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Miami Couple Stranded in Philippines During Global Pandemic

Lorraine "Raine" Zhang tightened her grip around the waist of her boyfriend, Tarek "Chris" Makki, as he softened the throttle on their scooter while approaching a police checkpoint on the Philippine island of Panglao. Early that morning, March 17, the Miami couple was scheduled to fly home. Instead, the two found themselves stuck in the Philippines after the government shut down all travel in and out of the capital city of Manila. To pass the checkpoint and travel around Panglao, Zhang and Makki had obtained medical certificates and a quarantine pass, another government requirement for foreigners still in the Philippines.

After instructing Makki to pull over, an officer turned off the scooter's engine, says Zhang, a 24-year-old, olive-skinned Queens, New York, native of Chinese descent. Makki — a 36-year-old former U.S. Coast Guardsman with short-cropped brown hair and fair skin — didn't protest.

"I felt that the authorities were really just singling us out because of Chris' skin color," Zhang tells New Times via a WhatsApp text message. "We had our IDs on us and our masks, so I didn't really understand why we were given such a hard time."

The two were unaware the Philippine government had just issued an edict prohibiting two riders on a single scooter as another measure to contain the spread of coronavirus, which at the time had infected 140 people and resulted in 12 deaths in the Asian country.

"He then told us that we were not allowed to pass the checkpoint because there were two of us on the scooter," Zhang says. "Many of the locals think I am Filipina because of my Asian background, and they have the misconception that I'm a prostitute because I'm with a white American man."

The cop ordered her to dismount the scooter. Cringing in fear, Zhang squeezed her boyfriend tighter. The scooter's engine roared to life. Makki zipped around the officer and fled the scene.

"We realized the gravity of our situation at that moment," Zhang says. "The tourists and foreigners were really being singled out of the crowd."

More than three weeks later, Zhang and Makki have been unable to flee Panglao, and their chances of returning home to Miami are dwindling. The two are among more than 24,000 Americans who remain stuck overseas and need help to get home — but they're quickly finding out the U.S. cavalry is not coming to get them.

According to the U.S. State Department, the agency coordinated the repatriation of 38,296 Americans from 78 countries between January 29 and April 3, including 300 people who were in the Philippines. But to get repatriated to the United States, citizens and legal residents typically must make it to an airport on their own. Last week, Ian Brownlee, who leads the State Department's repatriation task force, warned that Americans who remain in foreign countries might have to ride out the pandemic overseas.

"If you're on the beach when an earthquake struck, you wouldn't just stand there waiting for the coming tsunami; you would head for higher ground immediately," Brownlee said. "Well, in this case, the earthquake has happened. It's time to seek higher ground now and not hope for rescue later."

In a statement, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the United States has never before undertaken an evacuation operation of such "geographic breadth, scale, and complexity." She added, "We are using all the tools at our disposal to overcome logistical and diplomatic challenges and bring Americans home from hard-to-reach areas and cities hardest hit by the virus."

But Zhang and Makki aren't convinced of that claim as they try to seek help from the U.S. Embassy in Manila and staffers for U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida. The couple, who can communicate with relatives, friends, and American officials only by logging onto spotty Wi-Fi connections in Panglao, say they find it difficult to believe the American government cannot pick them up given that the Philippines is home to six U.S. military bases and the Pacific Navy Fleet, the largest in the U.S. Navy.

"A police escort from the Philippine government to let us through" could be an option, Makki says. "That would have to break the presidential decree of a travel ban until April 14. Or a direct pickup/evacuation from our military base since the embassy has our exact coordinates. But the U.S. Embassy is respecting the travel restrictions of the Philippine government in comparison to other nationalities who have been evacuated by their own government."

Raul Martinez Jr., Shalala's deputy chief of staff, tells New Times the congresswoman's office has had to slog through the State Department's bureaucracy to seek help for her constituents, including Zhang and Makki.

"We have had seven U.S. nationals repatriated from our district," Martinez says. "There are currently eight, including Mr. Makki and Ms. Zhang, who are still waiting to get back."

This past March 31, the U.S. embassy in Manila instructed Shalala staffers to funnel all communications about stranded constituents to the State Department's coronavirus repatriation task force in Washington, D.C., according to Martinez.

"The embassies are getting overwhelmed," he says. "The task force called the embassy to flag their case as an emergency [April 2]."

