Local Peace Corps volunteer describes days of uncertainty during weeklong evacuation from Europe due to COVID-19
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series outlining former Gainesville resident Sydnie Russian’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and her chaotic evacuation last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The story’s introduction, in the April 8 edition of the Times, described Sydnie’s experience while living in North Macedonia.
Former Ozark County resident Sydnie Russian had spent 18 months living in North Macedonia as a Peace Corps volunteer.
By February, life had really started to fall in place.
She was living with a host family she loved, she’d experienced the Albanian and Macedonian cultures of her new country, participated in the local Ramadan festival and she’d really started to make progress in her job, teaching English to students in first through ninth grades at a local school.
But just as Sydnie was looking toward the future, planning a regional spelling bee for 400 students and organizing other fun extracurricular activities for students in her village, COVID-19 began to spread through Europe.
Slowly but surely, COVID-19 spreads
Sydnie explained that, as a part of eastern Europe and the Balkans region, North Macedonia is a very mobile and socially populous country.
“Many people work abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Italy,” she said. “Everyone has family that lives and works abroad.”
Sydney said that in early February when the COVID-19 situation in Italy began to worsen, many people started coming back home from other countries to North Macedonia.
The country got its first confirmed COVID-19 case on Feb. 26, when a woman traveling back from Italy became ill and tested positive for the virus.
“She was diagnosed at the Serbian/Macedonian border and sent to the hospital in the capital of Skopje. For about a week, life went on as normal, just with a lot of fake news and social media hype,” Sydnie said. “Then, slowly but surely, more cases began to be diagnosed from people who had recently traveled. We were told to wash our hands frequently and had to address the issue in our classes to our students, but there were no real social or governmental impacts until March 10, when the Ministry of Education declared a two-week suspension of school.”
Sydnie said, up to that point, Peace Corps volunteers were getting regular updates from the organization’s country director and medical staff. After the school suspension was announced, the communication suddenly went silent.
“We heard nothing from staff for about 24 hours, and that’s when I knew something was going to happen,” she said.
By March 12, Sydnie and her fellow volunteers were put into “standfast,” the first step in the Peace Corps’ emergency action plan. The plan meant Peace Corps volunteers were not allowed to leave their sites. Sydnie said she was told to pack two bags, gather and document the rest of her belongings, and make arrangements for any pets.
She had adopted a fluffy, yellow-furred puppy in January 2019, named Juno. She grew quite close with the dog and soon worked out a plan to take Juno with her back home to the States.
The volunteers were in standfast status for two full days, awaiting word from the Peace Corps headquarters to give North Macedonia Peace Corps volunteers the OK to evacuate the country and return to the U.S.
“Other countries in our region, Albania and Kosovo, were beginning to shut their borders, so they were being evacuated,” Sydnie said. “Contrary to what most people think, we were not evacuated due to health concerns from COVID-19. We were evacuated, for the most part, because if a volunteer were to become ill in a way that could not be treated in [that] country, something like invasive surgery, or they could not continue their service with a medical condition, such as a broken leg, they would have to be sent either to America or another country for medical treatment. With the country borders being closed, this would be impossible and would therefore put us in danger. The Peace Corps also recognized that many volunteers would wish to be with their families during this unprecedented event.”
Leaving without saying goodbye
On March 14, the Peace Corps ordered Sydnie and the other volunteers to bring two suitcases to the country’s capital, ready to be evacuated.
“We had six hours to say goodbye to our communities,” she said.
Sydnie arranged for a taxi to take her and her dog Juno to a kennel in the country’s capital to stay until the dog’s scheduled March 30 flight to return to the United States with Sydnie.
“To save money, I rode in the same taxi as my dog, so I wasn’t able to say goodbye to any of my students, any of my colleagues, neither of my host families or one of my counterparts,” she said.
By 6 p.m. that night, all 130 Peace Corps volunteers currently in North Macedonia were packed into a hotel that was being renovated in the Macedonian capital city of Skopje.
