‘We are people who take care of people’

Volunteer, staff, share repatriation experiences during COVID-19

Cuso volunteers Sylvia Essiembre (left) and Yodaly Velasquez (right), with two women they worked with in Bolivia.

In mid-March, Cuso International volunteer Sylvia Essiembre said goodbye to her colleagues in La Paz, Bolivia. She’d spent nearly two years working as the coordinator of COCAB, an association of Canadian non-governmental organizations working in Bolivia.

On March 15, she boarded a bus that would take her to Lima, Peru, where she was scheduled to fly home to Canada. But things didn’t quite go as planned as countries began to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“After a 28-hour bus ride without internet connection, I arrived in Lima and got the news that the borders were closing in a couple of hours and there was no way out for me. My flight had also been cancelled,” said Sylvia. “When I arrived in Lima, everything was already closed; stores, shops, businesses, parks. Only supermarkets, pharmacies and certain banks remained open. I did not have a working phone in Peru since my sim card was Bolivian and did not have access to internet.”

She found a shopping mall with free internet and connected with the Cuso office in Bolivia. They gave her Cuso’s emergency number in Peru, and Sylvia was able to flag down a police officer who let her use his phone.

“I called Cuso in Peru and they were wonderful. They found me a place to stay, paid for my stay and added me back on the insurance plan,” she said. “As I had signed a release form in Bolivia, Cuso was not responsible for me after the end of my placement and especially once I got to Peru. But they went above and beyond the call of duty and took care of me.”

During this time, Cuso’s Manager of Safety and Security Alexandra Reano had been on the phone with Sylvia’s mother, who was unable to connect with her daughter due to her inactive phone.

From left: Cuso staff Caroline Albert and Alexandra Reano, Cuso volunteer Elizabeth Cook, and Clarisse Falanga, owner of Nice Farine, in DRC.

“It was a pretty intense week. Aside from the volunteers, I started receiving calls from family members, from parents of our volunteers who were stuck,” said Alexandra, a key member of Cuso’s Emergency Response Team in Ottawa. The core group of staff worked day and night with country offices, government officials and embassies to help bring volunteers home during the first weeks of the pandemic.

“Alexandra was wonderful with my mother who was very worried. My mother received an email from Cuso stating that they were doing everything they could to get their volunteers back safely to Canada. She called the number on the email to get more information and Alexandra reassured her that I was safe and well taken care of,” said Sylvia. “I stayed in Lima for about two weeks as the governments of different countries negotiated repatriation processes with the government of Peru.”

In one case, Alexandra used her personal credit card to purchase plane tickets home for volunteers when a booking issue arose with the online platform.

Sylvia Essiembre photographs those waiting at the airport.

“You cannot imagine how happy I was to know that finally, we got the tickets for our volunteers. It was the happiest day that I had in the last, I don’t know, 10 days,” Alexandra said (she was reimbursed the following week).

“I am the safety and security manager, and I’m willing to do whatever is needed. If I need to use my credit card, I will use it. If I need to pick up somebody from the airport, I will do it. I think this is something that needs to be highlighted at Cuso. We are people who take care of people. We take care of our volunteers, we take care of our staff, we take care of our colleagues, because we really care.”

Sylvia has plans to go back to school in September to finish a master’s degree. “Then I would like to volunteer abroad again,” she said. “My experience in Bolivia was very enriching and I loved the work I was doing as well as the people that I worked with.”