After growing to love Morocco, I was forced to return home early as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe with unprecedented force.
“Stuck” was a word that I did not think about often. It was for kids who got their arm wedged in the fence at the playground. It was for adventurers wading out of quicksand in the movies. It was for a jar whose lid would not budge, and for writers who could not think of anything to write.
The word was so simple, I thought. But the meaning of “stuck” changed for me.
I was two marvelous months into my study abroad semester in Rabat, far from my home in New York City. I was loving my time in Morocco and I wanted to stay as long as possible. It became clearer every day that the remaining two months of my semester would not go as planned.
The World Health Organization had declared the 2019 novel coronavirus a pandemic and Morocco’s recorded cases were growing. By March 13, Morocco had banned travel with several European countries. One day later, it extended the ban to 25 more countries, including eight in Africa, four in the Middle East, and one in South America.
Finally, I had decided that it was time to go. I booked a direct flight from Casablanca to New York for the following Sunday, eight days away. If I changed my mind, I could cancel in 24 hours. I didn’t have time to change my mind. Less than 24 hours later, on March 15, Morocco announced a ban on all international travel. I was stuck.
A sense of calm, or maybe it was denial, engulfed me when I saw the news. With a deep breath, I accepted my fate. I loved Morocco, at least now I knew I had to stay. My newfound best friends were with me, I lived with a host family who cared for me, and I still had much of the country left to explore.
A way out
My contentment didn’t last long. The next day, as I ate lunch at a local restaurant, the waiter announced they were closing, and we would have to pay and leave. I soon found out all of the restaurants in the country were being asked to close.
The schools, the shops in the medina (old city), and the theaters were all told to close. Days later, Morocco declared a state of emergency and quickly went into lockdown. The future became unknown and scary. Conditions in New York City were at least as bad as in Morocco at the time, but I yearned for my family. I wanted to care for them if anything happened.
My family, and my study abroad program and I worked frantically to find out if the 20-some US citizens in the program would be able to leave, and how. Neither the United States embassy nor the Consulate had reached out, and we felt lost. I learned from a New York Times article published on March 18 that I was one of 3,000 Americans stranded in Morocco and, like me, few of them had received help from the United States, even when they had asked for it.
After extensive research, I discovered that a few flights were leaving. I could not be certain which airports and airlines were operating, and if flights posted online existed at all. I was in a whirlwind of the unknown.
Finally, a friend and I found a promising flight on Swiss airlines through Zurich. It required a four-hour trip the next morning at 4 a.m. to get to Marrakech. We bought it.
That night, I lay awake anxiously. It was my last night in Morocco, if all went well. If it didn’t, I’d be coming back to wait out the next two months—or longer—in the bedroom I was about to say goodbye to.
Then, at 1 a.m., I received an urgent call from the head of my academic program. The US consulate had just sent out an email about emergency charter flights that morning out of Marrakech. It was first come, first served.
Finally, the United States had reached out to help. Although it should have calmed me, I felt anxious about the immediacy of it all. I had spent many painful hours trying to figure out how to get home, I had been forced to be independent in a time when I desperately needed aid. Only now, after agonizing effort, help was on the way.
I could not believe that this was the first concrete information the US had provided, and that they had delivered it in the middle of the night. At least it was something. I already had a flight booked but I knew anything could happen. I signed on.
Four other students and I piled groggily into a van at 4 a.m. We were nervous, excited, and sad. Whatever happened next, I knew I had to come back to Morocco someday.
At the airport, we went our separate ways. Somehow, it felt as if we were not really leaving each other. We waved goodbye from our respective lines before turning our backs for good.
After hours of waiting, my friend and I reached the clerk to check in with Swiss air. She took one look at us, and said, “We can’t let you on this flight. It is for Swiss residents only.”
We were crushed. After all the struggles and pain, it made perfect sense that this last leg would not go smoothly.
And so, we started on another line. The chartered repatriation flights for US citizens. We heard American accents for the first time in months. There was an odd familiarity that we couldn’t reconcile. A premature “welcome home” that we were not ready to hear.
Finally, we made it on the chartered flight to London. From London, we would have to take a connecting flight to the United States. We were told that we would receive the information for the flight to the US by email once we landed. Once we arrived, I waited for hours, and never received it. I tried to contact the consulate in Morocco, but it was closed for the evening.
Exhausted and close to my breaking point, I purchased one last flight from London to New York. I just needed to get home. Nothing was certain, but this was the surest way.
Somehow, I landed in New York City. My dad was there to pick me up and we approached each other with tears in our eyes. After days of traveling, I wasn’t sure how to handle it. The city was locked down, and I faced a 14-day quarantine. But I was home, it was over, and I had my fond memories of my all-too-short time in Morocco to carry with me.