VCU brings home student stuck in Honduras due to COVID-19 lockdown

Marko Alvarenga talks about being stuck in Honduras and his journey back to Virginia during a Zoom call with reporter Eduardo Acevedo. Photo by Eduardo Acevedo

Eduardo Acevedo, News Assistant

Junior Marko Alvarenga spontaneously had agreed to go to Jamaica with his friends for spring break, but when those plans fell through, Alvarenga decided to travel to his family’s home country: Honduras.

Alvarenga’s grandfather suffered a severe heart attack in February, and the trip to Honduras would give him the chance to visit his relatives.

Marko Alvarenga and his grandfather, Oscar Galeano Muñoz, during his Honduras trip. Photo courtesy of Marko Alvarenga

“I didn’t hesitate to think of Honduras,” the health, physical education and exercise science major said. “I didn’t even spend one second thinking about where else I would go.”

But the trip didn’t go exactly as planned. Alvarenga is now back in Richmond — after being stuck in Honduras for nearly two weeks due to a country-wide shutdown — and was able to fly back to the U.S. with the university’s assistance.

Alvarenga landed in Honduras on March 11 and was scheduled to stay for five days, but his trip was extended until March 26 when two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Honduras the day he landed.

Initially, Alvarenga didn’t think anything of the confirmed cases. But when Allan Ramos, the mayor of La Lima, issued a stay-at-home order, and Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández enacted a travel ban on March 15, Alvarenga knew the situation was only going to get worse.

“That night, things started getting a little more chaotic because people were getting a little more worried,” Alvarenga said.

The coronavirus was not the only thing Alvarenga and his family had to worry about. Gang violence, lack of running water and air conditioning, and shoddy internet connection added to the stress of possibly not making it back home.

On several occasions during his trip, Alvarenga said he could hear gunshots being exchanged by MS-13 and Mara Barrio 18 gangs as the virus amped up desperation and the lack of food and supplies.

“In Honduras you got to really be on your toes,” Alvarenga said. “You have to make sure of your surroundings because you just never know who’s a gang member, like over there the gang members don’t really wear colors.”

Marko Alvarenga at a birthday party in Honduras as a child. Photo courtesy of Marko Alvarenga

Alvarenga described having an internet connection so slow it took 10 minutes for a video to load on Twitter, and barely being able to do his work. At this point he decided to contact his advisor and his professors to let them know of his situation.

Through his advisor, he was put into contact with VCU’s senior travel and reimbursement analyst, Amy Hale. It took Hale and VCU’s Office of Procurement Services, the Department of Student Affairs and the Global Education Office a day to book Marko a flight home.

VCU began an emergency COVID-19 fund for students affected by the outbreak. 

Emergency grants and loan funds from VCU can cover unexpected travel expenses from not living in a residence hall, or to care for a student or family member diagnosed with COVID-19. If a student experiences loss of income because of the virus and needs assistance with living expenses, this could be covered as well.

According to Hale, VCU’s emergency fund was not used to pay for Alvarenga’s return home. Instead, it was paid for using “internal funds” from VCU’s Department of Student Affairs that support students in sudden, unexpected emergencies.

“My advice to Marko that first night was to hold tight,” Hale said in an email. “We would get him home.” 

Hale was trying to get the proper approvals for a humanitarian charter flight for Alvarenga, when she checked one last time for a seat on one of the few commercial flights out of Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport.

“I selected the flight, expecting for it to be sold out,” Hale said, “but to my huge surprise, it confirmed the flights, so I jumped on it.”

“She did almost everything possible for me to get back,” Alvarenga said. “She was like my personal hook-up to get back. 24/7, she was working hard.”

Left, Marko Alvarenga, and his older brother Joshua Alvarenga showering together in Honduras. Photo courtesy of Marko Alvarenga

On March 27, Alvarenga left Honduras — flying from Houston, to Charlotte and back home to Richmond — after spending an additional 11 days in Honduras.

Alvarenga said coming back home was like a weight being lifted from his shoulders, but the fear for his family, who are without access to health care or food, hasn’t left him.

“I honestly am really glad to be back and very appreciative to VCU for all they have done for me,” Alvarenga said, “but now I’m more worried about my family back in Honduras.”

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