Duncan woman safe at home after struggle to leave Uganda

Flights hard to come by during COVID-19 pandemic

Duncan’s Leslie Healy, left, enjoys ice cream with a friend during less-hectic times in Uganda. (Submitted)

Duncan’s Leslie Healy, left, enjoys ice cream with a friend during less-hectic times in Uganda. (Submitted)

Despite having to wait through two weeks of quarantine, Leslie Healy is happy to be back home in Duncan after she was temporarily stranded in Uganda because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Healy left for Uganda in November 2019 on a church mission, and was originally scheduled to return in early April. She rebooked her trip to return sooner, but was turned away at the airport in Uganda because her flight home stopped in the U.S. before connecting to Canada. On March 25, Healy managed to get on possibly the last commercial flight out of Entebbe International Airport, reaching Amsterdam, where she caught a flight to Vancouver.

“It was an expensive trip home,” Healy said in an online conversation on March 30. “But I’m here and happy to be a little closer to my family and friends (and cat).”

After rebooking her April 4 flight, Healy was scheduled to leave Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport on March 26, travelling through Dubai to Seattle, then taking a March 27 flight from Seattle to Victoria. She then tried to rebook again, but her new ticket did not include the last leg from Seattle to Victoria, so she had a family member arrange for her to fly from to Seattle to Vancouver and from Vancouver to Nanaimo.

When word came that the Canada-U.S. border would be closed before she was scheduled to return home, Healy tried once again to change her ticket. Flights out of Entebbe to Dubai were booked for the weekend, but as she spoke to a ticket agent, a vacancy came open for Sunday. She snapped it up and was relieved to be headed home the next day.

She arrived at the airport at 10 a.m. on Sunday, four hours ahead of her check-in time, but when time came to check in, she was taken out of the lineup by Emirates (the airline) officials and told she could not fly because she is not a U.S. citizen and their computers didn’t show the final leg of her journey from Seattle to Canada, which had been booked separately. Healy attempted to fly just from Entebbe to Dubai, from where she might have been able to reach Canada, but was also denied entry to the United Arab Emirates.

Workers at the Canadian consulate in Uganda and Dutch airline KLM came to the rescue.

“The Canadian consulate in Kampala was extremely helpful,” Healy said. “It has only Ugandan nationals working there but Sarah [a consulate employee], was understanding, and even went as far as to go up to the KLM office (in the same building) to talk to the people working there to try on getting me onto that last flight.”

The last flight was fully booked, but Lydia, another Ugandan national working for KLM, promised to watch for a vacant seat. Lydia told Healy to call her the following day (Wednesday), and if they weren’t able to connect, to just come to the airport that evening and hope for the best.

“She said someone may not show,” Healy recalled. “But the one thing that impressed me was that she prebooked me from Amsterdam to Vancouver. That’s unheard of.”

Healy called KLM repeatedly on Wednesday and couldn’t get through, but a friend tried and got through on her first try. Lydia told them that nothing had come up all morning, but when she came back from her lunch break, a seat was open and she snapped it up.

Healy will be forever grateful to Sarah and Lydia for their help.

“Of course I thank God for putting those two women into my life at that moment,” she said. “And Lorrie, the director of the mission I had been with in Uganda, who spent numerous hours on the phone on my behalf trying to get me home.”

Uganda didn’t announce its first case of COVID-19 until last Saturday, a Ugandan national who tested positive after returning from a business meeting in Dubai.

“The president was very proactive and closed the borders before that,” Healy said. “And Sunday was the last of the airport being ‘open’ — the last flight that I knew of at the time.”

The country only had 45 confirmed cases as of April 2, but Healy knows that number could skyrocket.

“I really pray for those people who have nothing, who live hand-to-mouth daily,” she said. “Because if this highly infectious virus comes it will sweep through that country like nothing else, and a lot of the foreigners who were there helping in various ways and through aid and financial help have left.”

Because of the ravages of war and AIDS in recent decades, Uganda’s population is among the youngest in the world, with nearly 50 per cent of its 42 million people under the age of 15.

Healy plans to return to Uganda eventually.

“Something gets into your soul once you’ve been there,” she said. “It’s a real lesson on faith, seeing it being worked out in so many lives. It’s so beautiful there, I can see why it’s called the pearl of Africa.

“At first the poverty hits you hard and it’s so alien to us, that type of poverty, but soon you see past it all, not judging or looking down on it all, you really see the people and what they struggle with to live.”