Miami Couple Stranded in Philippines During Global Pandemic
Photo courtesy of Raine Zhang

At this point, Shalala's staff can only relay information about how to get to airports and book seats on possible "sweeper" flights, which are coordinated among the State Department, foreign governments, and airlines to ferry out stranded Americans, Martinez says.

"If there is a way to help them get to the airport, we can do that," Martinez says, "but in some cases, they have to find their way on their own."

More than two months ago, Zhang and Makki seemed to be just getting started on a vacation that would be the envy of any traveler. They arrived in Manila on February 8 and planned to travel island-to-island for at least a month before leaving on March 22 to Hong Kong for that city's edition of Art Basel.

When the art fair was canceled in late February as a result of the pandemic, Zhang and Makki booked a March 17 flight back to Miami. They prepared themselves by stocking up on facemasks, alcohol sanitizer, and generic cold and flu medicine. They also plugged their names into a federal program that keeps American travelers informed of daily updates from U.S. embassies and allows the State Department to keep track of how many Americans are abroad.

"We went on with our vacation as usual thinking the situation would ease itself, exploring the islands on our scooter, finding secret waterfalls and beaches, and just enjoying the great weather, food, and, at the time, friendly locals," Zhang says. "Of course we knew about the talk of a coronavirus but never thought our plans would be so affected."

Just days before the March 17 flight, their situation took a turn for the worse. They received an email from the U.S. embassy in Manila informing Americans about the Philippine government's ban on all travel in and out of the capital city until April 14.

"We called our airline to get our tickets changed, but we couldn't get in touch with them," Zhang says. "Their lines were constantly busy with five-plus-hour wait times."

Makki says they also received updates from the U.S. embassy about possible sweeper flights that were scheduled for the same day, making it impossible for them to act swiftly to leave Panglao to another island, Cebu.

By March 20, Makki reached out to Shalala's office and began communicating with Reimy Benitez — Shalala's communications director and staff liaison. At the time, Makki and Zhang left their hotel because locals were becoming hostile toward them, she says. They found a bamboo house on a mountain on Airbnb. Because they had to travel down the mountain to find a place with a Wi-Fi connection and owing to the 13-hour time difference, there was often a breakdown in communications with Benitez.

Makki shared screenshots of his WhatsApp messages with Benitez, including one that shows the staff liaison assumed the couple had left Panglao after not receiving any messages from them for two days.

"Our office did not hear back from you so we assumed you had made it out safely," Benitez wrote.

An incredulous Makki responded, "WE CANNOT GET OFF THE ISLAND. There are no efforts or I would not be talking to you Mr. Benitez."

Benitez said he would again contact the U.S. Embassy in Manila to see what could be done for the couple. "And yes, we are trying to get all of our folks home from abroad," Benitez wrote.

In another message, Benitez told Makki: "Our office has been working closely with the state department, and the state department has been working closely with the host government to get everybody back. The fact is there are many people trying to leave. We will continue to work the case."

Shalala's deputy chief of staff, Martinez, says the WhatsApp messages show the congresswoman's office was doing everything possible to assist Zhang and Makki.

"If he showed you the entire thread, you can see we have been working with him and we have been responsive," Martinez says. "We have gone as far as to help him with his personal issues stateside."

On Saturday, April 4, the U.S. Embassy in Manila issued an alert that the U.S. government does not anticipate arranging repatriation flights in the Philippines at this time.

"U.S. citizens who wish to return to the United States should make commercial arrangements as soon as possible unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period of time," the alert stated. That means Zhang and Makki could be stuck in a country whose autocratic leader, President Rodrigo Duterte, recently announced the military will kill quarantine violators who fight back.

As of now, Zhang and Makki are down to one phone.

"Chris dropped his, and the screen broke," Zhang says. "He tried to go fix it in the city, but all the nonessential stores are closed."

Zhang says they left the bamboo house and were able to book a room at a local hotel. Nevertheless, they paid to have the bamboo house until the end of April in case they have to go back up the mountain. They have stocked up on 17 liters of gasoline, five kilos of rice, as many canned foods as they could get, a basic first-aid kit, and more than five gallons of water.

"We are safe where we are staying, but we can feel the hostility rising," she says. "So now we are prepared for the absolute worst. At this point, we believe that anything could happen."

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