A JMU student who was stranded in Honduras amid coronavirus evacuations has returned home safely. On Sunday, Jessie Stramaglia (’18) and her Students Helping Honduras group took a government flight back to Louisiana. Stramaglia said the only reason she was able to take the flight was because the plane that flew into Honduras was deporting Hondurans from the U.S.
Stramaglia was in Honduras to teach her kindergartners at Villa Soleada Bilingual School in El Progreso, Honduras, when the government announced it’d close schools for 14 days due to the spread of COVID-19.
“Once the government announced that it would be closing schools, we were like ‘OK, that’s fine,’” Stramaglia said. “It was similar to what the schools in the United States were doing at the time, so it wasn’t something we weren’t familiar with.”
Stramaglia was teaching through the Students Helping Honduras program, its mission is to help alleviate extreme poverty and violence in Honduras through youth empowerment and education. She and her 12 roommates, who are from multiple locations in the U.S., were teaching English to various grades at this local school.
Once Stramaglia heard the news, she started looking at plane tickets to the U.S. to visit her family but was advised by the director to stay in the country since the situation was rapidly changing.
She waited it out for a bit, and around 4 p.m. on March 15, the organization announced it’d be sending the teachers back to the U.S. until further notice. Two hours later, the Honduran government said it’d be closing borders at midnight. Stramaglia and the group of teachers with her in El Progreso had six hours to figure out a plan to leave the country.
“I’m thinking there are about hundreds of us here, and they gave us six hours to get out,” Stramaglia said. “We obviously couldn’t book a flight, go to the airport and get on a plane within those six hours.”
From that moment on, Stramaglia and her colleagues began scrambling to find options. She said she booked four different flights back to the U.S. only for each one of them to be canceled, rescheduled and canceled again.
After those options fell through, they reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, which wasn't responsive.
Shelby Soliwoda, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019, said the group has gone through a wide range of emotions. One minute they were laughing, the next minute they were sobbing. She said the entire situation has left them emotionally exhausted.
“You feel like a caged animal; it makes [life] very real,” Soliwoda said. “You feel like you’re in a movie, this is unprecedented. We’re trapped in a third world country, and this is not the place anyone would want to be in for this event.”
The group also got news that the American Football Events women’s soccer team was also in the country to compete in America’s Women Bowl. With the team’s resources, it was able to get a military airplane and evacuated on March 20. Yet everyone else was still stranded.
“It’s very apparent to me that our government did not have the foresight or the consideration to think about their citizens abroad,” Soliwoda said. “The fact that the embassy has diluted us and told us misinformation and has been like, ‘Oh, contact this email,’ but all the email does is an automated message — there’s no human being to talk to.”
From that moment on, Stramaglia said she and her colleagues started reaching out to as many news sources, celebrities and members of Congress they could. Additionally, they started posting on social media to get the word out to see if anyone has any connections they could use.
Not only was transportation a worry for them, but so was surviving in the country. As of March 22, Honduras only had 26 confirmed cases of Coronavirus, but, being in a third world country, electricity and water weren't reliable. Stramaglia said the group had food, but that it may run out, and she and her colleagues were worried about crime due to widespread panic.
With different emotions that ran through their heads, Stramaglia said, they also had to wrap their minds around the possibility of them not coming back to teach at their school. The program was originally supposed to end in June, and for Hannah Goosen, a 2019 graduate from the University of Michigan, it’s been difficult for her to handle.
“I won’t be able to say goodbye to my kids or co-working staff,” Goosen said. “You’ve seen so many posts about teachers being sad they couldn’t see their students, and that’s been super hard to grapple with.”
According to an email from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, the country has a curfew, where residents can’t leave their houses after 2 p.m. unless they’re going to the grocery store or pharmacy. Additionally, they’re mandated to be in their homes from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., which may have added additional stress.
There weren't taxis running in the country, but the group’s organization provided them with a truck.
She said their group chat was constantly blowing up with new messages in regard to emotions or if they had someone who could help. But from frustration to sadness, Stramaglia said all they wanted to be is home.
“We have a lot of people from all over the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area — from Virginia Tech, George Mason, to Towson alumni,” Stramaglia said. “We’re hoping that we can band everyone together and get these connections and make it home.”
Contact Talia Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture