Stuck in Turkey: how COVID-19 turned a Canadian journey to Jordan into a nightmare

A picture of Hamam Al-Hariri at Istanbul International Airport. Photo credit: Hamam Al-Hariri

Only few days after he officially became a Canadian citizen, the moment Hmam Al-Hariri has been waiting for has come. Now he can travel freely and finally visit his friends and family in Jordan.

He booked the ticket, bought the presents, packed his bags and went to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport with his sister. Upon arriving In Jordan, they were chocked to know they are not allowed in Jordan because five years ago they entered the Middle Eastern kingdom illegally like millions of other Syrians fleeing the war in their country. Authorities in Queen Alia International Airport in the Jordanian capital told them their five-year ban from entering Jordan will expire next year.

Hamam and his family left Syria in 2012 seeking refuge in neighboring Jordan. According to the United Nations there is more than half a million Syrians registered as refugees in Jordan. Jordanian government statistics claim that there is more than 1.8 million Syrians living in Jordan.                                                                                         

Hamam and his sister’s seven weeks unexpected journey back to their home and family in Canada lead them to being stranded for a month in Turkey.

“I was waiting for our flight and I was laughing, I couldn’t believe it…I told me sister is this really happening”, Hamam said.

After being denied entry to Jordan, Hamam and hi sister went to Turkey to visit some of their relatives living in Antakya. As all that was happening governments around the world including the Canadian and the Turkish government were considering suspension of all commercial flights to halt the spread of the new novel Corona virus known as COVID19.     

When Hamam and his sister’s visit to Turkey was over they went to Istanbul International Airport on Sunday, March 22, to finally go back home. But only 15 minutes before boarding the plane everything changed. Almost all flights taking off from Istanbul airport were cancelled that day including Hmam’s. He said that day he still remembers that they went early because they had many bags filled with presents, they were supposed to giver to their friends and relatives in Jordan.

“Fifteen minutes before boarding everything was normal… it all changed in a minute, all flights were cancelled suddenly”, Hamam said. 

A photo that shows cancelled flights on monitors at Istanbul Airport. Photo courtesy: Hamam Al-Hariri

A photo that shows cancelled flights on monitors at Istanbul Airport. Photo courtesy:  Hamam Al-Hariri

Hamam and his sister spent the first three hours at Istanbul airport trying to figure out what just happened. He said thousands of people were stuck with them at the airport that day.

After contacting the Canadian embassy, they were advised to stay in a hotel or with their relatives in Antakya until they can arrange a flight to take them back home. After spending six hours at the airport, at 4 p.m, they booked another flight. 

Hamam thought it’s better for him and his sister to stay with his relatives in Antakya. He booked the tickets and waited for his new flight. Tired and exhausted by the long day, the authorities at the airport mistaken their exhaustion for the new novel virus.

“As me and my sister were getting into the plane to Antakya, they stopped us and said they wanted us to wait for few minutes, within 15 minutes health workers came and examined us…they told us we have the Corona virus”, Hamam said.

He said his family and his relatives in Antakya were worried they were late for their flights and they kept on calling them. Hamam told his family that the delay is because of new measures due to the Corona virus. He said he didn’t want his family to be worried. After almost three hours with the health crew, and missing their new flight, they were told that there was a mistake and that they don’t have COVID19.

Turkey has 74,193 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the death toll in the country has reached 1,643, according to the Turkish health ministry and health officials.

The total number of cases in the country stood at 74,193, he said.

A total of 7,089 people have recovered so far, and the number of tests carried out over the past 24 hours came to 40,427, the minister said.

Hamam and his sister had to spend the night at the airport. Next morning, he explained what happened to his family back in Milton, Ontario. They told him they should stay in Istanbul in case suddenly there is a flight available and that being in Antakya might make them miss it.    

“The worst thing is that as of 22 March back when we were at the hotel, Turkish people didn’t take the virus seriously, streets and parks were full of people, no one was wearing masks or gloves, we were setting in our hotel room scared of contracting the virus”, Hamam said.

On April 8, the Canadian embassy contacted Hamam and told him there is a flight available to take him and his sister home on Saturday morning.

“I purchased the tickets on Friday after noon, in the evening the Turkish government declared a 48-hours curfew in 31 cities including Istanbul, ten minutes later I received an email from the Canadian embassy saying our flight will be delayed until Monday due to the curfew”, Hamam said.

For ten and a half hours, Hamam said they were setting in a plane full of passengers. He said everyone was anxious of crowded plane. 

“Out of 480 available seats, there were 450 people on board the flight”, Hamam said. He added that most of the passengers wrapped their bags in plastic as an extra measure out of fear of the virus.

“I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but everyone did it, so we did it too”, Hamam said.

A picture of one of Hamam’s bags warped in plastic at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Photo courtesy: Hamam Al-Hariri

Hamam is now self-isolating at home with his sister in Milton for 14 days.

“It felt like a dream honestly, the whole time I was asking myself ‘am I in a dream?’”, Hamam said. 

Written by
Hesham Haj Ali
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