Hilary Whiteman, CNN – CNN.COM-Brisbane, Australia (CNN) — Arpy Kardashian sleeps with the phone under her pillow so she doesn’t miss a call from her children. She’s in Armenia, they’re in Australia.
The family didn’t intend to be separated for more than a couple of weeks, but they are now in their fifth month apart.
Kardashian, her husband Harry Soghomonian, and their 10-month old baby Arpy Jr. are in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Their teenage children, Harmig, 14, and Anita, 13, are living with their uncle 13,430 kilometers (8,345 miles) away in Brisbane, Australia.
“At the end of school, I see all these kids going home to their parents, you know, happy and I go home, just sad,” Harmig told CNN Travel.
Kardashian — a distant relative of the famous American family — shared her story on the Facebook page “Aussie Expats Abandoned Overseas.” “It feels like we’ve been living in hell for the past five months and writing it all down feels like reliving it again,” she wrote.
The couple and their baby are among 18,800 Australian citizens and residents locked out of the country by coronavirus flight cancellations and border closures.
Their decision to move from Armenia to Australia predates the pandemic, but it has thrown the plans they had for a new life into flux.
Kardashian is a youth worker who moved from Melbourne to Armenia a little over three years ago to help troubled teens. At the time, her children were aged 10 and 11. Last December, the family decided to move back to Australia. Their project was ending, and they booked flights for March.
By February, coronavirus cases were rising in Armenia, a tiny former Soviet country of around three million people that borders Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Residents were ordered to wear masks and gloves, but Kardashian said that some didn’t take it seriously.
“People were sharing masks and sharing gloves. They’d see someone they know, take off the mask and kiss each other… then they put the mask back on, so they didn’t get fined,” she said. “It’s a cultural thing. They don’t greet each other with a handshake, they greet each other with a kiss.”
Schools had shut and, as the teens couldn’t go anywhere anyway, their parents decided to put them on the plane to Australia on March 17. They were still trying to get Armenian documents for the baby and planned to follow two weeks later.
But straight after the children departed, Armenia shut its borders.
The children were on one of the last flights out.
Avenue via Belarus
Months passed and the couple couldn’t do anything but wait for news that the borders were reopening. In June, planes started flying between Armenia and Belarus, Kardashian said.
Two flights they booked to Australia were canceled.
A third on July 27 promised to take them home via Minsk, Paris and Dubai.
“People (in Armenia) were sharing masks and sharing gloves. They’d see someone they know, take off the mask and kiss each other… then they put the mask back on, so they didn’t get fined.”
They arrived at the airport three hours early, only for Soghomonian to be denied permission to board. He’s a permanent resident of Australia, but there’s no stamp in his Syrian passport to prove it.
Kardashian says they pleaded with Belavia Belarusian Airlines staff and border security officers to check the online system that would have confirmed his residency status. Airline staff offered them a boarding pass to Belarus, but border security officers still refused to let them board the plane.
“It was just hell,” Kardashian said of the airport standoff. “I was holding the baby for a few minutes, then my husband was holding the baby for a few minutes, the baby’s crying… I don’t ever want to remember those hours…. In the end, I said ‘please let me in, I’ll take the baby and go.'”
But officials wanted a formal letter, signed by a notary, stating that Soghomonian had given permission for Kardashian to take his child out of the country. That wasn’t possible at 3 a.m., in the minutes before the plane was due to depart. It left without them.
“Telling the kids that we couldn’t get out was the worst part,” said Kardashian.
Harmig and Anita had been excited to see their parents after school on the day of their scheduled arrival, but they didn’t show up.
“I felt like sort of betrayed,” said Harmig. “At first, I thought, why did you guys lie to us?”
They now understand the problems their parents are facing, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
“Sometimes you just sit down, and you cry, and you wish your mom could be there,” Anita said.
International flight chaos
Coronavirus border rules and flight cancellations have thrown the aviation industry into chaos.
Flights to Australia, especially, aren’t easy to find. The government has imposed a cap on returning residents and citizens to ease pressure on the hotel quarantine system.
Only 4,000 people are allowed to enter the country each week, creating a backlog of travelers trying to get home. New arrivals are immediately ferried to city hotels to spend 14 days in isolation.
The flight caps are slated to remain in place until October 24, though the government has said they’ll be reviewed every two weeks.
Anita found an online petition that is calling for the government to lift the cap on arrivals. She’s sent it to the teachers at her new school, in the hope it’ll help get her parents back.
She’s under 16, so can’t sign it herself.
“They can’t just stay there forever. They’re going to come (but) I have a feeling it’s going to be in 2021, because there’s only four months left till this year finishes,” she said.
The strict measures have succeeded in keeping Australia’s coronavirus cases relatively low compared to other countries. As of August 26, Australia had just over 25,000 confirmed cases and 525 deaths, according to health authorities.
Around 20% of the cases were acquired overseas. Community transmission is now the most common way of contracting Covid-19 in Australia, following lapses in the hotel quarantine system.
The state of Victoria is still in lockdown, and other measures have been imposed in other parts of the country to stop the spread. For comparison, Armenia has almost 43,000 cases and 858 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University — 60% more than Australia.
Kardashian said they booked a flight to Beirut on August 15, where they planned to stay with friends while they waited for a flight to Australia. But they canceled it after a massive explosion in the city on August 4.
The family’s ethnically Armenian but their relatives on both sides were deported to Lebanon and Syria during the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century. Kardashian grew up in Lebanon during the war and didn’t want to expose her baby to potential danger.
Besides, they would have had to stay with relatives whose windows had been shattered by the force of the blast. The explosion also plunged the city further into economic turmoil and health services are strained.
Their next flight to Sydney is booked on Qatar Airways via Doha on October 24 — and they’re hoping this time the flight will leave with them on board.
If it doesn’t, Kardashian says she has even considered applying for an exemption for her children to leave Australia, so the family can be reunited elsewhere.
“I just want us all as one family together,” she said. “Australia would be the best, because that’s where my kids were born and that’s where they grew up. Even with fears of Covid and everything, it’s still the safest place.”