Jack Knox: He’s thrilled mom is back home but the hugging can wait

Not a lot of Love Actually reunion moments at the Victoria airport Wednesday.

Not a lot of tight embraces as masked passengers from the Toronto flight were greeted by girlfriends and husbands and children.

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That’s what worried Narender Cheema. He feared that his 80-year-old mother, after spending the entire pandemic stuck in India, and after a 50-hour journey to Victoria, might come in for a hug when she saw him.

Nope. As it turns out, it was she who held up a Diana Ross gloved hand — Stop in the Name of Love — preventing any contact with her son. “She knows the rules,” he said, looking both proud and a little deflated. There will be no hugging until his mom clears her quarantine period. “If we can wait this long, we can wait another two weeks,” he said.

You might remember Cheema from Saturday’s paper, when he recounted the frustration that he and others were having as they tried to bring loved ones home to Canada from India, where they had been stranded since the flow of scheduled airline service was choked to a trickle of repatriation flights.

Cheema’s mother had gone to India to visit family in January, only to be trapped as the country locked down in March. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t buy her a ticket home on one of those repatriation planes. Seats seemed to be gone the moment they went on sale.

And then, on Sunday, a small miracle. Cheema saw a Twitter item saying the Canadian government had arranged for some Qatar Airways flights to bring Canadian citizens and permanent residents to Toronto from Delhi. The tickets would be sold by the airline, though there was no word when the sale would start.

So, Cheema went online, toggling between Qatar Airways’ website and its phone app. Refresh, refresh, refresh. “I sat on the computer for two or three hours.”

Finally, success. He snapped up a ticket that, for $3,000, would see his mother fly out of Delhi on Monday and — after a 10-hour layover in Doha and 17 hours in Toronto — arrive in Victoria on Wednesday morning.

That’s a long trip for an octogenarian. When she emerged from the terminal, Mahinder Kaur Cheema said she just wanted to rest and catch her breath.

Her son, following the quarantine advice he got from B.C.’s 811 health-information line, placed her in the back seat of his car and whisked her to their Saanich home, where she went straight up the stairs and into the master bedroom for two weeks of isolation. She has her own bathroom, TV, cutlery … .

Cheema, who works for the municipality of Saanich, and his wife, who works in health care, will keep their distance. Their daughters will leave meals at the entrance to the room. Cheema has hung a see-through shower curtain in the doorway; if his mother can’t touch her family, she can at least watch them move about the house. “She’s a social bird,” he said.

Pause, for a second, to think of all that, of what a strange time we’re in. Then think of all the other Canadians who scrambled, or are still scrambling, to bring loved ones home after the world shut down. (Those remaining in India include Cheema’s in-laws, who balked at the steep prices of the Qatar Airways flights.)

Global Affairs Canada said that as of July 2, just over 50,000 Canadians had returned on 583 flights from 109 countries. A total of 154 flights had ferried 19,183 citizens and permanent residents back to Canada from India.

“Over the last few months, Global Affairs Canada undertook Canada’s largest and most complex ever consular operation to help Canadians return home during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the department said in a statement Wednesday. “The government of Canada has largely completed that operation and is planning the final few remaining flights in the next weeks.” Those three-times-a-week Qatar Airways flights will continue until the end of July.

Critics say more is needed, that there are still plenty of Canadian citizens stranded abroad (though in Langley, Gina Takhar of the volunteer-run Bring Canadians Back Home group said a seat on a plane has been found for a 10-year-old mentioned in Saturday’s column, a boy at risk of dying of complications related to cerebral palsy).

At least, after months of uncertainty, there is relief in one family. “She was thinking she might not be able to make it to Canada again,” Cheema said of his mother’s time in limbo. Hug the ones you love, while you can.


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