The journey home to Estevan was a pretty challenging trip for Jan Park.
Park has been teaching overseas at the American Creativity Academy in Kuwait, a private girls school, for the past 15 years. It’s a school where parents send their children to receive Islamic values, but also hone an American or Canadian accent.
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She’ll return to Kuwait every August for another year of teaching, then come back to Canada in June for two months with her husband Norm.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school has been shut down for more than two months, and she was only able to find a return flight to Canada in mid-April.
Those final weeks in Kuwait were not easy. The country shut down fairly early, before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.
“We don’t know the reason. What I do know about the Kuwaiti government is they’re extremely protective of their citizens,” she told the Mercury.
As of Monday evening, the densely-populated country of 4.3 million people has had 5,278 cases and 40 deaths.
The final day of classes was Feb. 27. Two days later, it was announced schools were closed throughout Kuwait City. A school break was happening in March, so the government made the decision to end the school year before the break began.
Airports were also closed and a curfew was imposed from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. each night.
“The first night of the curfew, I woke up at 4 a.m., and I looked out the window, and I thought it’s either … a UFO or a drone. I looked up and I could see it flying in the air and I thought ‘OK, they’ve got drones out.’”
Approximately 80 people who teach at the school reside in her building. Once school was cancelled, a few of them might gather to socialize, but at 4:55 p.m., a police vehicle would circulate the building three times, and they knew that it was time to go inside.
“It’s a population of a million, so there’s lots of traffic noise, and just lots of noise, and that was most unusual to see things still,” she said.
Park is one of about 400 people, all from outside the country, who teach at the school. She isn’t sure how many are still in Kuwait. Roughly 30 people are still in the building.
When they went to grocery stores, she and people in her building would load up the vehicle. Kuwait’s government has been very serious about social distancing. Seven government officials would greet customers at a grocery store.
“Everybody gowned and masked, and at the door they had people wiping down carts, and handing out gloves and masks if you didn’t have them on,” she recalled. “A policeman was there, and they were taking temperatures.”
The lines might extend for a block or a block and a half early in the day, but people weren’t hoarding. There was a run on onions, which are a staple in the Kuwaiti diet, so the Kuwaiti government flew in 30,000 pounds of onions from Sudan.
After the school year ended, she tried to get out of the country and back to Canada, but nothing panned out.
“What we could not understand is why they would not send a military plane in. The numbers were certainly there. We couldn’t understand that part. Later on I came to realize that co-ordinating flights with a closed airport is just a nightmare for people in logistics,” she said.
There had been a couple of emergency flights out of the country on Kuwaiti Airlines, and other airlines said they would do evacuation flights, but only if the numbers were there.
One was to New York, but once she arrived, she would have had to find her own way to Canada. Another flight would take her only to Montreal. One would have sent her to Australia. The best bet for a while was one that would fly her to Frankfurt and then Toronto, and then she’d be on her own.
Finally there was a flight on April 15 that took her from Kuwait to Frankfurt and then Toronto. From there, she flew from Toronto to Calgary and then to Regina, where her husband was waiting.
It was a three-day journey, including the prolonged layovers; normally the trip takes about 21-28 hours.
After she arrived back in Canada, the Parks immediately went into a self-isolation that ended Saturday morning. A short time later, she was reflecting on the experience with the Mercury.
“Now I’m free. Gosh, I could feel the freedom, until I went out to go to the grocery store. The freedom was there when I walked; I walked for about 40 minutes, and I loved it. You can feel the wind and hear the birds and it was just gorgeous.”
When she went to the grocery stores, though, she noticed the changes, not just with the arrows and the social distancing. It was tough not to hug somebody she hadn’t encountered in a year.
A neighbour delivered groceries to the front step of the Park home during their two weeks of quarantine. A neighbour was celebrating a birthday, and brought by some cupcakes for the couple. They could talk through a door or window with their friends, but not get any closer.
Since coming back to Canada, she has had an online teaching session and a staff meeting with the people from the school in Kuwait. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do next; she would like to return for the start of the school year, which is slated to happen Aug. 16. Online teaching might be an option.
But in the meantime, she’s happy to be home, and looking forward to her extended stay in the Energy City.
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