Outtatown students stranded in Guatemala

Discipleship school participants hopeful for speedy repatriation

March 26, 2020 | Web First
Beth Downey | Canadian Mennonite University
Outtatown students pose for a group shot at the top of Pacaya, a volcano that lies 30 km. outside of Guatemala City. (Photo courtesy of Instagram.com/outtatowncmu)

While school and government officials work together to bring the group home, 36 students, six leaders and two program staff from Canadian Mennonite University’s Outtatown Discipleship School are waiting patiently in Guatemala, putting the semester's lessons to the test. 

(Photo by Shawn Dearborn)

Since early January, Outtatown’s 2019/20 cohort has been travelling in Guatemala. Initially scheduled to return April 2, the team booked early flights back to Canada, amid the swiftly evolving conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flights were booked to bring the entire group home on March 18, however the airline cancelled that flight three days before departure. One day later, the Guatemalan government banned all flights from North American, leaving no viable options to return to Canada.

CMU has been in touch with Canadian Global Affairs and the Canadian embassy in Guatemala since March 14, receiving good guidance and working cooperatively to bring the group home as soon as possible.

Now living in a secure compound in San Pedro Las Huertas, the team must practise patience. Though confined to a large house they share and a small terrace outside, the students are safe, well fed and well informed. 

Students are coping admirably with the uncertainty of their situation, according to Luke Wahl, one of the site leaders.

“This has been a time for us as a group to see how we respond to strange and potentially difficult circumstances,” Wahl said. “[Many students] are more capable and willing to put others before themselves now than at the start of [the] program. 

“Many came into this year looking to grow, to be challenged, to leave their comfort zones, and this is a perfect experience to further that learning. Some have stronger faith after this year and are doing well as a result. They are able to be open and honest about how they are doing, and they are supporting each other well. Overall, we're approaching this as a team rather than a bunch of individuals.”

(Photo courtesy of outtatownguat.com)

Outtatown is a cross-cultural, experiential learning program delivered at the first-year university level. Throughout their term abroad, students live with host families, study Spanish, learn about the country's colonial past and serve with local partner organizations. 

These service projects are intermittent opportunities for students to give something back to the country and people that have given them so much.

CMU President Cheryl Pauls agrees that, having developed resilience and creativity as a cohort throughout the year, the group is coping remarkably well.

“I feel that when these students come back they will be able to help others with the stress of new situations because of what they've experienced through this,” Pauls said.

Among the university's concerns at this time is that if the Guatemalan healthcare system were to become strained under a serious outbreak of COVID-19, it would not be desirable for Canadians to take up Guatemalan hospital beds.

On March 19, Canada announced it was developing a repatriation plan and that the government was negotiating well with Guatemalan authorities to open airport borders enough to let repatriation flights through. 

On March 22, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced flights heading for Guatemala and six other countries starting on March 23.

Related stories:
Love in the time of COVID-19
In a time of uncertainty
Heading home early 
Mennonite organizations cancelling events, making adjustments in response to COVID-19
MC Canada offers pandemic preparedness web resources for congregations

Outtatown students pose for a group shot at the top of Pacaya, a volcano that lies 30 km. outside of Guatemala City. (Photo courtesy of Instagram.com/outtatowncmu)

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