"To have Kaiya back — it just feels complete," Amanda Simpson-Rojas tells PEOPLE

Amanda Simpson-Rojas often thinks back to the day before her life abruptly changed.

At home in Orlando, Florida, on March 1 with her 2-year-old daughter Kaiya, she recalls cuddling up with her that night and having "this really beautiful moment" before she was to fly with her grandmother Grace Rojas to Panama for a month-long trip to see extended family.

The well-planned trip had been in the works for over a year, she says, and her husband, Alex Rojas, a cruise ship engineer, was going to pick her up in Panama on his way home.

But when she got up the next morning and took Kaiya to the airport, she had "this feeling in my gut that it was the last time I would ever see her."

Her gut wasn’t too far off. Just weeks later, as COVID-19 spread throughout the U.S. and the world, cases in Florida also began to soar.

Kaiya at the airport
Kaiya at the airport
| Credit: Courtesy Amanda Simpson-Rojas

Alex, 36, found himself stranded in lockdown off the coast of Miami when Panama closed its borders on March 16 to international travelers. He wouldn't return home until earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Kaiya and Alex’s scheduled flight home was canceled indefinitely.

"My heart went to my throat; I couldn’t even talk," recalls Amanda, 37, who was home alone in Orlando caring for the couple’s younger daughter Evie, 1.

Amanda spent the next five months negotiating — and pleading — with U.S. and Panamanian authorities, desperately trying to bring her daughter home.

Finally, on Aug. 12, after grabbing a last-minute seat on a humanitarian flight to Panama City, Amanda was able to hold Kaiya in her arms once again.

"She gave me a big hug," she says. "To have Kaiya back — it just feels complete."

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It was one day before she left, on Aug. 11, that she got the call from the Panamanian consulate she had been praying for: She’d been approved for the monthly humanitarian flight to Panama the next afternoon.

"I felt this numb sort of disbelief, because I was sure something was going to go wrong," says Amanda, who had to quickly enlist close friend Arin Dale to look after Evie while she flew to Washington, D.C., early the next morning to catch the six-hour flight to Panama City.

"It was a miracle, all these things falling into place," says Amanda, who was required to quarantine at her hotel during her two-day stay.

Amanda was in the lobby picking up a grocery delivery when she suddenly looked up and saw Grace and Kaiya — who had driven seven hours from Grace’s hometown of David — walking in.

"Kaiya looked around, confused at first, and I thought she didn’t know who I was," says Amanda, who knelt down to greet her little girl. "Then she looked at me and said, 'Mommy.' She touched my face, and it was really sweet."

After getting home late at night on Aug. 14, friends greeted Amanda, Kaiya and Evie the next day with welcome home signs, balloons, and a car parade.

"It's a miracle," she says when she thinks about the past six months. "It's a dream come true."

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