In mid-March 2020, the world changed. Countries began to close borders; airlines began to cancel flights; within days, many of my colleagues and their families were being repatriated to Canada. Then, we encountered a snag. Managua, Nicaragua, had only two Canada-Based staff, and both were required to return to Canada. After a discussion with my Ambassador in San José, Costa Rica, we decided that I would go to Managua and cover off until the Head of the Office could return. Twenty-four hours later, I was in-flight to Managua via Miami. We assumed that I would be back home in four to six weeks. Certainly, COVID-19 would blow over by then!
Oh, how mistaken we were. One hundred and eighteen days later, I returned home.
I’m a Trade Commissioner and have worked my entire career in Trade. While aware of the work my colleagues did in other sections, it was an entirely new experience to be the only Canadian on the ground. From my first day in Managua, everyone was patient with me and walked me through the myriad of things I needed to know and do. Things were going as well as could be expected, but airlines continued to cancel flights, and borders remained closed. Canadians in Nicaragua were becoming more and more anxious as the Prime Minister encouraged everyone to return home. Within weeks of my arrival in Managua, all commercial flights were cancelled. We were well and truly stuck, and I knew that my six-week plan was no longer even slightly reasonable.
In April, the Canadian Honey Council (CHC) contacted us. Canadian farmers needed workers to harvest honey over the summer. Traditionally, those workers are flown in from Nicaragua. The CHC had decided to send a plane to pick up these much-needed workers.
That’s when work got complicated.
It seemed simple: hire a plane in Canada to fetch the people you need. But during a pandemic, there is a phenomenal amount of work that must be done with various governments to obtain permissions and authority. Canada had closed its borders to non-citizens. Exemptions were needed for these workers. The workers’ visas and passports were in Mexico City, with no direct flights to get them back to Nicaragua. This was another layer of complexity in an already difficult situation. When we discovered that there would be empty seats on this plane, we quickly offered them to Canadians who wanted to return home.
Like a mostly well-oiled machine, we swung into action.
We needed COVID-19 loans for Canadians without means. The Consular team in San José, along with headquarters in Ottawa, worked frantically to approve the loans in record time. The Mission Consular Officer and his team in San José developed MOUs/agreements to get the payments to the Honey Producers, who needed to be reimbursed. The Political section wrote and got approval for diplomatic notes at all hours of the day and night, and forwarded documents to the Nicaraguan government, while also overseeing a social media campaign about the flight.
Our Immigration section in the Canadian embassy in Mexico City found a solution to get the workers’ passports back to Nicaragua in the nick of time. Meanwhile, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) made sure that the airport in Calgary, where the flight would touch down, was ready to receive the workers and Canadians, many of whom would continue to other destinations in Canada. We sent a team to the Managua airport and crossed our fingers.
The night of the flight, the team on the ground at the airport met the Canadians and processed payments on the spot. When the flight departed at 2 am, 35 Canadians were on their way home. Our Bee Flight was a success, and we could relax.
Until it was time for the next one.
Since we’d done it successfully once, the second experience was certainly less stressful. However, nothing is ever easy. Because the local government changed their requirements for COVID-19 testing of flight crews, the flight had to be delayed. Finally, everything worked out; paperwork was submitted, and again we found ourselves at the airport at 10 pm on a Saturday night to ensure that another 27 Canadians could go home.
Nature loves a little joke; a little hitch is always needed to add some excitement. That night at the airport, a Nicaraguan worker approached me; he had not received the documentation which would allow him to board the flight. At 11:00 on a Saturday night, I sent a message to my CBSA and Immigration colleagues without much hope that I would hear back, since I didn’t expect them to be monitoring their cell phones. To my happy surprise, I had a response within minutes. The information was being forwarded to Calgary, and the happy traveller would be able to enter Canada when he arrived. The worker and I both nearly fell to our knees to give thanks to that CBSA officer who came through at a nearly impossible hour on the weekend.
That was our last Bee Flight. We weren’t able to get every Canadian on those flights. But shortly afterwards, some charter flights to the US began, and Canadians were able to leave Nicaragua. Without the collaboration and support of my colleagues from three different Canadian missions and three departments in Canada, the Bee Flights would not have happened.
It was one of the most stressful and rewarding experiences of my career. I met many fascinating Canadians along the way, while helping them get home or get their family members’ home. This type of work was definitely different from my usual Trade work, and I certainly learned a great deal about Consular Services and the sheer amount of paperwork that has to be managed for such an event. I will be forever grateful to the teams in Managua, San Jose, Mexico and, of course, Canada for keeping me sane. Although I was the sole Canadian Embassy staff member in Managua at that time, I was never truly alone, and I knew that I had the full support of my colleagues and friends. When serving Canada abroad, teamwork is essential, and I’m proud of all who helped pull off our Bee Flights. They are examples of the best that Canada offers the world. *buzz* *buzz*