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Coronavirus: Americans stranded abroad struggle as border closures intensify

"It feels bad to feel like our government doesn’t really care that we're abroad," Channing Stirrat, a student stuck in Ecuador, said.
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Americans stranded overseas worry they'll be stuck for the long haul as countries around the world shut their borders to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Students and instructors from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, were stranded in Ecuador when they couldn't find flights back from their study abroad program.

Channing Stirrat, a junior from Arizona, told NBC News by WhatsApp on Thursday that the program was originally meant to end April 13 but the group began looking for earlier departures when the outbreak intensified.

"We researched frantically," Stirrat said. "We were working with a travel agent in the U.S. who was also searching frantically for us."

Nine of their classmates in the program were able to get out, but Stirrat is one of two students and one instructor who couldn't after their flights were canceled. Their hotel also closed, forcing them to find an Airbnb.

Image: Sailors with the Peruvian Navy stand guard outside Jorge Chavez International Airport after the Peruvian government closed the country's borders in response on Tuesday
Sailors with the Peruvian Navy stand guard outside Jorge Chavez International Airport after the Peruvian government closed the country's borders in response on Tuesday.Sebastian Castaneda / Reuters

While their families and the college have been supportive, the group said the U.S. government hasn't done enough to bring Americans home.

"Like many other stranded people, we're really reliant on the State Department to take some action like many other countries have," said Steve Tufte, a physics professor who is stranded with the remaining students.

"It feels bad to feel like our government doesn’t really care that we're abroad," Stirrat added.

A State Department spokesperson told NBC News that the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad was the highest priority.

The State Department was "considering all options" to assist Americans stuck abroad and was "continuously assessing travel conditions in all areas affected by COVID-19," the spokesperson added.

Another group of students from Lewis and Clark College who were stuck in Morocco as the country imposed bans on foreign travel this week finally all made it to the United Kingdom, instructor Leah Gilbert said Friday. She added that they had also secured flights back to the U.S. that were scheduled to depart later in the day.

The U.S. ambassador to Morocco, David Fischer, issued a video statement on Facebook on Thursday to any remaining travelers saying that officials are "exploring all options, and working around the clock to get every American home safely."

The embassy later announced on Twitter that chartered flights for U.S. citizens had been arranged to depart Friday.

On Thursday, the State Department issued a level 4: Do Not Travel warning or otherwise risk being stranded abroad indefinitely.

President Donald Trump said during a press briefing that he was aware of groups of Americans stuck abroad and officials were working to get them out.

Regarding a large group of students stranded in Peru, Trump said, "We're looking to get them out with military — probably through the military."

The U.S. Embassy in Peru tweeted to stranded Americans on Thursday that it "appreciates your patience as we work with Peruvian authorities on your behalf" and encouraged them to register for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) for updates on the situation.

The embassy was also encouraging those stuck in Peru to sign up with a special registry through Avianca Airlines for those interested in departing flights from Lima and Cusco to the United States.

But the earliest that systems analyst Ching Chan told NBC News she expects to get out of the country was April 3 after failing to secure an earlier flight.

She was vacationing with her husband Daniel, 32, their daughter Leila, 2, and their extended family when the country imposed a travel ban. The family was originally due to fly out back to their home in Milton, Pennsylvania, on March 18, roughly eight hours after Peru closed its borders. Multiple calls to the U.S. Embassy in Peru went unanswered, Chan said.

"As we have yet to hear from our government, we’ve kind of resigned to calling this home for the next two weeks," she said Friday.

Stranded, the family decided to find accommodation through Airbnb to wait out the strict social distancing policies, which included only allowing one person to leave a household for food or medical aid.

Earlier in the week, only two days into the mandatory quarantine, Chan said the family was already "feeling stir-crazy" despite Netflix marathons and card games.

"We’re trying to stay upbeat and thinking of this quarantine as vacation #2 with a LOT of family bonding time," she said.