Americans stranded in India fear for their safety and wonder when they can return home

A California couple who has been waiting two and a half years to adopt a child from an Indian orphanage was days away from completion when the country introduced a strict coronavirus lockdown, bringing the process to a halt.  

Firefighter and paramedic Michael Cannon and nurse Rose Barnes told Yahoo News they traveled to New Delhi March 13 on what should have been one of the happiest trips of their life, to bring the two-and-a-half year old girl home with them to Murrieta, Calif. But instead, they faced suspicion from locals and are now stuck in India awaiting news on when they can return home, and whether the child they hoped to welcome into their family can accompany them.

India issued its official first day of a nationwide lockdown on March 25, with police enforcing the strict measures on its 1.3 billion people. Although currently the country has fewer coronavirus cases than in Europe and the U.S., one projection estimated the country could have to deal with 300 million cases if the outbreak spreads.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the “total lockdown” was to “save India, to save its citizens, your family.”

Some Westerners say they have been met with hostility, apparently because locals suspect them of bringing the coronavirus to their country, and in trying to find food have been threatened by police who were enforcing the lockdown.

The emergency measure shocked Cannon and Barnes, both 34. 

The couple said some locals have been suspicious of them and their 8 year-old daughter, Camille,  since they arrived on March 13, just four hours before the nation banned all tourist visas. “I think that there might be a stigma being passed around, like maybe [they think] we're bringing corona[virus] to India,” Barnes said. The man selling tickets at a train station seemed shocked by the sight of her husband when he entered. “I think they just think we're carriers [of the virus.]”

Nurse Rose Barnes, firefighter and paramedic Michael Cannon and their daughter Camille. (Courtesy of the family)

“They're scared of us. We're definitely being watched, you know, and they get nervous,” Barnes told Yahoo News.

But the Barnes and Cannon said they are trying to stay positive, describing their situation as “not quite dire,” and saying the staff at their hotel has been attentive and friendly, but adding “supplies could run out soon.”

The couple, who would be called on to work on the frontlines to fight coronavirus back home in Southern California, said they were in contact with the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and would take a flight home if one becomes available. 

And they are still trying to complete the adoption of the girl, which Cannon said officials had confirmed could proceed when they receive a written order from a judge. “There’s just one last step to complete,” Barnes said.

“The situation, it's a little devastating, and also just a little comical,” Cannon said, “If you're in it, you can't be faint of heart, and you need to be tenacious and ready to roll with the punches,” he told Yahoo News.

The three members of the family are among thousands of U.S. citizens hoping to get home from India since the country banned all outgoing international flights, an order that will remain in effect until April 15.

Yahoo News spoke to dozens of other Americans in India who are awaiting word from U.S. authorities on when and if they can leave the country before the lockdown — which Prime Minister Modi estimates will last at least three weeks — is lifted.

Valeria Savelyeva from Seattle is currently stuck in South Goa, a beach resort which is usually bustling with tourists. But now, “It’s like a ghost town,” she said.

Valeria Savelyeva. (Courtesy of Valeria Savelyeva)

The former Amazon corporate worker left her job on a sabbatical to travel to India and to complete a two-month course on how to become a yoga teacher, arriving in early March. But around two weeks ago, as she became more aware of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world, she tried to buy flights back home. 

Savelyeva explained that as the nearest airport to her in Goa only serves smaller flights, the prices skyrocketed — “the one flight I could book to get home was $8,000,” she said, so she waited, looking every few days to see if she had other options. She eventually found a flight that cost $850 and would have allowed her to leave on March 30, but it has since been canceled because of the strict lockdown.  

“So I was freaking out trying to get home like a law-abiding citizen with no help,” Savelyeva said, 

Savelyeva, who is a U.S. citizen and has lived in America for over 20 years, also has a Russian passport and said she was more hopeful of getting help to fly there, than back to the U.S. 

“I’m extremely surprised about how the U.S. is handling it, especially after Trump was saying, You need to come home. I’m like, How can I come home?” Savelyeva said. “We have families at home. Next week we might have no food from the restaurant, then what?,” she added. 

U.S. authorities have told the citizens to join the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to register their location in case of emergency. 

A statement released by the U.S. embassy on Friday said it was working with the Department of State and was making progress on “possible commercial and/or charter flights from India to the United States for U.S. citizens.”

It said initial flights would most likely depart from New Delhi and Mumbai, but it will try to facilitate travel for people who are in different cities.

But some Americans trapped in India said they have been told by the U.S. embassy in New Delhi that no flights can be arranged as there are currently no airlines operating out of the country. Others complained that they were registered with STEP but had not been receiving any email updates from authorities.

A spokesperson at the State Department told Yahoo News that stranded Americans in any country, including India, should use the STEP program and their local embassy to register for help.

Paramilitary forces near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. (Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Meanwhile other Americans are desperately trying to get supplies together for the lockdown. Pam Lilak said that in Siolim, Goa, all the shops have been closed because of the strict measures. She noted that at the moment she has enough food but is “running out.”

“The worst part is if you drive around looking for a shop to open via black market, then there’s a risk to get beaten by police,” Lilak said over Facebook, “we’ve been stopped a few times, forcefully yelled at and threatened to get a beating.”

Some U.S. citizens also drew attention to the fact in some cases Indian nationals were also being discriminated against for either helping them find food or shelter or for having recently traveled abroad — potentially bringing the virus back with them. 

A statement from Air India noted that some members of their crew had been ostracized by local communities since returning.

Psychology professor Lisa Carley Hotaling from New York said she was pressured to leave her apartment in Bangalore after locals accused her of breaking curfew, which she believes was discrimination because she is American. But with help from some other Indian friends Hotaling managed to escape to Goa, where she says locals have been desperately trying to help her. 

Hotaling, whose husband is currently working in health care in New York, wants to get home as soon as possible, as she’s worried her kids may be left without a caregiver should her husband contract coronavirus. She is also concerned about her ongoing health conditions, which are related to kidney disease, as she accidentally left all of her prescriptions in Bangalore. 

“I reached out to the consulate in Mumbai; they were very kind, but ultimately just [said] that the U.S. had no definite plans to get a flight out. I have panic disorder and other health concerns and do not have any meds with me,” Hotaling said. 

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