The following story is my experience of the Coronavirus evacuation of my friends, myself, and thousands of other Germans from Morocco to Germany by the German embassy after borders were closed.
Though all of it still feels surreal, and sometimes thinking about it makes me emotional, above all else these days taught me three important lessons, and I do not want to miss out on having experienced any of it:
1. Nothing - and I repeat: NOTHING - is more important than human connection. Feeling supported and loved, feeling friendship growing between known souls and strangers is what makes life worth living. I am beyond grateful for my friends who were with me the whole time and also my family and friends at home who supported us. I am so thankful for the travelers at the airport who took over the situation when complete chaos had flooded minds and space and made the rescue possible. And I am grateful for everybody at the embassy working over hours trying to figure things out and bring us home. In a time of isolation and quarantine, maybe it is the time you want to spend to reflect and write letters to those who are dear to your heart, draw pictures of people you love, and sing songs for those who need to hear them.
2. It made me remember how small we all are and how unimportant my problems are. The human race believes we have everything figured out and under control. We do not have anything under control. And even though this may feel scary, it also brings a sense of relief. It truly made me remember that I need to live every day to the fullest and trust that life will unfold the way it is supposed to be anyway, no matter whether I try to control it or not. Something out there is taking care of us, and it all is working in perfect balance.
3. It is an insane privilege to be born German; A citizen of a rich country that had the ability and money to send planes and pick us up; A citizen of a country that cared. Therefore, all my love and thoughts go out to Morocco and their people. My love goes out to anyone affected directly by the virus and to all those who rely on tourism and their daily sales to support themselves and their families. My thoughts go out to those who do not have money or food to feed their children today or tomorrow, to those getting ill but not being able to go to the hospital and those being kept in their houses by armed military. Before you complain about staying at home, in your warm apartment, with food and a TV, think again please and instead spend your energy sending warm thoughts to those that have it much worse than us.
Please, take us home!
COVID-19. Evacuation from Morocco. My experience.
Friday, 20.03.2020, Agadir Airport
Get us out, please.
The air felt thick and dry in the Arrival Hall of Agadir Airport. You could smell that it had already circulated through hundreds of lungs several times when my five friends and I arrived. The light was dimmed. Only the daylight falling through dirty glass walls illuminated hundreds of faces, and a monotonous noise of tensed and tired voices filled the space. Today was the second day hundreds of other travelers, and us, were waiting here to be evacuated before the air bridge closed for good. About half of the people were still waiting to be flown out by the embassy, but until now, we hadn't heard or seen a plane arrive yet.
Time was running out. By tonight we all needed to be out of here. The Moroccan government had called out emergency last night. So, if they wouldn't manage to get us out, we would be stuck in this hall for an unlimited amount of time.
Even though I felt the tension and a feeling that I couldn't quite grasp weighing down my body like a thick fog, it had been too many hours cramped in this corona club to panic now. Most people had slept in this hall, and we all knew we could not do anything but stay calm, wait and trust in the embassy, who had failed us yesterday by sending a flimsy amount of two planes to Agadir for over a thousand people.
Denial. Denial was the feeling that lingered through the air.
Everywhere I looked, German travelers were sitting and laying in between board bags and luggage, young and older people, all tired and slightly tensed. Now and then, a guy played some tunes on his guitar and sang to lift the spirits, to make us remember we were not alone in this.
There was little to no information, and what we did get, changed from hour to hour.
Families and friends at home in Germany worried and sent support in words and messages. What we all knew though was this: Either the embassy managed to get us out today, or we would be stuck with nowhere to go.
How did we end up here?
The last week leading up to this day feels oddly blurry and unreal to remember. A situation like this was what I knew from movies and books. Something I had maybe heard on the news or from a long time ago in war. It was hard to grasp and judge how serious this all was.
A mix of holiday feelings and moments of panic and confusion filled my memory. A sense of connection with the people who lived this through next to me, moments of denial that made me laugh from the top of my lungs, comforting us and then… this silence; Heavy, dusty silence that crept underneath my clothes and fingernails whenever new information trickled down to us….
