By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff
Back in early March, life was pretty normal. Daily routines and simple errands were the same and mask free for most people. People were travelling as normal. The coronavirus was a far away problem in China, and was just starting to increase in Europe. Within just a few weeks, though, life changed for those in the United States and those working abroad. Aidan Van Duzer, a Dover resident, was among missionaries serving abroad when news of the impending pandemic spread. In just days, Van Duzer got caught up in a travel fiasco that he is sure to remember for years to come.
In 2018, following his first year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Van Duzer withdrew and began a two year religious mission trip to Ivory Coast in West Africa. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mission trips are a coming-of-age tradition. While in Ivory Coast, Van Duzer lived in three areas that helped him learn about the culture and different environments of the country.
While learning and working in a new country is already difficult, trying to return home during a pandemic proved to be grueling for Van Duzer and his fellow missionaries. “We’re only supposed to be focusing on our objectives as missionaries,” Aidan explains. He and his fellow missionaries don’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or read the news while on their service trips. Instead, Van Duzer found out about the coronavirus from his parents. Gradually, word spread among the community. By mid-March, everyone seemed to know.
While other missionaries received word of being evacuated, those serving in Ivory Coast didn’t hear anything until just days before they had to leave. At the time, there were only a couple of cases of the virus in the country. Van Duzer had been in the mission office when he heard that other mission presidents had told missionaries they would be returning to their home countries. Van Duzer went to his mission president to ask if they, too, would be asked to return home - just as the president received the call. It was confirmed: all missionaries were to leave Ivory Coast and return home. “Because of the nature of West African governments and their border control, we were supposed to leave the next day if we could,” explains Van Duzer.
Van Duzer and his fellow missionaries received word to leave on Wednesday, March 18. By Friday, they were sitting in the airport in Abidjan. With the travel already being restricted, the group already knew that their flight plan would require multiple stops and connecting flights to get back home to the United States. “As we were checking our bags, we were looking at the TV screen with the flights on it, and our flight disappeared,” recalls Van Duzer. He and his fellow missionary thought that it was an error. After talking to an airline representative, the group realized that everything was shutting down, that their flight was cancelled, and that the airport was closing in a few days. Unsure of what to do, he and his fellow missionaries returned to their base to regroup and try to find a way back home.
Days later, the number of COVID-19 in the Ivory Coast was increasing, as were concerns for how long the missionaries would have to remain in the country. “Some of us were worried that we may have been stuck for a year,” recalls Van Duzer. In the following days, the church organized a charter flight, which was quickly cancelled. Finally, a second charter flight, scheduled weeks after they initially tried to leave, got the missionaries back to the United States. Van Duzer arrived at Logan Airport in April.
The arduous experience isn’t keeping Aidan Van Duzer from returning to missionary work. He is headed to Montreal on July 14 to finish his mission. After that, he plans to return to MIT as a sophomore. While everyone can say that braving the arrival of COVID-19 was difficult, not many can claim to have had as uniquely trying an experience as Van Duzer and his fellow travelers.