“We were not told very much information because our staff didn’t have that much information,” she said. “We couldn’t gather in groups of more than three. We had to sign documents lining out the outstanding debts we had to our host families and landlords, such as internet bills. Our doctors gave us masks and disinfectant. We were all shocked and shared stories of our quick departures.”
Frustrating ‘Groundhog-Day-esque’ situation
The next afternoon, the volunteers were taken to the airport.
“We were told that the Peace Corps had arranged a chartered plane from Jordan Airlines that was first going to pick up the 60 volunteers in Kosovo who were also trying to evacuate and then pick us up. After that, we would go back to Jordan, switch planes, then make a trans-Atlantic flight with one stop on an island off the coast of Portugal to refuel before landing in Washington, D.C,” Sydnie said. “From there, we would have other flights to get us back to our homes.”
The volunteers, all wearing masks, waited at the North Macedonian airport for over six hours before they were told the plane was not able to land in Kosovo because of a miscommunication between governments. The volunteers were sent back to the hotel with instructions to return the next day, when the plans would be executed again.
“The next day, we didn’t even leave the hotel. This time, it was the North Macedonian airspace that could not be landed in because on Monday, March 16, North Macedonia closed their borders. Both staff and volunteers in both Macedonia and Kosovo were frustrated and fearful,” Sydnie said.
“For five days, we were waiting in a hotel for a plane that would never come. We had been rushed to leave our sites only to sit for five days of a Groundhog Day-esque repetitive cycle of meals in our rooms, lots of questions and no answers. We were allowed to leave to go on walks but only in small groups,” she said.
The Peace Corps announced its first ever global evacuation on March 17, meaning over 7,300 volunteers all over the world were trying to get flights back to the U.S.
“It felt to us that we should have been prioritized because of our proximity to Italy and the fact that we started our evacuation two days before the global one, but now Peace Corps resources were being stretched too thin, and getting us out was becoming harder by the hour,” Sydnie said.
“On the last day before the airport in Skopje officially closed down, March 18, through the hard work of our administrative team, we all got commercial flights from Skopje to Istanbul, Turkey, and then on to various different hub airports back in the States. The Kosovo staff and volunteers were not included in this plan and remained in the country for another day,” she said.
Finally arriving home - with a troubling lack of precautions
Sydnie left the hotel at 5 a.m. for her 9 a.m. flight to Istanbul. She and a group of nine other Peace Corps volunteers flew from Istanbul to Atlanta on a 12 1/2-hour flight. They spent the night in Atlanta before dispersing to flights to their homes across the United States.
“My first flight to St. Louis was canceled due to the airlines trying to cut back on operations. By 10:30 a.m. March 19, I was back in Missouri after traveling for over 35 hours,” she said.
Sydnie said each airport she encountered had a different level of measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19, but measures seemed to get noticeably less strict the closer she got to the Ozarks.
“In Skopje, all airport staff and all volunteers were mandated to wear masks and gloves. It felt very serious. On the flight to Istanbul, we were asked to fill out a survey asking where we came from, if we had any contact with individuals from Wuhan, China, and if we had any symptoms. This survey was never taken from us. Once we landed in Istanbul, most of us never saw the rest of our cohort again,” Sydnie said. “At my gate, I was screened for gunpowder residue, but not for a temperature. Once again, we were given a similar survey to fill out at the end of our flight. This one was taken and looked at by CDC health officials at the gate in Atlanta.”
Sydnie said about half of the group of nine volunteers were pulled aside in Atlanta to have their temperatures taken, but none were kept beyond that initial reading.
“In Atlanta, it was a very different feel. Not many people were wearing masks or gloves. On my flight to Missouri, which was considerably empty, I only counted four others who were wearing a mask. At Lambert Airport [in St. Louis], I saw no airport staff in masks, and no one asked me anything about symptoms or travel history. If these are the precautions we are taking already two weeks into a considerable outbreak in the USA, I am not surprised at how quickly it is starting to spread,” she said.
Sydnie says her friends and family are overjoyed that she has returned home nine months early, but she said the Peace Corps volunteers are all having a hard time coping with the sudden return.