I had been living and working in Morocco, Agadir, Aourir for over two months. I had been teaching Yoga for Pure Surfcamps, side by side with the group that I was sitting next to now. To us, in the small bubble of our camp in the Moroccan countryside, Corona had felt like something far away and unrealistic for most of the time. We heard of Corona in Asia and Europe, we had heard of the restrictions and rules that were happening on our neighbor continent. However, the situation had been very relaxed over here. Until very recently, guests arrived and left to enjoy their holidays and life was going like always. Once Morocco decided to act, and restriction hit, everything went very fast, though.
When things started to change.
Today, the information that all flights were getting canceled, and the borders closed until the end of March arrived in our surf camp. Many guests still hoped to make their flights, as the air bridges to Germany were supposed to run until Saturday midnight. Indeed, until Saturday midnight, most guests still made it home.
As soon as the borders were closed, we got called into an emergency team meeting. Immediately, most of us got fired. We wouldn't get any further payments for our jobs, most of us didn't even get the payment for the last two weeks. Everybody was still allowed to stay and eat in the camp as long as borders kept closed, but from now on, it felt more like a commune of stranded souls than a camp.
About 20 guests and ten workers were still here, and as nobody had to work anymore, we tried to see it positively and make the most of it. First, we joked about it, and as we believed by the end of March, the borders would open again, we decided to enjoy our time together. Surfing and swimming, not overthinking about what was happening on the other side of the Gibraltar canal.
Not everybody felt as relaxed about it though, a few workers and guests tried to rebook their flights immediately and leave to the airport to make sure they would get out of the country in time. Several times and even days after the borders had already been closed, guests and teamers kept going back to the airport, trying to get on any flight to Europe possible - mostly unsuccessful.
Things are getting serious?
From Monday on, new information was coming through daily.
Our camp manager, the soul of the camp, suddenly got fired, and all of a sudden, it hit me.
This was serious.
Though we could feel that this situation was more significant and worse than we had thought, it was hard to judge how serious the situation that we were facing truly was. And even more, it was hard to do anything. A few guests and teamers went back and forth to the airport, trying to catch any flight to Europe, with little success.
Who is getting flown out?
Little did we know on Wednesday that just a few days later, emergency would be called out in morocco, and all air transport would be closed completely.
A long back and forth with registrations, unavailable websites, emails and changing information from the German embassy was flooding over us until the embassy announced to fly all Germans out by latest of Thursday 18.03.2020
We were supposed to receive an email with a ticket for a flight. About four people of our remaining team and guests received such a ticket by Wednesday. All others were still stuck and had no clue about what to do. We had heard that at the airport in Marrakech, there was panic breaking out, thousands of people and anyone coming to the airport without a ticket was not able to leave. Therefore, going to the airport and just trying didn't feel like a good option. The owner of the Pure Surf Camp Morocco also gave us an ultimatum; If we left to the airport, trying to get on a flight, we were not allowed to come back to the camp.
Well, so we stayed at the camp for another day waiting for new information coming through.
Wednesday evening, the embassy announced that every German who wants to leave the country needs to come to Marrakech, Rabat, or Agadir Airport by Thursday 4 o'clock. We would have to get registered. When registered, they promised they would not leave us behind and fly us out to Europe - bring us home - by Thursday night.
Rumors had spread by that time that for the next five months, Morocco wouldn't open their borders anymore, so quickly, my friends and I decided we had to get our things and go to the airport.
One of our group was not actually working in the camp. He was living in his van down by the beach where the camp was located. For a while, he had considered what to do, as he had to leave his van - his home - behind. Judging the situation, though, he decided he had to go back and leave together with us.
Day one at the Airport. This feels like a movie.
Thursday morning, we packed all our things, jumped into the back of Raphael's van, and drove to the airport hours before we were supposed to be there.
When we arrived, It seemed oddly quiet.
I had panic and crowds of people expected, but instead, there was a parking lot, half empty. The evacuation of French people was still going, so we started to play music, and drove the longboard around the parking lot. The sun was shining, and the whole situation felt surreal. We couldn't grasp what was going on. I sat in a tree on the parking lot, high up next to my friend when it hit me. We had to go back to Germany. We really couldn't stay here because of this pandemic. It felt like a movie that we watched from the outside. Somehow we were in the middle of everything, but the weight of the present only touched us occasionally. The group and the support we gave each other made it fun and odd for now. It kept the pressure and panic away from our minds. It kept the movie running and our hearts safe.
