AFS (American Field Service) is an international youth exchange program, in which high school students find opportunities to study overseas for language and cultural exchange. On March 15, AFS international announced the termination of all running programs due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Here are stories of three AFS students, two are still stuck overseas, while one was able to return home.
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the youths interviewed.
Goy*, 17, Argentina
“If I can’t go back to Thailand within May, they’re going to have to take me to see a therapist first, before even checking for COVID-19.”
I arrived in Argentina around February 20. There were no confirmed cases at the time. There are now over 4,000 cases [interview took place on Apr 30] and now I can’t go home.
I wanted to learn Spanish and I heard the people are friendly in this part of the world, that’s why I chose to come here. Argentina is in a lockdown and the last time I went outside was about a month ago.
I really, really want to go home. I am depressed and I am lonely.
I am supposed to be here for 11 months, but I am waiting for my flight to go back to Thailand. When the program termination was announced, there was a gap of a few days that we could have flown out, but we missed it.
Argentina has now closed the airspace and Thailand has closed its borders, so unless it’s a special flight arranged by governments of the two countries, it won’t be possible to fly any time soon. Also, you can’t do direct flight [due to the distance, a trip takes more than 20 hours], the plane would have to stop somewhere.
I am stuck here and it’s really hard on my mental health.
AFS Thailand and AFS Argentina look after me really well. They keep us updated about the flight situation, even though the program was already terminated. The Thai embassy in Argentina also does a video-call with me twice a week.
If I can’t go back to Thailand within May, they’re going to have to take me to see a therapist first, before even checking for COVID-19, because my mental health is really not ok. I can’t even begin to imagine how I would feel then if I couldn’t fly in May. I am hoping that I can go home before May 10.
I have no motivation to do anything right now. I don’t even want to take any online language courses right now. They also haven’t said anything about refunding my money as well, for not being able to complete the program.
(There are 50 Thai AFS students currently in Argentina.)
Toh*, 17, Uruguay
“I think I am okay, mentally. About two weeks ago I was a bit frustrated, but I’m okay now.”
I arrived in mid-August last year and I was supposed to come home around the end of June. My experience has been great. I get to practice my English and learn to live on my own. I learn new cultures and ways of life. Like, greeting each other by kissing on the cheeks, at first I was so awkward. The people here have been very friendly.
There are 643 confirmed cases [the interview took place on May 1] out of a population of three millions here, so that’s considered a bit high. There’s not a complete lockdown, just some restrictions, like closing down malls and restaurants. You can still go out, but you have to follow the social distancing rule. You can go to the supermarket, but you have to cue outside to get in and not everybody can get in all at once.
You can fly somewhere nearby, like the big capital cities in South America. There’s no flying to a different continent right now, and there’s certainly no flights to go back to Thailand.
The embassy talks to me once a week. Last time we talked, they still couldn’t tell me when I would be able to fly home. AFS Thailand doesn’t have any direct communication with me since they dropped the project on March 15, except for when they contacted me about studying online. But they talk to my parents in Thailand regularly. They said they are in contact with the Thai government.
Because the borders of Thailand are closed, on top of closed airspace, the only way for me to go back is an emergency flight arranged by the government.
Things at my host family are fine, my host parents are very well prepared with everything. So, honestly, my case is considered a good situation.
I think I am okay, mentally. About two weeks ago I was a bit frustrated, but I’m okay now that the embassy has been getting in touch. At least I know they haven’t ditched me. I still get to go for a short walk, around 500 meters, regularly. My host family said it would not be wise to go anywhere far right now, unless it’s some sort of an emergency.
This whole experience hasn’t put me off being an exchange student again. COVID-19 is really the world’s crisis and was unexpected. It affects everybody. I understand that no one was able to predict the situation to be this bad.
(There are two Thai AFS students currently in Uruguay).
Mint*, 17, Denmark
“Everything was super last minute, I had to pack my bags and get ready to leave right then. It was really crazy.”
I left Thailand early in August last year to go to Denmark and was supposed to stay until the end of June, but had to come back in March. At first, there were rumors that I was going to get sent back home because of the COVID-19 situation. It happened to the AFS kids in China first, then followed by Italy.
Around March 15, I got an email from AFS International about the termination of the program. The following day, I received another email from AFS Thailand with flight details, telling me I had to fly out the next day. Everything was super last minute, I had to pack my bags and get ready to leave right then. It was really crazy.
It was so last minute that AFS Thailand didn’t even tell my host family or AFS Denmark any of this.
AFS Thailand said that I could choose to stay, but I would have to look after myself, my own visa and there would be no insurance. So I decided to come back, even though the situation in Denmark was contained really well.
It’s comforting that I’m home and AFS Thailand asked me to self-quarantine at home. They didn’t provide any space or anything for the quarantine.
After this experience, I still want to be an exchange student, but I would not want to do it with AFS anymore. It’s not just the pandemic, there have been problems even before then. Like, not looking after the students well. When my friend wanted to change a host family and no matter how much she cried, they would just keep telling her to be patient and to put up with it for the time being.
I lost three months of my program time and that is tens of thousands of baht, but they compensated by giving me free online courses.