Since the quarantine was announced in Peru in early March, Mateus Pereira has seen his routine change dramatically. Accustomed to the intense academic experience, he suddenly had to remain isolated due to an invisible threat: the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.
The medical student is Brazilian, but lives in Lima, capital city of the neighboring country of Peru, which has gradually seen the number of infected people steadily increase, despite preemptive measures adopted by the local government to contain the spread of the disease.
“At first, we didn’t think about going home,” explains the 24-year-old, referring to himself and other students from different regions of Brazil.
All of them–50 in total–are enrolled at the Universidad Peruana Unión (UPeU) , a higher education institution maintained by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which, like most schools, is now offering online classes for the remainder of the school year. Shortly after announcing the quarantine, the Peruvian government declared that it would be extended until the end of the month.
At the beginning of April, concern over the virus increased, and the Brazilians began to make contact with the embassy to find ways to leave Peru. First attempts at contact yielded the response that there were no repatriation flights available.
“We found that some flights were leaving with 150 people, but our group was only 50,” Pereira explained. “We were told that we could only return by land.” With the borders of several countries closed, this would not be a simple alternative .
Dawn of Hope
Throughout the month of April, the students continued to experience anxiety, worry, and homesickness as the Brazilian government increased the rigidity of the social isolation measures in attempts to keep people off the streets. Contamination cases started to appear in the region where Pereira lived, increasing concern over the local supply of food and other necessities.
During that time, Pereira and his schoolmates discovered that there was a possible flight on May 6. After confirming its existence, their parents began to make contact with authorities in Brazil who could help them. The legal office of the South American Adventist headquarters, which had previously assisted in other repatriation processes, was also involved.
A plane landed in Lima with missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they had already paid for the return flight, which they were no longer planning on using. They offered the flight to the Brazilian government, and Pereira and the other students managed to be included on the list of passengers. Unfortunately, takeoff was canceled a day before it was scheduled due to operational problems.
“We were extremely frustrated,” Pereira admitted. “Everyone had their bags packed and we were ready to go. Here we do not have the support of family, we’re trying to take classes online, and we’re stuck indoors at boarding school. The desire to return home was intense.”
The group, which had been praying for a solution since the beginning, intensified their prayers. They made a list so that every half hour a different person would pray for their specific goal to get home to Peru.
On Friday, May 8, the students received confirmation that the flight would take place the following Tuesday, May 12.
On their way to the airport, on a bus made available by the university, Pereira said with a mixture of euphoria and anxiety, “This is a gift from God. He moved all the mountains and we are going home.”
In addition to support from the local authorities, such as state representative Damaris Moura (PSDB – SP), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Peruvian Consulate, and the Brazilian consulate in Peru, the Adventist Church has also agreed to cover insurance for each traveling student.
Feasibility for return
This is not the first time the South American Adventist headquarters has helped repatriate Brazilian citizens; throughout April and the first week of May, the denomination’s legal office made it possible for more than 40 students from Universidad Adventista del Plata, located in Argentina, to return home.
With countries in rigid quarantine, it was difficult both to stay and to leave. Due to safety regulations, those who lived in boarding schools, for example, would not be able to return to campus once they left.
During the month of March, when COVID-19 received pandemic status, the South American church headquarters also had 44 Brazilian missionaries in Guinea-Bissau. When the local airport was closed, the missionaries were unable to return to Brazil. As a result, they had to travel to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and from there separate into three smaller groups. With one-week intervals between flights, they returned to Brazil via Senegal, Spain, and Turkey.
“The Adventist Church exists to serve people,” said Luigi Braga, attorney general for the South American Adventist Church headquarters. “We seek to fulfill our role in the most effective way possible. In this case, we combined our resources with the support of the state and the grace of God to accomplish his mission.”
“The church was essential in this process,” said Pereira, who landed in Campinas on the evening of Tuesday, May 12. On Wednesday, May 13, he continued on to Recife, and from there he drove to his parents’ house. “My church offered extremely important support to me and my fellow students.. We’ve missed our families a lot and we are so glad to be home. I can’t wait to see my parents.”