Corona Club Morocco
Once the French were mostly gone, we went inside the building. We were supposed to all gather in the arrival hall. A huge crowd of people had already formed, probably a thousand or so, cramped together in between luggage and surfboards. They took away families with kids and sick people, as well as the most elderly as possible first. The rest had to stay and wait...
At least eight hundred people made themselves comfortable. Everybody knew this would take more than a while. It felt as if this silent agreement of calmness had been made under all of us and so we sat there, ate, slept, listened to music, and waited for any new pieces of information. The mood was tensed, disinfection was handed around, patience was practiced.
We waited for hours. Only two planes had been sent by the embassy.
It felt like a drop of water on a hot stone.
This is a mess.
It was clear that we would not leave this country today.
We were tired of disinfecting our hands because there was no way of escaping Corona in here anyway. Everything we had eaten today was nuts and dry bread. And my mind was blurry from the leak of oxygen in this hall. Funnily, outside it rained. The third rain I had experienced in nearly three months.
I looked around: Surreal.
Frustration, denial, exhaustion, tiredness, and anger lingered in people's faces. Scanning the crowd, I could see tears of helplessness rolling down faces, tanned fingers holding onto smartphones, and others that joked around to deal with the situation through comic relief.
I, for my part, was lying on a stone counter, my head resting on my friend's lap. The last time I had moved had been hours ago.
"Everything is moving way too slowly,“ I mumbled to Benedict who was still carrying my head in his lap.
"Yup…, " he replied monotonously, watching the people.
"I guess we should think about where to sleep tonight,“ I said.
"Yup, "he answered in the same voice as before.
I sat up: "Why do they not send more planes? How is it possible that the embassy, who is supposed to fucking be trained to deal with this shit, cannot manage to get anything going? "I suddenly asked in frustration.
Nobody had an answer. Me neither.
I am tired.
The embassy had handed out registration papers during the afternoon. We were supposed to get all registered today and therefore get a spot on a plane. However, there were not enough papers. Nowhere near enough papers. We had come here to be registered, but it seemed as if we would not be able to.
Yup. We won't go anywhere tonight.
As the embassy and organizations couldn't manage to get us registration papers, one of my former coworkers came to the conclusion that we had to get them ourselves.
So, two girls from our group went to borrow somebody's paper and somehow made a Moroccan guy, working for the airport, copy the cards and, therefore, hopefully, get us out of here.
When they got back to our group with the papers, energy started to flow back into us. Finally, there was something to do! Scribbling on paper and passports rustling, relieved faces framed the situation.
"Let's get out of here. "
But…. As quickly as hope for a spot on the plane had come, it slipped through our fingers as we got informed that the copied papers wouldn't be accepted.
The registrations were counted with seating places in planes. The copies would mean they had our names, but we would have no seats on the aircraft.
22:00 - I have enough for today.
After this point, it all just got more and more chaotic. The woman who was supposed to announce all new information in a hall filled with several hundreds of people spoke in the volume of a mosquito. Therefore, nobody knew what was going on. All information changed from minute to minute.
A Waiting List?
Staying at the airport?
So many questions and nobody had answers.
They left us
Everybody was hungry and tired. It had been such a long and crazy day, and still, we didn't know what would happen. Just as we tried to convince ourselves that they would indeed take care of us, we got the message from Germany that the consulate had left the country to re-decide what to do about our situation. Again, we couldn't do anything but wait.
Everybody could feel the overwhelm of the people who were supposed to be trained for situations like this. As the frustration about all of this mess grew, some travelers started to take over. A young woman with a loud voice which we had very badly needed the whole day was speaking, giving out information everybody was waiting for.
But what they told us to do made everybody shake their heads. We were supposed to line up in three lines to get counted. They had no idea how many of us were stuck in this hall. The safety distance had been thrown overboard. We started to move and try to get into lines, where there was no nowhere near enough space. People were laughing about how ridiculous this all was. Others just had deeply frustrated or scared looks on their faces. Nobody understood why from all ways of counting a mass of people, they had concluded making everybody try to squeeze in a line.
After a lot of standing around, losing time, and an emotional break out of anger, denial, and frustration here and there, the organisers understood: This would not work.
The new idea was to send everybody out of the building to count the people. Whoever wanted to leave for the night could, whoever wanted to stay, could enter back in after the counting. Nobody knew what time to be back in the morning at this point.
22:50 - We cannot go anywhere.
