Where Sandra Garcia Gomez lives in northwest Spain, snow is unheard of and the few mountains they have would barely rate as a bump along the foothills of Colorado.
That’s why Sandra’s family of four couldn’t wait to visit.
Now they might not be able to return home as planned.
The family’s long-awaited sojourn to visit childhood friends in Centennial quickly turned from a 15-day snow frolic to a frantic blitz of emails and phone calls trying to get back.
“It’s been impossible, frightening and unbelievable all tied into one,” said Garcia, a part-time pharmacy worker in the coastal hamlet of Sada in Spain’s region of Galicia. “We are stuck here with no way of knowing whether we’ll be able to get home next week, next month or next fall.”
Garcia, her husband, Cesar Freire Lesta, and the couple’s two young children are among an unknown number of foreigners stuck in the United States desperately trying, most unsuccessfully, to find ways to return home, some to a country already locked down by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Spain has nearly 48,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19, the disease that comes from the virus, and has logged more than 3,400 deaths. Residents are not allowed outside more than two at a time, not even inside a car.
The pandemic has turned into a mad global dash of citizens trying to return to their homelands, including more than 13,000 Americans stuck overseas, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
In Iraq, Katie Biniki, a 27-year-old emergency room nurse from Centennial who went to the Middle East as part of a medical-humanitarian effort to treat refugees in border camps, can’t even find an open airport, let alone a flight out.
“The consulate has been less than helpful and I’ve heard nothing from the U.S. government the past eight days,” Biniki told The Denver Post in an interview via Skype. “We don’t get phone service and I’ve visited the consulate here four or five times. They say wash your hands and don’t touch your face. That’s the best they can offer.”
The airlines Garcia’s family used to get to Colorado can get the family back to London, but the airline flying to Spain is already booking weeks in advance, then canceling many of those flights.
“It’s frantic,” she said. “We are eight people in this townhome in Centennial and our resources are almost done. We try to help, but that will be nearly impossible very shortly.”
Ukrainian Zoia Oleshko, came in September to visit her pregnant daughter and son-in-law for the birth of their twins.
“Her main problem is she is missing her husband very much and the soonest we can get an affordable flight is in August,” son-in-law Alex Advena said. “This is very bad that we have no choice but to spend a lot of money to reschedule her canceled flight or to wait many months.”
Oleshko said she also cares for an elderly aunt back home in Kyiv, she said through Advena’s translations, making her even more concerned for her family’s welfare.
“She’s absolutely worried, crying in bed,” Advena said. “And now her medical insurance is expiring and they say she cannot renew it unless she is there in person. I think it’s very dangerous for her now to become infected, and I’m losing my hair trying to find a way to help.”
Government officials say about the only way to get home is to pepper the airlines, hoping for an opening.
That came late Tuesday for Garcia, who said Iberia Airlines, the national airline of Spain, had cobbled a flight from Chicago to Madrid the family could grab Wednesday for a reduced price.
“We are rushing out the door, hoping we make the flights, hoping they are not canceled,” Garcia said.
In Erbil, Iraq, Biniki said she feels helpless, unable to return home and do what she’s trained to do: offer medical help in a crisis.
“I actually want to get home just so I can work,” said Biniki, who works at University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. “I feel so bad. … I need to get there.”
A nearby American airbase has not offered any help, either, she said. Police roam the streets enforcing a curfew because of the virus. She’s confined to a house with a doctor from California and a logistics assistant from Germany. A journey home is a complex array of flights that Biniki said she’s booked and rebooked after each inevitable cancellation.
At a nearly deserted Denver International Airport on Wednesday morning, a teary-eyed Christi Gazaway couldn’t hug Spanish exchange student Catalina Martinez hard enough. The two have been together since the 16-year-old came to live with Gazaway in her Yuma home last August.
“I promised her biological parents that I’d protect her and we have no way of knowing what it will look like here in a few weeks,” Gazaway said. “She came to live the American dream, was a cheerleader and desperately wanted to go to prom, to get to the end of the school year, but that’s all gone. It’s heartbreaking.”
Martinez learned of a flight from Chicago in which other exchange students from Spain were trying to board for home.
“They have it so bad there, but her family was worried she’d be sick here and they could not be with her,” Gazaway said. “It’s such a helpless feeling. And she knows she’s going into instant quarantine, unable even to hug her parents or even travel in the same car with them.”
Boarding the plane in Chicago and bound for Madrid, it struck Garcia odd that it was mostly filled with young people. She estimated perhaps six adults among the passengers.
“There was no test, no temperatures taken, nothing,” she texted a Denver Post reporter. “They are not respecting social distancing on the airplane, and there are a lot of people here; a lot of young people.”
Iberia flight 6274 took off for Madrid at 5:29 p.m. Wednesday, central daylight time.
Garcia and her family were surprised how closely seated the 300-or-so passengers on the plane were to each other. After the two-hour flight to Chicago and an eight-hour trip to Madrid ahead of them, she was still feeling the anxiety of the past week.
“The airplane was completely full, with no type of protection for anyone,” she texted Thursday morning after the plane landed in Madrid. “Then when we arrived, there was no testing, no anything, as if it was just a normal day like any other.”
The family moved through customs and the airport in Madrid without any restrictions, she said and arrived at the train station to await the next leg of their trip: a six-hour ride north because the usual 90-minute flight wasn’t running.
At the station was the family’s first real encounter with Spain’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“The wait at the train station went horribly,” Garcia texted. “We came on an airplane with 300 people and nothing. No sooner do we get here, we’re advised three times that I couldn’t even sit with my children on a bench, that we needed to keep two meters of distance between us. I can’t wait to get home.”
That would happen after the family reaches the northern city of Betanzos and they take a taxi — one for each of them because no more than two people are allowed in a taxi at a time — for the half-hour drive to their home.
“I just want to get home,” Garcia texted. “We’ll be quarantined, but we’ll be quarantined in our own space.”