Just like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” Samantha Sack is trying to get home.
“I am 23 years old,” she says, “and I just want my mom.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate is stuck in Peru, one of many Fulbright scholars and United States citizens trapped across the globe as borders have slammed shut because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hundreds are in Peru and, according to reports, won’t be allowed to leave until the United States assures safe travel home for Peruvians.
Earlier this week, Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to urge him to take any and all actions available to bring Americans stranded abroad back safely.
“It’s not only me here,” said Sack, who graduated from Waverly High School. “There’s also several other Americans who don’t get that special contact from the embassy and direct information because they are Fulbright scholars.”
Sack graduated from UNO last spring with a 3.95 GPA and a double major in molecular and biomedical biology and biomechanics. She was chosen as the commencement speaker.
She was supposed to teach English at a university in Peru and work on a project. It was the country of her choice.
But there was a serious reason, too.
“I have a strong passion for global public health,” Sack said. “I knew in Peru there were a lot of different avenues to help. Lima has really strong multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. That caught my attention from a policy standpoint.”
About two weeks after arriving, in mid-March, the borders were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. A few people she knows made it out before the deadline. But Sack is staying with two fellow Americans in the town of Arequipa, with no way to get to Lima or Cusco even if flights were available.
She’s heard reports of Americans in Cusco being harassed by local police and feels lucky to be in a safe place. So far.
“I am nervous for the quarantine to be extended past the 15 days. I am nervous I will be trapped here for quite a long time. I’m nervous the borders would be closed to the United States,” she said. “I am nervous of unrest. Unfortunately, some people can’t go the full 15 to 30 days without making any money. I think that might lead to unrest. While I understand why I’m trapped, why the borders are closed, the nervousness is enough to make me want to come home. Quarantined next to, if not close to, my mom.”
Sack is able to talk to her mother and two sisters almost every day. It’s just hard when mom Patricia cries.
She cries because her normal worry about her daughter has been amped up to unseen-before levels, said sister Sasha Berscheid of Waterloo, Nebraska.
“She can’t sleep,” Berscheid said.
While Sack keeps in contact with the American Embassy in Peru and Fulbright officials, who will pay her until June, the family is trying to reach out to everyone they know. They want the issue of Americans stuck all over the world to reach as high as President Donald Trump.
Sack said she’s received support from the embassy in Peru, and she’s heard from both Nebraska senators.
Brianna Puccini, Sen. Deb Fischer’s communications director, said any Nebraskans in need of assistance can contact their office and casework staff will keep them connected with available resources.
The whole situation remains a mystery to Sack.
“Since I’m not sure what is happening behind the scenes, I don’t know what limitations are stopping the embassy from helping us or getting us out,” she said.
So, like people across the globe, she stays in her apartment and tries to stay busy. She and her roommates, one from Minneapolis-St. Paul and another from Philadelphia, have set up strict schedules. Sack is looking at employment opportunities, maybe studying the effects of the coronavirus, she said.
Noon to 2 p.m. is free time and she opens her window and soaks in the sun.
“It’s actually very beautiful. There’s a volcano named Misty … and the Andes Mountains. … I can’t go hike or climb … but just having them around is pretty nice.”
But it’s not home.
Still, she has funds and access to a grocery store, and they’re safe. She takes some solace in the words of her commencement speech: We’re all united by our passion for our work and can help each other.
“I’m trying to stay as positive as I can,” she said. “For me, I know it’s going to be a while. I have mentally prepared to hunker down for a while.”