It has now been eight months since COVID-19 changed life as we knew it in New York City. In March, theatres, restaurants, churches, schools and businesses closed their doors and nearly all social and business interaction shifted online.

For many expatriates, including me, this seemed like a good time to return to Australia. However, who was to know just how long and difficult that journey would be? At the beginning of the year we had Qantas tickets to return to Australia in May. In April, Qantas grounded their international flights, leaving us without any clear path home. The entire travel industry was thrown into chaos as travel agents dealt with millions of cancellations, refunds and schedule changes. In that time, our online travel agent simply would not take a call unless you could prove you had a flight within 48 hours. So for a further two months we were unable to speak with anyone to make alternative arrangements.

Journey home boarding in San Francisco

Marcus Cheong and his wife Clara at San Francisco Airport prior to boarding their flight home. PICTURE: Marcus Cheong.

When we were finally able to book an alternative flight back to Sydney, the Australian Government had introduced quotas on returning flights. This meant that flights that were previously confirmed could be cancelled without warning as the airlines had sold far more tickets on their planes than the quota would allow them to land.

Our flight was cancelled a further three times as the flight date was rescheduled time and time again. This ever shifting schedule made it almost impossible to plan how to work, live and move. After 14 years in New York, it was a significant operation to ship our belongings, donate all our furniture and break the lease on our apartment in anticipation of the so called “confirmed flight". Backup plans were put in place to live out of a suitcase and couch surf indefinitely as we were soon to be without our own home in New York and had no real idea when we could actually board a flight.

Living with such uncertainty was not an isolated case. A fellow Australian in New York, Amy Farr-Jones, described her similar experience to me. With her best friend’s wedding in Sydney in November, she had booked flights to make it back well in time in mid-October to be a bridesmaid. But, with no warning from the airline, she discovered her flight to Sydney was one day simply missing from her itinerary. After calling the airline, United confirmed that the travel quotas had lead to the cancellation of her flight and the earliest she could return would be several weeks after the original flight date. This new flight would allow her to attend the wedding as long as there were no further changes.

It was not uncommon during this year to have flights cancelled and rescheduled more than half a dozen times. Amy describes the feeling of helplessness saying, “Honestly, we just had to keep praying. There was nothing else that we could do. Hoping and praying to get back to Australia.” Her final weeks in the United States were also spent living out of a suitcase, hopping from one place to another after ending her lease.

Journey home Plane

Marcus Cheong on the United flight back to Australia. PICTURE: Marcus Cheong.

On finally boarding the flight out of the United States, Amy said, “I was actually pinching myself...I would have been devastated if I couldn’t make it back in time and it would have been even worse to be stuck quarantine and miss the wedding from so close by.”

As I write this, I am now in quarantine in the Hilton Hotel, Sydney, and Amy arrived a few days later in the Marriott. She has missed the pre-wedding events due to the delays but, at the time of writing, was on track to be a bridesmaid on the actual wedding day.

The mandatory 14 days quarantine means that we cannot leave the rooms we are in and doctors and nurses make daily checks on our health. It is a necessary precaution to keep the virus out of the community and the general sentiment seems to be one of compliance for the greater good.

Australia’s quota policy, however, has caused thousands of Australians to be stuck overseas, either due to the delays or simply because they cannot afford the now very expensive tickets home. Many expatriates no longer have an income, a home, any medical coverage or insurance. The consistent theme is one of uncertainty. Not knowing when or if you can return home would be stressful under any circumstance. But when combined with a raging pandemic, a divisive election campaign and an atmosphere of social unrest, the anxiety is magnified.

Journey home Sydney

Touchdown in Sydney, Australia. Qantas planes on the tarmac. PICTURE: Marcus Cheong.

It is in times like this that faith is truly tested.

For Amy, she reflected, “In all the uncertainty and the craziness in the United States, it was a time for people to seek out connecting with Jesus and to God. That is something that happened to me personally in isolation. This quiet time and reflection has deepened my connection with God. I honestly wasn’t scared. A lot of my friends were really fearful but I felt grounded, I felt a lot of peace. My parents were worried but I had a sense that I was being looked after. There was a lot of time to doubt the decision and ask, ‘what if this was the right thing?’ But with a strengthened faith, I was able to be confident in the decision and believe that all that was meant for harm would be turned to good. And that outcome is us coming home.”

As for me and my wife Clara, there is an overwhelming sense of relief after finally returning to our homeland. The past few months have been a battle that has been fought physically, emotionally and spiritually. The journey has  left us with bruises and broken bones and I mean that quite literally as Clara was taken to the hospital with a broken finger. There were times when it felt that we would never get back. But now this battle is over and are experiencing the sheer joy in being home, there is an appreciation of how much greater our joy will be when we reach our final home in eternity.