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Prayers and determination bring Peru YAVs home safely

With a lot of help from their friends, here’s the story of their arduous return to the U.S.

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The three Peru Young Adult Volunteers, Juliana Bernier, Andrew Avram and Rachel Adams. (Photo by Jed Koball)

LOUISVILLE — The phrase “it takes a village” has new meaning for the Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) serving in Peru.

All three YAVs — Juliana Bernier, Rachel Adams and Andrew Avram — have returned safely to their U.S. homes. But for two of them it was, to say the least, an adventure.

When the State Department recommended that U.S. citizens return home in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Rev. Everdith Landrau, working with the World Mission crisis management team,  followed the directive of the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, to close the five international YAV sites for the remainder of the year. Most of the YAVs were able to obtain flights quickly because they were near major airports. Bernier, who was serving in Moyabamba, was able to leave April 2 with a group of American tourists who were staying in the area.

But Adams and Avram were serving in Huanuco, a 10-hour drive from Lima, in the mountainous central Andes. Adams was working with Casa del Buen Trato, a shelter for female adolescent survivors of sexual abuse. Avram was at Granja Lindero Ecológica, an ecological farm run by the nongovernmental organization Paz y Esperanza, a member of the Peru Joining Hands Network.

On March 15, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra called for a 15-day lockdown for the entire country. No one was allowed outside unless they were going to a doctor, pharmacy or grocery store. Violators would be jailed. The lockdown was announced that day at 8 p.m. and went into effect at midnight. Adams and Avram had no choice but to shelter in place in Huanuco with their host families. They began making travel plans to leave for the U.S. as soon as the restrictions were lifted.

After two weeks, the lockdown was extended; it’s still active today.  Those travel plans had to be scrapped. Heightening the anxiety for the YAVS and for site coordinator Jenny Valles Koball, they were being told the U.S. Embassy would be ending repatriation flights to the U.S. on April 10, just a few days away.

And there was another wrinkle.

“We had been told we were very unlikely candidates to be repatriated since we’re young, were far away from the embassy and had a safe place to stay,” said Adams. “At the same time, we were seeing other YAVs arriving home and it was hard. Juliana and I were first to ask to return home because we felt we were an additional burden on our host families and our work sites. We were crushed.”

Even before lockdown, things had become very stressful once coronavirus arrived in Peru, according to Adams.

“There was a lot of misinformation and myths surrounding COVID-19,” she said. “Originally, it was portrayed in my city as a zombie virus and a foreigner’s virus. When I would walk down the street or take public transportation, people were very wary of me, even though I had been there for eight months. I also had to take extra precautions with the girls I was working with who had experienced trauma and many had compromised health.”

To make matters worse, Adams’ host parents were over 60, and the mother suffered from respiratory issues. Several in the household came down with the flu. Adams knew if she caught it, she would not be able to return to the U.S., so she practiced social distancing.

As the clock ticked, Koball and her husband and fellow mission co-worker Jed were on the phone to embassies, police and transportation authorities. It was a 10-hour drive to Lima. They needed transportation waivers and they had to be at the embassy by a certain time or they would lose their seats.

Moffett and several members of World Mission’s crisis team were on the phone and wrote letters to government officials in the U.S., as well as both the U.S. and Peru embassies.

Rachel Adams with her host Maristell Gomez and her three daughters on departure day. (Photo by Mauli Gomez)

Finally, on the afternoon of Palm Sunday, April 5, Adams received a call that she and Avram had seats on a flight out the next day. They had to be in Lima at 10 a.m. Monday. As they were saying goodbye to their host families and finishing their packing, the embassy called back and said they didn’t realize they were so far away and wanted them to give up their seats since they might not be able to make it to Lima in time. They still didn’t have the transportation waiver they needed. Adams asked for 15 minutes. She called Jenny Valles Koball for help.

Through a series of connections, Koball was able to reach a Peruvian transportation official who connected Koball with another official. That person knew how to get the necessary documentation from the embassy. He offered to forward it to the various checkpoints they would have to clear on their way to Lima.

It was 11 o’clock Sunday night when Avram’s host father, Johony Rosas, picked them up in a borrowed car to begin the journey to Lima.

“Jenny (a native Peruvian) had always encouraged us to avoid the mountain roads,” said Adams. “Now we are going to travel it in the dark of night.”

It’s a two-lane road with no lights, except for a few small towns. The roadway is 16,000 feet above sea level at its highest point, with curvy sections and steep cliffs.

Andrew Avram with his host family, including host father Johony Rosas, who drove the YAVs to Lima for their flight to the United States. (Photo by Jenny Valles Koball)

Because the trip came together so quickly, Rosas didn’t have time to rest before the trip, but his wife had packed coffee and snacks. They had to stop several times to get out and walk around. The high altitude was exhausting.

They were stopped three times at police barricades. At the fourth, their passports and car were photographed — and then the prayers caught up with them. For the next several hours they had a police escort most of the way to Lima.

Rosas, who only had a 24-hour travel pass and would be jailed if he violated it, slept one hour and then headed home to Huanuco. Koball said he asked for nothing except a little help with gas money.

She sent out a grateful email the next morning.

¨My YAVs are finally going home! Andrew and Rachel will fly back to the U.S. tonight. They arrived at the U.S. Embassy early this morning. It was a massive effort by a lot of different people to help get them out, including the U.S. Embassy, the Peru National Police, PC(USA) office in Louisville, the YAVs´ families in the U.S., so many churches praying for them. Johony is emblematic of our host families in Peru who are the backbone of the YAV program here. I hope they come to know the depth of love that the host families have for them. They are Peru at their best.”

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