It all falls down: Returning from abroad during COVID-19

Courtesy of

Gari De Ramos, Scarlet Staff

It felt like dominos were falling; first slowly, then all at once. What was supposed to be a semester spent abroad in Morocco studying journalism is now a semester of online classes and social distancing at home.

Like most people in early March, I didn’t think COVID-19 would be a huge problem. I had, however, started to see it manifest with news of anti-Asian sentiment around the world. New stories were coming out about Asians being physically assaulted in the U.K. and U.S., and I started fearing walking alone. 

In early March, I was in Istanbul, Turkey for my spring break. Istanbul has incredible public transportation, but as I – a Filipino-American – was leaving the tram one day, a man shouted at me.

“Ay, Corona!” he said. 

When I was flying back to Morocco from Istanbul, I was the first to arrive at my gate. I watched as every single seat filled up, except the dozen or so immediately around me. The racism felt more real than the virus. 

I arrived back in Morocco and the minute I turned on my Moroccan SIM card, I saw that Morocco had its first case of COVID-19 confirmed. The virus was starting to feel real, but life would resume as normal.

The first domino fell on Thursday, March 12 when my peers and I woke up to news that President Trump had suspended all travel from Europe. We were supposed to spend our morning focusing on our final exam for Arabic, but instead we took our test with a feeling of dread. 

We all knew someone studying abroad in Spain and could only imagine the panic they must be feeling as they were ordered home as soon as possible. And since Morocco is only 14.3 miles away from Spain, it felt like it was only a matter of time until we were next to go. 

The second domino fell right after that exam, when our regularly scheduled classes had been turned into group therapy. My peers and I took turns sharing our feelings and worries. Some worried about going home to immunocompromised or elderly family members, who they didn’t want to put in danger. Some were worried about the safety of friends in the U.S. who struggled to find places to live once universities asked students to leave campus one after the other.

That evening, one student told us that his parents wanted him home as soon as possible. Reasonably, they were not comfortable with him being abroad. Like my peers, I was blindly hopeful that the situation would not get much worse in Morocco. So, I posted on my travel Instagram to tell my friends and family that I intended to finish out my semester abroad. One hour later, my school, Clark University, emailed me calling all students abroad to return home by Sunday, March 22. 

On Friday March 13, I changed the date of my return ticket for $470, around the average monthly rent for a Clark University student living off-campus. I had a last supper with my friends and packed my bags. 

At 10:48pm, my host brother comes in to communicate with my French-speaking friend, Jessica Blough, a junior from Tufts University. She turns to me and my other friend Elijah McKee, a junior from Skidmore College, and tells us that the Moroccan government is going to spray a chemical over the city to protect against COVID-19 at 11pm. 

Our good night was cut short and they both ran home. It turns out that claim was misinformed. Nothing of the sort happened, but it did bring to light how quickly and effectively false information can spread and cause panic. 

I arrived at the airport the afternoon of Saturday March 14. I was leaving a country that had only six cases at the time, according to Morocco World News, compared to the U.S.’ 2,943, according to Worldometer. I was putting myself in airports and an airplane, the prime vehicle for a virus to spread internationally. 

I was, however, glad I left when I did. When I got to the airport, I saw an email from my study abroad company, the School of International Training (SIT), that our program was being moved online and students needed to return home by the end of next week. I knew what was coming: a rush to the airports, difficulty finding tickets home since flights to France – a common layover for those flying to and from the U.S. and Morocco – were suspended. 

I arrived in New York, NY and got home that evening, but awoke the next day, Sunday March 15, to news that Morocco suspended all international travel. My friends were stranded. 

The costs of tickets were skyrocketing. Most of my friends had not booked return tickets, so needed to buy new flights up front. If I had not been able to reschedule my flight for the day before, I would have had to pay $3,000 for a new ticket. 

Friend after friend told me stories about them buying an overpriced ticket only for it to be cancelled on them because airlines had overbooked. It is not easy to lose money like this, unsure if you will be refunded. 

Because I was flying out of Casablanca instead of Rabat – my program’s homebase – I paid $60 for a private car to take me to the airport, a luxury I could afford and wanted in order to avoid public transportation and the possible spread of COVID-19. What if my friends and I didn’t have this money upfront?

It’s times like these when communities on the ground have more power than the institutions that are supposed to back them. When I was in New York, I woke up every day to new updates and hurdles my friends in Morocco faced. One student even received an email from SIT’s travel agency asking, in a poorly worded email with a few typos, if she could take a ferry to Spain and find a flight from there. Ferries to Spain had already been suspended the day before.

My heart hurt especially for Nejra Kravic, a Bosnian citizen. Had all of this happened five months ago, I would also not be a U.S. person, meaning SIT would not support me like they did not support Nejra in contacting her embassy. Part of why I wanted to get out quickly was because I didn’t want to be in a position where I felt abandoned by institutions in a complex and scary legal system for a 21-year-old. Thankfully, everyone is now home. 

My city, New York, NY, is now an epicenter of the pandemic. My parents, who work for UBS and the Financial Times, fear losing their jobs once the stock market inevitably crashes. I am now worried about my employment opportunities since I will likely graduate into a recession. I worry about two of my friends who are now in zero-income households, since their family members lost work due to business closures. 

All the dominos have fallen, but it feels like it’s only the beginning.