On 11 October 2019, 25-year-old videographer Karl Hili left Malta to chase a dream, buying a one-way ticket armed with just a backpack ready to film his travels.
He planned to travel around Asia for nine months, but with the Coronavirus outbreak he found himself stuck in Cambodia alongside his partner, 23-year-old Michela Urry, who joined him in his travels later on.
After almost two weeks of being trapped there, they were informed that a repatriation flight was made available to them from Frankfurt Airport, and they managed to safely arrive back in Malta on 1 April 2020.
However, reaching this point was no walk in the park for them.
The couple said that Cambodia was not the greatest place to be stuck in due to its questionable healthcare system, which meant that they would not have received the required support had they been infected.
Asked about the Coronavirus situation there, they said that while numbers were not alarming, they had reason to believe that the government was giving false statistics, as Cambodia has been accused of arresting and detaining individuals who expressed concerns about the spread of the virus in the country.
They went on to say that most parts of Cambodia were shut down, leaving travellers stuck in a city with no food as restaurants and shops had all closed down.
Thankfully, they were situated in Phnom Penh where restaurants were still open, but they were told to always go out wearing face masks so that Cambodians knew they were trying to be safe.
“We were constantly in fear, as there was more than one case where western-looking individuals were chased by Cambodians with knives in other parts of Cambodia, as they saw us as the carriers of the Coronavirus and wanted us to get out of their country,” they explained.
Another issue they had was financing. They feared that Cambodia might go into a lockdown so they had to rent an apartment without having any source of income. They had also spent thousands of euros on flights which were then cancelled without an option for a refund.
Battling against time and money
The couple decided to come back to Malta on 17 March; the second they heard that there might be border closures. However, the flights they booked for the coming days were cancelled.
From then onwards, it was a continuous battle against time and money as they continued to look for any flight that would take them to a country where they can catch a repatriation flight back home.
They explained that it was impossible for them to find any flights which would get them home without any problems – “the only flights we found were €5000 per person; stopping in countries we were unsure if we could pass through or not. We had also bought tickets for six flights worth over €1000, but these flights were cancelled.”
This newsroom asked how they coped with the situation and who they had contacted for help.
“Keeping positive was extremely hard, however, we are lucky to have had each other to lean on,” they said.
They were constantly on the look-out for updates from embassies and news reports to see if there was any way they could get home. There were no Maltese Embassies in Cambodia so they visited the British Embassy, where they met a number of British nationals who were in the exact same situation as them – “we were all looking for one thing – to get home.”
They added that they had contacted the Situation Centre in Malta and a number of employees from Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (MFEA).
Asked about their experience in terms of the support they received from these entities, they said that they did not get much information from them during the first 12 days.
“Our main problem was understanding where to pass from with all the restrictions in place and what to do, but they did not provide this to us. The only help they gave us was telling us that once we’re in Europe we will be repatriated, but our main problem was getting out of Asia,” they explained.
Nonetheless, they said that when a German repatriation flight out of Cambodia became available on 28 March, the Situation Centre worked really hard in making sure they got on that flight – “from getting them booked, to hours on end calling embassies in Cambodia trying to get our passports back as we had given them in for a visa extension and the offices were closed. Special thanks goes out to Mr Jean Paul Gatt and Ms Sephora Gauci from the MFEA.”
Coming back to Malta
The couple pointed out that trying to find a way back home during this pandemic is so much harder when coming from Asia rather than Europe, as the former is stricter with its regimes “and they do not care if someone is stranded there.”
“Researching and getting ready to get on any flight was so stressful, as every time we got shutdown. At one point we thought we’d be in Cambodia until the Coronavirus passes. We didn’t see any way out,” they said.
Being able to come home was a huge relief.
Karl explained that his family was quite surprised about his arrival as he had not kept anyone informed about anything that was happening, except for his brother, as he did not want to worry them.
Describing his family’s reaction to when they discovered he was returning home, he said that they were quite ecstatic.” I had been gone for almost six months and I couldn’t wait to see my family.”
Since their arrival, the couple has been under mandatory quarantine in a secluded residence, only seeing their family from their window, but they cannot wait to be able to be with them after it is all over.