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Coronavirus: Barking humanitarian worker’s 10 day battle to return from Cambodia

PUBLISHED: 17:06 01 April 2020 | UPDATED: 17:22 02 April 2020

The repatriation flight from Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur, from where an onward flight returned Maria to London. Picture: Maria Stefanova

The repatriation flight from Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur, from where an onward flight returned Maria to London. Picture: Maria Stefanova

Archant

A Barking humanitarian worker has told how she spent 10 days struggling to get home from Cambodia as the coronavirus crisis led to international borders closing.

Karen and Jerry Lewis negotiating the repatriation flight with Malaysia Airlines. Picture: Maria StefanovaKaren and Jerry Lewis negotiating the repatriation flight with Malaysia Airlines. Picture: Maria Stefanova

For the past year Maria Stefanova has been working for a British international development foundation — who she wishes not to name — managing grassroot health and education programmes.

Stationed in Thailand, the 30-year-old went to Cambodia on March 18 for a “visa run” - leaving the country for a short period of time to renew her visa.

Despite an intensifying situation, Maria was not advised at this point — by the government or her employer — to return home.

“Originally, I had a flight booked for March 23 which was supposed to get me back to Thailand,” she explained.

Maria alongside a crowd of people from the UK who had gathered at the British embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Picture: Maria StefanovaMaria alongside a crowd of people from the UK who had gathered at the British embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Picture: Maria Stefanova

“As I handed my passport to the Thai Embassy on March 19, news started coming in on borders closing. My plan then was to return to Thailand as soon as possible and to go home from there.

“By the evening I received an email saying my flight to Thailand had been cancelled. At this point I immediately started looking for flights that would take me back to London.”

Though scared, Maria thought she would be able to rely on a contractual term requiring her employer to fund a trip home. She was dismayed to be told that this wasn’t possible due to rapidly-increasing flight prices.

Only an emotional plea changed her employer’s stance, as he booked a ticket for Maria to fly home via Hong Kong on March 26.

Maria knew that a booking was no guarantee, and so it proved - on March 24 she learned that Hong Kong was to close its borders.

Once again Maria contacted her employer — safely self-isolating at home — asking him not to sacrifice her safety for the £500 more this ticket would cost.

She was met by silence and said: “I haven’t heard from him since. I was left alone, only having three days’ worth of hand luggage with me, with my bank account almost empty.”

On that same day, Maria went to the British embassy in Phnom Penh and contacted MP Dame Margaret Hodge.

At the embassy Maria was given a telephone number for a helpline, but couldn’t get through.

A burgeoning crowd were eventually allowed to speak with a local staff member.

Much to Maria’s frustration, they left with the unhelpful advice to “look online”. A despairing Maria then emailed Dame Margaret.

She said the first response was “kind”, but that subsequent emails advised her to go to the embassy, a place where she previously had no luck.

When asked for comment, the office for Dame Margaret explained why Maria was advised to go to the embassy.

“Margaret’s team called the foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) MP hotline to ask where the case had got and what advice they would give to Maria. Here the FCO, on March 25, told us to instruct Maria to make herself known to a British embassy or consulate.”

They added that the repatriation of Brits abroad is “one of the areas where Margaret and the caseworkers have been spending most of their time”.

At this point Maria felt devoid of options, and decided to take the struggle online.

She said: “In utter helplessness we decided to form a Facebook group called Stranded in Cambodia UK.”

This decision ultimately led Maria to her saviour. Jerry Lewis — a teacher on sabbatical travel with his family — reached out and was able to charter a flight that took over 100 people home.

“He had the right connections to get in touch with Malaysia Airlines representatives in Phnom Penh,” Maria explained.

Though Maria returned to Barking on March 28, her thoughts remained with “the people who are still trying to get back home”.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab vowed to bring home Brits stranded abroad during the coronavirus crisis with a £75million repatriation package.

Maria said that she is all too aware that, had Jerry not stepped in, she could have been one of them.


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