Samoa's COVID castaways
Our islands are a dreamy destination promising the allure of a tropical paradise: lush vegetation and a perimeter lined with perfectly white sandy beaches that were drawing tourists in record numbers.
Not too long ago these were national treasures celebrated by trvellers. But since the borders were closed last March, the storybook fantasy of being marooned on a tropical island has lost all its appeal for a cohort of expats who find themselves stuck in Samoa.
Ngoh Barry Ankungha, for example, is an accomplished accountant from Cameroon, West Africa. He was an eager traveler completing the final leg of a world tour, only to find himself locked in limbo in Samoa’s borders waiting for a chance to return home.
Mr. Ankungha came to Samoa in December of 2019 with three other Cameroonians he had met while traveling in Papua New Guinea. After hearing about Samoa they decided to continue their journey south. Upon arrival, immigration granted them a three month, visa-free stay. He says he loves Samoa and finds its beauty not unlike a scene from Hollywood; picturesque with blue waters and beautiful women.
But in retrospect perhaps these allures kept him too long. On 21 March 2020 the borders closed, two days before he was booked to begin his flight home.
At that moment, he says, his stay in the country stopped being a vacation.
Unlike the rest of the world, Samoans have a front-row seat to the pandemic without being afflicted by its health impacts so far.
We have watched as the world’s Governments experimented with policies on mandatory and voluntary vaccines, lockdown and herd immunity.
While the initial lockdown closed the borders for 14 days, Mr. Ankungha’s hopes of returning home have dimmed with every lockdown extension over the last 18 months.
What he hoped was going to be a week or a month’s delay has gone on for nearly two years. Unable to work virtually and without a working-visa he has had to volunteer as a handyman and groundskeeper, working in exchange for food and board for well over a year.
Despite countless attempts to piece together a plan, Mr. Ankungha has found little help.
Continuous correspondence with Fiji Airways has been fruitless.
There was an opportunity for him and his friends to begin a long journey home on a privately chartered repatriation flight to Fiji but despite purchasing a ticket, Fiji Airways notified them that their transit visa had been denied at the last moment, he said. Due to the nature of the charter, they were unable to get a refund and therefore have been unable to leave on subsequent flights either to Fiji or New Zealand. While the airlines are not completely at fault, promises to fly once restrictions relax are solely up to the Government and unfortunately for Mr. Ankungha and his friends.
Despite a visitor’s visa extension for six months after his initial visa had expired, Barry has had to pay over $1000 in subsequent renewal fees just to remain legally on island. In one instance, he hadn’t been notified that his visa was expiring and when he showed up a few days later he was issued an overstay fine of $300. When s memory, the only bitter one being a taxi driver who would not return a forgotten phone.requesting assistance to return home, he was told to contact the New Zealand embassy for a citizen’s transit or to contact his own embassy. He has not heard back from the Cameroon Embassy in China (the closest to Samoa) but since there are only four of them, he is not expecting much help as there isn’t enough pull for their government to take immediate action.
As for now, Barry has no immediate plans. There is a glimmer of hope for him as Fiji begins opening up their borders to international flights but if that plan fails all he can do is wait out the pandemic. His bank account is running on the support and prayers of his loved ones.
Sometimes he doesn't even call them, worrying that he will upset them with a lack of news or worse, that he’ll get news such as a casualty from the virus that has already claimed more than 4.5 million lives worldwide.
Mr. Ankungha said that he would gladly be deported from Samoa like a common criminal if it meant a chance for him to go home.
He had only one message for the government of Samoa:
“We are stuck here, foreigners in your country. Please assist us and help us get home. You have the power to help us get home to our families during this crisis”.
Mr. Ankungha’s is not an isolated case. There is a community of foreign nationals essentially trapped in Samoa, focusing their energy on surviving without any help from governments or agencies.
Despite it all, Mr. Ankungha says he still loves Samoa and the country will always hold a special place in his heart.
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