of them. 

Instead of spending the past two weeks treating patients in the emergency department at St. Paul’s Hospital, she, like her many fellow Canadian travellers, found herself stranded in Peru when the South American nation abruptly closed its borders on March 16, in a bid to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Her days were mostly identical, isolating herself in her Airbnb rental, waiting for some sort of information from Ottawa, and trying frantically to reserve a seat on one of the government-chartered evacuation flights.

Federal government workers stand by as Canadian citizens and residents stranded in Peru prepare to catch an evacuation flight organized by their embassy in Lima, on March 26. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

“It’s a logistical nightmare for them. I totally appreciate that. They’re completely overwhelmed with thousands and thousands and thousands of emails and calls. We have all these people all over the country,” Turko said in an interview from Lima earlier this week, when her ability to get home was still in doubt.

“But they send you this email with a code for the Air Canada website and you enter that in, and the website gives you an error. Over, and over, and over again, for hours.”

As the emergency airlifts began last weekend, and continued on this week, Turko said she began to wonder if the underlying issue wasn’t so much chaos, as indifference.

“I’ve been reassured by multiple parties that the most vulnerable, children, elderly people with medical issues, and health-care workers were on the priority list to get home,” said Turko. “And yet I watched young healthy, clearly not in much distress, people leaving on the first three flights.”

Vancouver emergency physician Dr. Ekaterina Turko is pictured in Machu Picchu, Peru. After being stranded for two weeks when the country shut its borders due to COVID-19, she made it home on April 2. (Submitted by Ekaterina Turko)

There is a sense of gratitude among the already, and soon-to-be, returned. Little of it, however, is flowing in Ottawa’s direction. Many of the travellers say the disorganized federal evacuation left them feeling like they were abandoned by their government. 

They say a Facebook group — Canadians Stuck in Peru COVID-19 — started by three hikers staying at a hostel in the Andes mountain city of Cusco, became the go-to source for information and assistance for the more than 2,000 stranded Canadians. And now, two of the group’s administrators, Billy and Becky Fidlin, a married couple from Calgary, have effectively taken over part of Ottawa’s job, drawing up a list of vulnerable and priority travellers, and helping them secure seats on the planes.

“I know I would be still here, if it wasn’t for Billy and Becky,” Turko told CBC News shortly before her departure. “And God knows for how long.”

WATCH | Dr. Ekaterina Turko is finally on her way home:

Dr. Ekaterina boards a flight to Canada.  0:13

The Fidlins, who had been travelling since December, first got wind of the Peruvian lockdown when the military police came into the restaurant where they were eating dinner on the night of March 15 and ordered the place to shut down. The next morning, they tried to make their way to the airport in Cusco to book a flight to Lima, but found police sealing off its entrance. 

“We really had no idea it was going to happen to us,” said Billy Fidlin. “There was mass panic and fear. People were scrambling everywhere.”

That night, they decided to start the private Facebook group with their friend and fellow traveller Lina Thompson. It soon had more than 1,300 members and became a space for stranded Canadians to seek advice, express their concerns, and rally friends and family to press Ottawa for faster, and more effective, repatriation efforts.

“I realized that maybe, you know, things are getting really serious. That we need to have a voice,” said Billy. “And a strong voice always comes with a large amount of people who are in the same predicament.”

Turko is pictured aboard a bus on her way to the airport in Lima. (Submitted by Ekaterina Turko)

Over the first days of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Fidlins say, there was little communication from Ottawa beyond repeated requests for Canadians to register via a government website. 

“A lot of people have said to us that if they didn’t have the Facebook group as a source for information, they would have no access to it at all,” said Becky. “Especially the older community, where [the government is sending] these messages on Twitter, and they’re not on it.” 

And once the evacuation flights began, there were errors and snafus as people tried to find seats, with travellers being sent codes to book flights that weren’t departing from the cities — or even the country — that they were stranded in. 

The tech-driven process also seemed to disadvantage those who had gone on vacation without smartphones, tablets or laptops, or weren’t as familiar with the internet — in this case, mostly elderly Canadians. 

“It’s a desperate situation for a lot of people,” said Billy.

Stranded and running out of hope

Terry Lloyd, a 76-year-old from Calgary, counts himself among the stranded who have found the challenges almost impossible to overcome.

“I’m a bit of a dinosaur,” he told the CBC in an interview from Cusco. “I’m not comfortable with laptops and cellphones, iPhones and that kind of thing.”

The shutdown order came just three days after Lloyd arrived in Peru for what was supposed to be a dream, solo vacation. He says he feels like a prisoner at his hotel, abandoned by the Canadian Embassy in Lima, which no longer answers its phone, and never returns his voicemails.

Lloyd has left a message for his member of the provincial legislature back home in Alberta. And he’s been relying on his Calgary travel agent to book him a seat on one of the evacuation flights.

Soon, he fears, he will run out of money. He has already taken three cash advances against his credit card, and has just $87 left in his bank account. 

“Yeah, I’m starting to worry about that because I’ve got a $400 American bill here at the hotel, and my travel agent was talking about maybe $200 or $300 to get from Cusco to Lima,” Lloyd said. “And once I get to Lima, I don’t have the $1,300 or $1,400 that they’re talking about to fly me to Toronto.”

Lloyd said he’s heard the Canadian government is offering emergency loans for travellers, but has no idea how he might obtain one.

Peru closed its border more than two weeks ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the Canadian government to charter flights to bring its citizens home. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

Canada’s ambassador to Peru, Ralph Jansen, has been posting videos on the web telling stranded travellers that the government is working hard to get them home.

“The priority, in all cases, will be for those most vulnerable,” he said in a message earlier this week. 

Almost 1,200 people returned to Canada on last week’s three evacuation flights, and a similar number should make it back this week. But it’s unclear just how many more are still waiting to be repatriated. The Fidlins estimate around 200.

CBC News asked Global Affairs Canada about the timeline for the remaining evacuations, and what was being done to ensure that the most vulnerable are given priority, but has yet to receive a response.

The Fidlins know about Lloyd’s predicament and have added him to the priority list that they’ve been sharing with officials in Lima and Ottawa. It contains the names of travellers suffering from rare diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hypertension. And people who have been away longer than expected and are now running out of medication.

 ‘We will do whatever we can’

They themselves managed to book seats on an evacuation flight late last week, and are now isolating at a friend’s home in Red Deer, Alta. They were relieved to finally make it back, but also felt guilty about getting out ahead of many of the people they are trying to help.

“It was like winning the most horrible lottery you could ever imagine,” Billy said.

The Fidlins pose near some Inca ruins in the mountains of Peru. They created a Facebook group to organize Canadians stuck in Peru because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Billy and Becky Fidlin)

Before they left, the Fidlins posted a message to the Facebook group, explaining their mixed emotions, and promising to keep fighting for those who remain stranded in Peru.

“We will fill out forms for you, we will guide you through any scenarios you don’t understand or need help with,” it reads. “We will do whatever we can to ensure no one here is forgotten about, because believe me, it may feel like you don’t have anyone on your side, but you’ve had us since the very beginning, and you will from here on out.”

And now, hunched over laptops, 8,000 kilometres away, they continue the work that in a better, less desperate time, might have been the job of someone at the embassy, at Global Affairs headquarters in Ottawa, or even in the minister’s office on Parliament Hill. 

“To us, at this point, it doesn’t really matter whose job it’s supposed to be,” said Becky. “It’s just a job that has to get done.”

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