By Elizabeth Feuer, special education teacher, California, USA
When I arrived at Camino Nuevo on the first day of school, I was greeted with open arms by Rufminia. Students and staff were having a party to ring in the new school year. I immediately jumped in, partaking in the festivities and supporting students in their feeding and movement exercises. I had the opportunity to observe the heartfelt connections between staff and students. As I reflect on the day, I gained a clear picture of what it meant to be a member of the Camino Nuevo community.
In the days that followed, I worked primarily in the classroom for students with Multiple Disabilities. I immediately felt a part of the team, working in partnership with the teachers to modify the physical layout of the classroom, create materials and engage students in a small group setting. Within this context, I was able to share my experiences as a special education teacher in Seattle, WA while gaining a more thorough understanding and knowledge of the Peruvian culture and the needs of the program.
I also collaborated with Mercedes, Rufminia and a previous teacher to evaluate program goals for the classroom serving students with Multiple Disabilities and to create a sequence of skills that were functional and meaningful to the students, their families and their teachers. I valued the exchanges that we had. It expanded my understanding of cross-cultural practices and gained more insight into the Peruvian educational system.
I had the intention of volunteering at the school for 3 weeks. Yet, on March 12th, staff were alerted that school would be closing on March 13th for 2 weeks due to the COVID 19 virus. I remember feeling disappointed that my time volunteering would be ending sooner than anticipated. However, the reality and magnitude of what this meant wouldn’t hit me until 2 days later when the Peruvian government ordered a mandatory quarantine for 15 days and all borders closed. By the time I had received this information, there were no flights in or out of the country back to the United States (U.S.). Thankfully throughout this experience, I stayed with a Peruvian host mom who made sure that I was well fed and cared for. I like to think that during the 11 days I was quarantined in Cusco, I gained the full immersion experience. During this time, I enhanced my Spanish skills, learned how to cook Peruvian dishes such as aji de gallina and observed what it meant to come together as a community to support one another.
Throughout this time, I was unsure of when I would be going home. I was in constant communication with the U.S. embassy, however there was little information given initially about a plan to get Americans out of Peru. On March 20, 5 days from the border closure, the U.S. Embassy began to schedule repatriation flights primarily from Lima. Americans were to sign up with the embassy if they wanted to return to the U.S. from Peru using these charter flights. However, there was no other way out of Peru other than the charter flights since no commercial aircraft was allowed to cross the Peruvian border.
When repatriation flights from Cusco started, I was put on a list. Incidentally, there were approximately 1000 Americans who were stranded in Cusco. On Friday, March 27th at 8 p.m. I received an email stating that I should arrive at the Cusco International Airport at 9 a.m. the following morning. I immediately packed my bag and my host mom attempted to contact a taxi company for my departure. Transportation to the airport was difficult due to the transportation restrictions. The following day, a taxi picked me up, drove through several police checkpoints and arrived at the airport. Upon my arrival to the airport, I was greeted with a long line of tourists that wrapped around the corner of the airport. We waited in line for 2 ½ hours. After providing my documents, 2 medical personnel checked my temperature. Once given the go ahead, I was sent to another line where I waited another 1 ½ hours to check my bag to Miami via Lima. The repatriation flight was completely filled with nearly everyone wearing masks. We were given snacks and assured that the air was re-filtered every 3 minutes and surfaces sanitized thoroughly. After 1 canceled flight, 5 different airports and 30 hours, I returned home to San Francisco, CA.
Despite the unexpected changes that occurred, I am incredibly humbled and grateful for the experience I had with Manos Unidas and the connections I made with staff and students. I look forward to returning to Peru in the future and working to expand educational access and support for all students with special needs.