Very very slowly, people started to exit the airport and stream out on the square in front. Seconds after I stepped out in the clear night we got the message:
Morocco had called out an emergency. Our surf camp would not take us back. Taxis wouldn't go like normal anymore. Hotels closed. By tomorrow 6 pm nobody was allowed to go on the streets anymore.
After that day, I was so desperate to sleep in a bed; I cannot even tell you. My throat had started to hurt, and as a group, we decided that we had to do something and get some sleep.
Two of us stayed in the van. A few others slept at the airport. Bene, Drin, Melissa, and I decided we would try to get a hotel in Agadir.
After making our decision, we stopped the first taxi we could get.
"4 people to Agadir!" we all shouted.
"Only three. Corona,“ the taxi driver answered in broken English.
"Four!" we all screamed, pointing four fingers each at him.
"No, No, No, “ the driver insisted.
"Four. We pay more,,“ Benedict dropped.
Quickly, we all jumped into the old Mercedes. I cowered on the backseat, Melissa's jumper over my head so nobody would see that we were four people, and off we drove into the dark Moroccan night.
After I had a discussion with the hotelier in French, the Hotel accepted us.
At that point, everybody was so relieved and happy about a shower and a bed, that it didn't even matter that we hadn't had dinner.
We walked up the stairs of the enormous Hotel lobby to find unmade beds and dirty rooms.
"For God's sake!" I exclaimed. My yoga teacher-zen mind had left me hours ago.
Through the oddly empty halls and slightly dirty stairways, we went back to the lobby, where I explained to the quite confused receptionist that the rooms were messy, and we instantly needed new rooms.
One more time that evening, we all walked through the entry hall, up to two flights of stairs and through the slightly dirty hallways.
To unlock the rooms.
Find a bed.
Find fresh sheets.
Exchange some warm words and hugs.
And fall into a dreamless sleep.
To be woken by a phone alarm at 08:00.
Friday, 19.03.2020, 08:00
Day two at the Airport
In the morning, we got the message by the embassy that today we had to all be flown out of the country. A global air transfer stop would be in place by tonight, and Morocco closed all borders and public spaces.
At the breakfast buffet, Drin, Melissa, Bene, and I brought plates and plates full of bread, cake, croissants, and veggies to our table to make all of them disappear in a tote bag I had brought. After we had filled our stomachs and had made sure our folks who had to stay at the airport wouldn't starve either, we stopped a Taxi and paid them to take us back to the airport. This time we had to split in two groups 2:2 because our trick from last night didn't work anymore. The emergency was taken seriously, even by Moroccans.
Friday, 19.03.2020, 11:45
We arrived at the airport. Carrie and Raphael, those who had slept in the van already had saved us a spot in the queue. The others left from our surf camp were sitting a few rows further front in the line as well. It seemed like way fewer people compared to yesterday. Funnily, though, the massive amount of people. I immediately recognized the faces. But not only that. We also recognized that - indeed - there was a queue now. On the side, I saw a group of elderly and probably sick people standing. Everything seemed to move and work. Another traveler told me that overnight a group of travelers had taken over the organization. They had snitched barrier tapes for the queue and come up with a new way of organizing the situation. Shortly after arriving, an announcement informed us that the plan was to evacuate everybody in this building by tonight. It was the last chance, and the embassy would make sure to send enough planes. This information felt relieving to our chests. Looking at the queue, it seemed somewhat realistic.
Another whole day passed by. Sitting. Snacking. Waiting. Sprawling. Talking.
I think it was about 6 pm when my friends and I got their registration papers. Those allowed us to get out of the arrival hall and get into another line of people. Here, we were supposed to pick up our tickets and drop off our luggage.
"Where is the plane gonna go?"
"Do we have to go to quarantine?"
More waiting. More standing. More resting. More joking. More asking. Still no answers
And then…. Finally, after 31 hours of waiting, I could send my mother a picture of my friend Melissa holding a plane ticket.
We had made it.
They would take us home now.
Another thank you to all the travelers who helped to organize!
Thank you to the kind workers at Agadir Airport.
Thank you to Germany for caring and picking us up.
Thank you to my family for staying calm.
Thank you to Melissa, Drin, Raphael, Carrie, Bene, Helmut - the van, and all the others from Pure.
You are family. I love you.
Wash your hands, peeps.