“Many of us feel that we had just begun to truly feel that we were making a difference in our sites after 18 months there. Other volunteers of the newer group [in North Macedonia] had only been there since September 2019 and were still integrating to their sites and learning the languages. They definitely did not have the chance to even really begin their service,” she said.
Initially, members of Sydnie’s cohort were given two choices, to “close our service” (COS) early, or to be put on an “interrupted service.”
If Sydnie chose to file for interrupted service, she would still get all the benefits of the Peace Corps and could reapply to return to North Macedonia. If she chose COS, her service in the Peace Corps would end immediately.
The newest group of Peace Corps volunteers in North Macedonia were placed on administrative leave and were getting paid $38 a day for up to 30 days. If the post was reopened before those 30 days were up, they would be sent back to Macedonia. If not, they would be put onto interrupted service.
“One day after we got home, all volunteers automatically had been put on COS, effectively firing each volunteer, giving them 60 days health insurance and the same benefits, regardless of time spent in service,” Sydnie said. “This means that now over 7,000 people with the same skills are suddenly jobless, soon to be without health insurance, and those benefits we all initially wanted are now over-saturated with applicants.”
“We have been dropped off as surprise burdens to our families, many of which are high risk for getting COVID-19 or recently laid off. The Peace Corps has given us one-third of our readjustment allowance to help with this financial burden, but this means the money we initially planned to use for down payments on cars and housing arrangements in November are now being used to pay for hotels to be quarantined in or food supplies for the foreseeable future as the job market dries up.”
Life for Sydnie now
Sydnie and the rest of the Peace Corps volunteers began a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine after arriving back to their respective home states. Sydnie completed hers, symptom-free, on April 2.
“I consider myself lucky, because I had a safe, free place to quarantine in Washington, Missouri, with my boyfriend’s family in their finished basement. I had my own kitchen and bathroom, so I was less likely to put them at risk. This wasn’t the case for many volunteers. Many had to stay in a hotel or put their loved ones at risk. Through social media and the returned Peace Corps volunteer network, many were able to find suitable housing for their two-week quarantine, but not all. Many are still unsure what their next steps in life will be. We have no idea if North Macedonia will ever be opened as a Peace Corps post again. Our staff remains hopeful, but no one can be sure in times like these.”
Sydnie started a new job as an education assistant with the Painting Contractors Association national headquarters in St. Louis. She is working virtually, completing most of her work online.
“After a year and half of living out of a suitcase, I started my new job remotely, but it feels hard to rejoice over this new career step when it was forced on me, and so many of my friends all over the country are not having the same easy transition,” she said.
In last week’s description of her time in North Macedonia (See “Ozark County Peace Corps volunteer describes living and teaching in North Macedonia - and rushing to evacuate,” April 8) Sydnie explained that the Macedonian and Albanian culture of her friends, co-workers and host family members in North Macedonia is very collectivist, meaning they gather at each others’ homes every day to visit and converse. She worries that their lifestyle puts them more at risk of contracting the deadly virus.
“I am scared for the people I came to love during my service who are still in North Macedonia because they do not have the same resources or rights to run away to another country. Because they are a social group, the virus is spreading easily between family members, and they are finding it very hard to change their lifestyles. Food and online delivery services are only available in the capital, for example. I am truly heartbroken that I was not able to explain why I had to leave or even say goodbye to my students. Juno is still in North Macedonia. She was supposed to fly out March 30, but now there is a cargo embargo on live animals. My travel agent is hopeful that the embargo will be lifted by April 17, but there is no guarantee. In the meantime, she is being held in a kennel, where she looks happy from the videos and pictures I get.”
Sydnie says that although she’s not happy with how her Peace Corps service has ended, she has come to terms with the early end of her time in North Macedonia.
“I feel some satisfaction with the projects and work I was able to complete in the 18 months I spent there,” she said. “I got to learn two new languages, immerse myself in cultures completely different from my own, travel to 12 new countries in Europe and see a more clear future for my career path and what I want to study in graduate school.”