Seventeen Americans who were trapped in Peru after the South American country abruptly shut its borders in response to the COVID-19 crisis, have safely returned to their families in the United States, or are on their way home, thanks in large measure to the efforts of Congressman Chris Smith.
Smith, an experienced human rights leader in Congress and a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, worked with the stranded Americans, their families here at home, the U.S. Ambassador to Peru, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Lima, and several top officials at the State Department in Washington to usher all to the United States.
Cheryl Budnick of Middletown was worried her son Dylan, 24, visiting Peru as a tourist, would run out of medication he needed. She said Congressman Smith and his staff worked so hard to bring Dylan home.
“I am so grateful,” Ms. Budnick said. “I was getting nervous about getting my son his medicine. Every single day, day-in and day-out, they called me. They worked so hard to bring him home. I don’t know if he would have come home so soon if it weren’t for Congressman Smith and his staff.”
“When a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic strikes, you want to be in familiar surroundings and close to the ones you love and the medical professionals you know and trust,” said Smith. “When Peru locked its borders, my phones lit up with worried relatives reaching our for help. It was a long, busy week but I am ecstatic that all will be home by Monday night,” Smith said.
“Congressman Smith and his office were an unbelievable help to me during this difficult time,” said Kathy Given, of Ocean County, N.J., whose daughter Kirby was among those stranded in Peru with her rugby team. “The amazing communication and constant updates provided me with a true sense of calmness, knowing that they were actively working to bring Kirby and her teammates home.”
David Manion, of Hamilton, said his daughter Noelia, 16, was in Peru visiting family when the Peruvian government issued a quarantine. The family worked for several weeks and it wasn’t clear Noelia’s case was a priority until Smith got involved.
“I want to thank Congressman Smith for his advocacy and his hard work in getting Americans home,” Mr. Manion said. “The Congressman’s assistance was very helpful.”
Smith penned three letters to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlining the location and needs of the New Jersey residents and others desperate to find a way home, including a March 20th letter in which he named specific Americans needing help. He also led a letter cosigned by two additional members of the Foreign Affairs Committee which said asked that Pompeo to “reassure trapped Americans and their families that their needs are being prioritized” so they and all Americans trapped around the globe due to the emergency should know that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to bring them home.
On March 21st Smith spoke at length with U.S. Ambassador to Peru, Krishna Urs, highlighting specific cases including those individuals stuck in Cusco, which is 11,000 feet above sea level where air quality is thin and a strict curfew was being enforced making it difficult for Americans to get supplies and food. On more than one phone call with the Deputy Chief of Mission, Denison Offutt, Smith pressed the U.S. government officials to charter flights or send in military transport to bring American citizens home. At the start of the crisis there were more than 5,000 U.S. citizens stuck in Peru.
By Friday, March 27 some of Smith’s constituents had made it home–those with medical or special travel conditions that Smith had underscored—and Smith was advised that the rest of the group were scheduled to leave on flights over the next 72 hours. According to State Department officials, there were still more than 2,500 Americans trying to get home from Peru, and the U.S. government will begin charting three flights a day, every day until all Americans who want to come home, have come home.
“To some extent U.S. officials were working their hardest, but something just wasn’t clicking,” Smith said. “Perhaps the abrupt decision by the Peruvian government caught the Embassy off guard, but going forward they must be more flexible, more nimble and better prepared to evacuate Americans from the challenging terrains of Peru, or anywhere, without an uproar from a local Congressman and added anxiety for relatives, mostly parents, desperately waiting at home.”
According to news reports, on March 15 the Peruvian government abruptly announced it would close all borders, effective March 16, subsequently issuing a 15-day quarantine. It later announced that March 22 would be the final day the country would allow official flights to repatriate foreign visitors before the country closed all borders, effectively trapping many Americans and other international visitors in the South American nation. Further repatriation efforts require diplomatic intervention, something Rep. Smith is urging our Ambassador and State Department to prioritize.
Smith has also helped to successfully secure the return of NJ residents from the Dominican Republic and Honduras during the coronavirus pandemic. He said he will continue to work to assist any other constituents stuck overseas and recommended they—or a family member—reach out to him (732-780-3035) with information so he can help.