Cooperation Amid COVID-19: Repatriation of 114 Kazakhstani Students from the United States Successfully Concluded

May 29, 2020, Nur-Sultan – For the past two months the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and American Councils for International Education worked together to safely return 114 Kazakhstani students participating in the year-long program Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX [1]) as well as a handful of Fulbright and privately sponsored students from the United States to Kazakhstan.  

U.S. Ambassador William Moser credited Air Astana for securing a special repatriation flight to bring the Kazakhstani exchange participants (originating from 32 different states [2]) from Frankfurt back to Kazakhstan.  The students disembarked in Atyrau, Nur-Sultan, and Almaty to help facilitate their safe overland passage home after completing quarantine. 

In the words of FLEX student Madi Aldanazarov, “It was such a long trip, but I made it. Thanks to the people who were flying over with me and the people who were expecting me here. Without their support it wouldn’t have been that easy. This experience might be heading towards its end…but just to begin a new one!”

The U.S. Department of State, along with American Councils for International Education, the FLEX program implementing partner, led the effort to return the students home. Due to the COVID pandemic, American Councils already had experience returning students to their home countries after previously repatriating over 400 international students of the U.S. Government sponsored FLEX exchange program prior to the Kazakhstani delegation, deriving important lessons to ensure smooth coordination, communication, and safety.  During the past two months, the entire collaborative team worked tirelessly to resolve the complicated details of moving these high school students safely around the world with limited flights and ever-changing regulations.  American Councils invited family members to several virtual information sessions with representatives from Kazakhstan’s MFA and the U.S. Embassy. Understanding that safety was the top priority, the speakers clearly outlined the process of repatriating students and responded to parents’ concerns and questions.  Cultural Attaché Ann Perrelli reassured parents that the top priority for the U.S. Mission in Kazakhstan, the Government of Kazakhstan, and American Councils was to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of FLEX participants as they returned home and reunited with their families. 

In the United States, American Councils coordinated with local placement organizations and American host families to bring the students from their temporary homes to either Chicago O’Hare International Airport or Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. to then fly to Frankfurt. The organization equipped the students with face masks, hand sanitizer, and meals in preparation for the long journey. They provided toll-free emergency phone support, chaperones at each stage of transit, and developed safety protocols to minimize risk by limiting large gatherings and maintaining social distance and consistency with seating, quarantine, and bus deployment. The American Councils team facilitated support at airports to meet the students at baggage claim and help them check in and transit in Frankfurt. In Washington DC, the U.S. Department of State worked with American Councils to ensure other exchange students from Kazakhstan, such as Fulbright exchange participants, could be repatriated.

The U.S. Mission worked closely with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure safe conditions for students in quarantine in all three cities. They also worked together to obtain permission to transfer students by bus to their home cities. Press Attaché Sean Boda remarked, “Despite the difficulties of schools closing down and the ongoing tragedy of the global pandemic,  these students’ return home will always be an epic adventure at the conclusion of their exchange in the United States. We are extremely grateful for the close cooperation and support offered by the Government of Kazakhstan to ensure the safe passage home for these students.”

Upon their arrival in Kazakhstan, students immediately went into quarantine in accordance with regulations set by the Ministry of Health. After being declared COVID-19-free, the U.S. Embassy and Consulate General, American Councils,  and FLEX alumni representatives helped the students in each city to ensure they were provided with meals and travel allowances for their bus journey home.  The U.S. Embassy and Consulate General, American Councils, and Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs kept in constant contact to ensure the buses passed through all necessary checkpoints as drivers safely deposited students back to their parents.  

All students are now safely home.

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[1] The Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program is a United States Department of State-sponsored program for secondary school students from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine. The program provides merit-based scholarships for students to travel to the United States, live with a host family, and attend a U.S. high school for a full academic year. FLEX was established in 1992 and funding is provided through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program was created from the conviction of former Senator Bill Bradley that the best way to ensure long-lasting peace and understanding between the U.S. and the countries of Eurasia is to enable young people to learn about the U.S. and Americans firsthand, and to teach Americans about their countries. The primary goal of the FLEX program is to improve mutual understanding and develop and strengthen long-term relationships between citizens of the United States and Kazakhstan. The State Department supports exchanges for secondary school students from over 50 countries through FLEX and other academic year programs. Since the program’s inception in 1993, over 27,000 students have participated in the FLEX program. 

[2] Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia,  Illinois, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Washington, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Oregon, California, Maine, Virginia,  Ohio, Minnesota,  Wisconsin,  Michigan, Iowa,  Texas.