McGill students on geology excursion in Morocco nearly return home after being stuck for five days

As exchange students have their semesters abroad cut short and return to Canada, five students from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and their professor were stuck in Morocco for five days after travelling there for a two-week geology field research excursion on February 27. After several complications, the group was able to secure one of the last outbound flights out of Morocco and is currently making their way back to Montreal. However, the two international students in the group have been denied plane boarding even though the government of Canada announced that visa holders are allowed back into the territory.   

The students—Julia Morales-Aguirre, U3 Science; Robert Collar, Masters Science; Joshua Wasserlauf, U2 Science; Kaiyuan Wang, U1 Science; and Emilie Saucier, U2 Science, along with their Professor Anthony “Willy” Williams-Jones—were prevented from leaving the country on March 14 as a result of recent travel restrictions and flight cancellations. 

Due to the remote nature of the trip, the group only learned of the severity of the pandemic on March 13, when they were making their way to Tangier airport to fly back to Montreal through Casablanca. The government of Morocco cancelled flights to select countries on March 14, including Canada, so the group secured a new trip to Montreal but all inbound and outbound international flights were suspended on March 15. After the group successfully booked a direct flight from Casablanca to Montreal for March 21, it was cancelled on March 17. 

Julia Morales-Aguirre, U3 Science, wrote to The McGill Tribune that the group has been in constant communication with their departmental chair at McGill, receiving moral and financial support. 

“The chair of our department, Professor Jeffrey Mackenzie, has been in contact with us since the initial flight ban to Canada on Saturday night,” Morales-Aguirre wrote. “He immediately told us that the department would pay for everything: Flights, accommodation, [and] food, [and] that the priority was to get home. The entire Earth and Planetary Science Department has been providing moral support. They have also been making arrangements should we remain stranded, such as giving us credit for receiving lessons while here.”

The group consisted of four Canadians, one American, and one Chinese citizen. Without knowing how much longer they would have to stay in Morocco, they booked an Airbnb until mid-April so that they could stock up on food. 

“Essentially, our professor [had] been paying most of [our expenses and will be] reimbursed by McGill,” Morales-Aguirre wrote. “We [were] in an AirBnB in Casablanca […] There [was] no quarantine yet [there] for everyone, but the city now [had] a curfew.”

The group garnered media attention after creating a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram page dedicated to their situation. Getting them home was a team effort between Professor Williams-Jones’ sons and others close to the group and the EPS department at McGill. EPS Outreach Administrator Kristyn Rodzinyak wrote to Tribune about the close-knit nature of the department and how they were able to provide moral support to the group all the way from Montreal. 

“With the closure of McGill, […] I started a virtual cookie time where students, faculty, staff and alumni can join a virtual meeting on zoom as a way to connect during social isolation,” Rodzinyak wrote. “During a virtual cookie time[,] two of the students in Morocco checked in from a restaurant where they were picking up food for the rest of the group. They were in good spirits, [and] were excited to share their favourite sites and rock collecting adventures. […] It was really nice for faculty and students back in Montreal to get to see their smiling faces and hear about their adventures.”

Professor Anthony Eric Williams-Jones’ son, Glyn William-Jones, a geology professor himself at Simon Fraser University, spoke to The Tribune about how they were able to coordinate a big group of people to work together across time zones through social media. His Montreal-based brother, Bryn, also started a petition which reached over 13,000 signatures in three days. The goal was to urge the Canadian government to repatriate the group, as well as other Canadians who are still stuck abroad.

“I think one of the really crazy [things], and why I’ve been ranting on LinkedIn and Twitter and my brother [has been] doing the same thing on Facebook, is that Canadians have had to do it themselves,” Glyn William-Jones said. “[…] The Canadian Embassy [in Rabat] wasn’t doing anything. They were just like, ‘You’re on your own, get yourself home however you can, not our problem’.”

Before the group’s return trip had been secured, Morales-Aguirre also expressed her frustrations regarding the Canadian government to The McGill Tribune

“The passivity of the Canadian government vis-[à]-vis their people abroad is upsetting,” Morales-Aguirre wrote. “[…] It is absurd to tell people to come home when airports and borders all over the world are closing. People literally cannot get on commercial flights, which is the only thing that the Canadian embassy has been recommending. Flights are getting cancelled left and right, and bookings are disappearing everywhere you look.”

On Facebook, the group indicated that they had contacted Nolinor Aviation, an airline providing rescue missions for Canadians abroad, but the tickets from Casablanca to Montreal set to leave on March 20 would have cost the group $8,000 each.

Eventually, the group was able to catch one of the last flights out of Morocco to London with Ryanair on March 18, from where they were able to depart for Montreal on a British Airways flight on March 19. 

“Even on the drive to Marrakech [on March 18], they found on the internet that apparently the flight had been cancelled but they just decided […] to push through and the flight hadn’t been canceled,” Glyn Williams-Jones said. “This is a happy ending for this small group and I’m super happy, this is family. But at the same time, it’s one tiny drop in the bucket of all the other Canadians that are trapped.”

Currently, Professor Anthony William-Jones and the two international students in the group are stuck at Heathrow Airport in London because border control there is refusing to let the American and Chinese student board, even though they have Canadian study permits to study at McGill. 

“We are incredibly frustrated,” Glyn William-Jones wrote to the Tribune. “[…] The McGill team that made it onto the flight (Canadian students) feel guilty for being forced to leave their friends. Instead of returning home together and triumphant after such an ordeal, they are divided and distraught.”

Follow the group on Facebook for the latest updates. 

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