How one man and his cellphone in Canada rescued a group of Africans stuck in China
[Aug. 11, 2020: CNN]
Even for 2020, with its once-in-a-generation global pandemic and the countless travel bans that have followed, this rescue mission seems a bit far-fetched.
To get around 100 South Africans and a couple of dozen Zimbabwean students out of China, it would take Air Zimbabwe's only functioning aircraft, and diplomatic channels in embassies across the world -- all orchestrated from a dining room table in Canada by one man, armed only with a cellphone.
"It is me. Me alone and my phone. I am new in Canada, so they don't give me much phone credit here," laughed Tertius Myburgh -- a South African commercial pilot who lives in New Brunswick.
But that phone -- and its limited credit -- represented the last hope for so many stranded in China.
"They started contacting me, because I am in aviation, and they said: 'How are we going to get out of here?'" explained Myburgh, who began hearing from people after South Africa banned incoming travel in March.
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"Before Covid, you could just contact their civil aviation authority, send the details of your flight and -- boom -- a day or two later you have the authorization and off you go," he added, on the relatively simple charter flight process before the pandemic.
But now Myburgh had to navigate the complexity of chartering flights amid international lockdowns -- and with the added complication of a struggling aviation industry.
As the number of paying passengers who needed repatriation became clear, Myburgh used his Southern African links to lease a Boeing 767, plus its pilots and its crew, from Air Zimbabwe. It was the same 30-year-old plane that had been used by former President Robert Mugabe from time to time. That plane then unlocked the assistance of Zimbabwean diplomats.
Myburgh readily admits he first saw a business opportunity when he responded to the pleas for help, but he says it was impossible not to get swept up by the individuals and their stories.
"It is not just them. it is their fiancé maybe that is in South Africa, it is the husband or the wife. Or the mother and the father."
With so many calls coming in, he needed a partner on the ground to help coordinate and corral the diverse group of South Africans and Zimbabweans.
Early on, he connected with Carmen Johannie -- a South African schoolteacher based in Guangzhou.
Johannie had lived in China for three years, and was working as a teacher at the British school in Guangzhou. But after being forced into mandatory quarantine by Chinese authorities, like all other African passport holders based in Guangzhou, Johannie knew it was time to get home.
She spent months trying to get back to South Africa, before finally linking up with Myburgh.
"He sent out a message, anyone stuck in China needs to contact him. The minute I sent him a message, I instantly knew that he was a man of his word and he was a one-man show and if anybody was going to bring us home, it was going to be him," she said.
"It was a team effort thing we did. And then I realized how many people are relying on us -- the pressure was hectic.".....Read More