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Heartbreak and loss as the world slams doors on SA

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Sarah Cohen* was woken by banging on the door at 04:30 on the morning of Friday 26 November. She was visiting from the United Kingdom (UK) with her one-year-old son and looking forward to enjoying all that her former home city of Cape Town had to offer. But there was a taxi driver at the front door sent by her father in London. He was to take her to the airport so that she could get on a plane that her husband, also back in London, has just booked. In light of the new COVID-19 variant, South Africa was going to be put back on the UK’s red list, and she had to go – immediately.

“It was intensely stressful and terrifying. It happened so fast. When I went to sleep on Thursday things were normal. Then I was suddenly woken up by a cab driver pounding on the door. I checked my phone to find about a thousand missed calls and WhatsApps. My husband had booked us a flight home via Munich. We just chucked everything in bags and legged it to the airport, worried we’d miss [the flight]. It was the last international flight out of Cape Town!”

She is one of thousands who have been directly or indirectly affected by the new Omicron variant discovered by South African scientists. The heartache and loss resulting from the international knee-jerk reaction is unquantifiable. Family reunions forfeited, simchas cancelled, stranded travellers forced into quarantine, and businesses bearing the brunt of the travel bans are parts of its ripple effects around the globe. Many South African Jews and their families have been affected.

Cohen counts herself among the lucky ones. “My flight was literally the only one and it left two hours before they [the UK] officially put South Africa on the red list. That’s why I can isolate at home rather than being stuck in a hotel room with my toddler.”

Carole Levin and her family were looking forward to celebrating her son David’s wedding on 16 December. But that dream was shattered in the space of 24 hours.

“David and his fiancée Daniella (Dani) Hayman have been living in the Caribbean for the last 18 months, as he got a job there. They left Cape Town in July 2020. We all thought by December 2021 we would be able to safely have a wedding.

“In the meantime, Dani’s grandmother had a fall, and she came to see her at the beginning of October. Her plan was to stay until the wedding. David was booked to arrive on 6 December. On Monday last week the COVID-19 numbers started to rise. By Thursday we realised a fourth wave was imminent. We woke up on Friday to news of the UK travel ban.”

Amid frantic phone calls from family cancelling, they tried to bring the wedding forward so that they could celebrate with those who could still make it. The only date available was 6 December. It wasn’t possible, and so their summer wedding dream was over.

They then heard that the United States (US) was banning travel from South Africa from Monday 29 November. From enjoying the lead-up to her long-awaited wedding, “Dani had to get on a flight and leave. She was distraught, devastated,” said Levin. Amid tears, they helped her pack late into the night. The next morning she was gone, on a flight to Washington via Addis Ababa and Dublin.

It was touch and go, and she sent a heartbreaking message from the airport in Ethiopia saying she had made it onto the flight to the US. “It was a very emotional moment,” said Levin. She recalls so many times in Jewish history where crossing oceans meant getting to safety, and how holding off simchas in times of trauma is a part of our story. She remains hopeful that the wedding will take place in 2022.

Tessa Snitcher, who made aliyah in 2007, said, “My mom was coming to Israel to see her grandchildren, whom she hasn’t seen for two years. She booked on Turkish Airlines. She flew on 25 November at 17:00. By 20:30 there was a cabinet meeting in Israel. By midnight they had decided to close the border to South Africans. When I woke up 05:00, my mom called me hysterically, saying she wasn’t allowed to get on the plane to Israel from Turkey.

“I truly thought that they can’t stop somebody in mid-flight,” continued Snitcher. “I was in shock. They didn’t even give a few hours’ notice to allow people to get to a destination. I had no one to talk to. I called the airport, no one could help me. I called the health ministry, they couldn’t help me. The only person who has been truly helping olim is Dov Lipman and his organisation Yad L’Olim. He did everything he could to get my mom to Israel. But after many hours we understood that it wasn’t going to happen.”

Amid the chaos, they had to get her back to Cape Town. “It was extremely difficult, but she managed to get a ticket home. I think she was in the airport for 24 hours. We were so defeated and heartbroken. When she stepped onto the plane they said, ‘This is the last flight out of Turkey.’”

Snitcher says that Israel’s response to the new variant has hurt the very people who care about the country the most. “I made aliyah, I’m a Zionist, and I feel extremely embarrassed at how Israel treated South Africans. I don’t know when I’m going to see my mom again. I could cry from that feeling of desperation.”

Carla Stein and her husband Jared have had a tough year, losing two family members in a short space of time. They were counting down the days to a trip to Mauritius. But their dream turned into a nightmare of hours waiting in airports and on planes with small children, until finally they were allowed to fly. They landed on the island and were excited to be on holiday. That is, until they were told they weren’t allowed to leave the airport. This was even after they and their children had had multiple PCR tests, and the fact that they are fully vaccinated.

They watched in horror as passengers from other countries were allowed to head to their resorts, but as South Africans, they were forced to stay put. “There were about 15 or 20 police officers in uniform blocking the [exit]. It was traumatic. They had announced only 10 minutes before that all people flying in from South Africa were required to do 14 days’ quarantine,” said Stein. Negative PCR tests and vaccines didn’t matter.

After more hours in a hot airport, they were told they would have to quarantine. “We didn’t want to get shipped off to an unknown destination. The flight before us didn’t have to quarantine, but that’s what we were told to do.”

They were eventually taken to a hotel about 45 minutes away. Although their booked accommodation could ensure their isolation, they were transported to another hotel inland. “The next day my husband was told by someone, also in quarantine, that we were moving hotels. We weren’t even informed.”

They were moved again, but still not to their booked accommodation. The hotel room they are now in has a tiny veranda – a small saving grace. “We were eventually told that we will be here for seven days, and can be released after negative PCR tests,” said Stein. “But if someone is positive from the flight we will have to quarantine for 14 days.” They plan to continue with the holiday when they are let out. “It’s very hard being stuck in a room with a 19-month-old and an almost seven-year-old. But we have made it this far, and will try make the most of this experience.”

*Not her real name.

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