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Dan and Elizabeth Turk safely back in the US

Their hearts remain in Madagascar

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Dan Turk attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new fruit tree center in Madagascar. (Photo by Germain Andrianaivoson)

LOUISVILLE — Long-time mission co-workers Dan and Elizabeth Turk are still separated, but at least they are now in the same country.

Their bodies are safe in Florida, near Elizabeth’s parents, but big chunks of their hearts are still in Madagascar, where they have served for more than 23 years with the FJKM, the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar.

After a 14-day self-quarantine, Elizabeth has moved in with her parents in Orlando. Daughter Frances moved from her dorm to an apartment nearby and son Robert is isolating with his dad at an Airbnb.

The journey to Florida started just as COVID-19 was being declared a global pandemic. The first week of March, Elizabeth was hospitalized and treated for dehydration, not for COVID-19. “I was about as sick as I’ve ever been,” she said. She also suffers from asthma and some reduced lung capacity.

“We always knew the health system in Madagascar wasn’t great,” she said, “but this really reinforced the reality.”

She began talking with the World Mission crisis team about leaving so she could receive good care if she were to become ill since she is in a higher risk category. Dan was getting ready for the dedication of a major project on March 19 and 20, a fruit tree center four hours north of their home in Antananarivo. Elizabeth planned to leave in late March, but Madagascar’s president announced the airport would suspend all international flights the Friday before she was set to leave. They got the word Tuesday night. She went to bed not knowing if she would be able to change her flight. She woke up to find she had a flight out on Thursday.

Dan and his team left Thursday morning for the dedication and Elizabeth went to the airport. She had initially planned to stay with her parents, who are in their 80s, but realized she needed to self-quarantine before reuniting with her parents.

Dan was driving back from the fruit tree center dedication when he received word that the first case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the country. That led to the cancellation of church services on Sunday and a lockdown in the capital city.

Shortly afterwards, Presbyterian World Mission announced that it was calling all mission personnel back to the United States.

People who came in on some of the last international flights to Antananarivo were testing positive. The U.S. embassy began coordinating flights with other embassies and Dan was able to leave on an Ethiopian Airlines flight, organized by the South Korean Embassy, on March 31.

Dan and Elizabeth Turk have been mission co-workers in Madagascar for more than 23 years. (Photo by John Martin)

“We are very grateful to PC(USA) for looking out for our well-being,” Dan said. “But at the same time, we have mixed feelings about leaving our country of service, our partner church, our colleagues, knowing that they do not have a good health system as backup as the virus spreads.”

Currently in Madagascar, there are nearly 100 cases, but the number is growing exponentially. He said the initial cases were people who had come from Europe, but now there are “contact” cases indicating community spread. He said the government in Madagascar reacted quickly, closing airports and schools and recommending isolation.

“People are taking these measures to heart,” said Dan. “The problem is that the money they make today is used to buy tonight’s supper. People can’t afford to not work. They can’t afford to isolate in their homes for very long at all. The economy of the country is in a nosedive, but also people having enough to eat is being greatly impacted. There is likely going to be a lot of hunger, so in addition to the health system being overwhelmed as cases start to multiply, there are people going hungry.”

Madagascar enjoys a strong tourism industry. But with airports closed, tourism is non-existent, further impacting the economy.

A passionate environmentalist, Dan is also worried about people turning to environmentally destructive practices in order to survive. He expects to see a huge increase in deforestation as people turn trees into charcoal to make money. He said there were also reports of poaching protected turtles for their meat.

With advanced degrees in public health, Elizabeth is concerned about the current state of the health system, which has not been invested in since the country’s 2009 political crisis. The health system is already behind and it would never have had the capacity to deal with a pandemic, she said. “It’s going to be a real struggle for them to meet the criteria of sanitation, of hygiene and protection of health care workers,” she said.

World Mission and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance are helping by offering grants to partners in this time of extreme need. World Mission has set up a health review team which Elizabeth participates in to review proposals from partners about what their immediate needs are.

“It’s hard to be here,” said Elizabeth. “In one sense, being here in the U.S. allows us to network and share stories and get support, because it’s a lot easier to communicate on this side of the ocean. But our hearts are back there with the people who are dealing with these issues day to day. We are grateful to do what we can to support the FJKM church as it reaches out in this difficult time meeting people’s needs and sharing God’s love.”

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to support the peace and reconciliation work of church partners through World Mission.

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