The last flight arriving from Washington carrying Egyptians stuck in the US due to the coronavirus lockdown landed in Egypt early Sunday morning.
EgyptAir, the country’s carrier, said the flight was the last to return stranded Egyptians.
“The company managed to repatriate thousands of Egyptian citizens from various countries,” Roshdi Zakaria, president of EgyptAir Holding Company, was quoted as saying.
Ziad, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, was lucky enough to take the first flight leaving Washington last Thursday.
“I called EgyptAir and filled the application form online. Just a day later, the embassy contacted me about my flight details. I had to collect my things quickly and go to Washington,” he said.
Ziad is now spending his 14-day quarantine in the Red Sea resort of Marsa Alam. Many of his friends are still stuck in the US and Canada, he added.
The number of Egyptians in the US wanting to leave is nearly 1,000, according to Minister of Immigration and Expatriates Affairs Nabila Makram. She said her ministry received several requests from Egyptian students in the US to return home especially following the closure of universities.
Amr Abdallah, who was visiting his daughter in Santa Monica, contacted the consulate on a 24-hour hotline for the stranded. “The embassy then sent a list of those who wished to fly on EgyptAir which contacted the passengers later to inform them of their travel details to Egypt via Paris,” Abdallah said.
“During our transit in Paris,” he added, “we were told we would be quarantined in a hotel in Cairo for 15 days.
“The news was a shock to many passengers who were not sure they would be able to afford the expenses.” However, as it turned out, he said, all expenses at the hotel were covered by the government.
Egyptians in other countries were not as lucky. Islam, a honeymooner in Bali, Indonesia, arrived on 16 March and was planning to spend a week. He heard the news about the closure of air space even before he had finished unpacking. Egypt’s suspension of international flights, which began on 19 March, was originally set to last until 31 March but was extended to 15 April. It is not clear whether it will be lifted then.
“I am in contact with other stranded Egyptians through WhatsApp. As a group, we are in constant touch with the embassy and a member of parliament who is monitoring our case,” Islam said.
“We were promised that a plane will return us on Saturday 4 April provided we sign a paper that we will return to a 14-day-quarantine in Marsa Alam,” he added, “but then we were told that we must wait until 15 April when flights resume.
“Now, most of us are staying in the same hotel which is literally deserted and we are trying to support each other. We have no other choice,” Islam said.
Makram said that Egyptian embassies in Indonesia and Singapore are trying to coordinate with the authorities there to return Egyptians.
Twenty-one Egyptians can’t leave Brazil and are left with no choice but to wait.
Menna was attending a two-month public relations course in Brazil. She is now in Brazil with 20 other Egyptians who were there to study, on holiday or for their honeymoon.
Amr Abdel-Moneim, Menna’s father, told Al-Ahram Weekly that they contacted the embassy “which was very cooperative, but could not do anything. They promised to help but, given the distance and the few number of passengers, their situation is more difficult,” he said.
A minimum 140 passengers is needed to send an emergency plane, according to Makram.
However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel, Abdel-Moneim said. The Brazilian embassy arranged with Ethiopian Airlines to repatriate Brazilians in Egypt on Tuesday. “I hope the authorities can arrange for the same plane to take back the Egyptians on its trip back from Brazil,” he said.
There are hundreds of students studying in England who are also waiting to be repatriated after the suspension of universities until the next academic year. Some were lucky to make it through after several flights headed to the UK to retrieve Egyptians.
Farah, who is studying interior design in Manchester, was fortunate to catch a plane last week Tuesday and is now spending a 14-day quarantine in a hotel in Cairo.
“The quarantine is relaxing. I try to spend most of the time in my room practising social distancing. But sometimes I leave my room and meet the others who try to socialise with caution,” Farah said.
It is possible that another flight will head to the UK next week, according to a tweet by Jeoffrey Adams, the British ambassador to Cairo.
“We are in discussions with the authorities and airlines to arrange further return flights, possibly next Sunday, 12 April, for the last remaining British visitors in Egypt,” Adams said on twitter.
The Ministry of Immigration called on all Egyptians abroad and who wish to return to fill an application form available on the ministry’s website or contact their embassies by phone or in person.
“We give priority to those who were on business trips or went to visit family members abroad and their break ended, or their visas expired, and they have to leave. Given that most of them have no shelter and may not have enough cash, we had to run emergency flights to return them... The return of residents needs more time and different arrangements,” Makram said.
The situation in the Gulf, where thousands of Egyptians work, is no better.
EgyptAir said last month that it would charter flights from Kuwait to Cairo from 26 March to 30 March. Another flight was added on 31 March.
Talks are underway with Saudi Arabia to allow more emergency flights to return Egyptians there, according to the Ministry of Immigration.
Thirty-seven Egyptians in Tunisia were returned last week via Tunis Air. Several were on business trips while others are working for UN organisations operating in Libya. They were forced to go to Tunisia to return home.
Last week, an emergency flight arrived with 140 Egyptian passengers in Oman.
Egyptians in Sudan were allowed to return home by bus via the Qustol-Eshkit crossing that opened in March. However, it was closed late last month to control coronavirus.
All Egyptians brought from overseas undergo tests for the coronavirus and are asked to remain in self-isolation for 28 days. Those who are required to spend the first 14 days in a hotel either in Cairo or Marsa Alam stay another 14 days at home.
The return of Egyptians was coordinated between the Ministry of Immigration, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Health and the Foreign Ministry. A task force was set up representing the four ministries to receive return requests and respond to queries. It has received thousands of requests.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly