As a bellman in a Utah ski resort, Quanzhen Yu knew what was coming when, in mid-March in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, the hotel managers summoned him and his coworkers to their office. The resort, like other non-essential businesses throughout the country, would immediately close for business. “I heard that in other hotels, employees were being paid for the remaining of the month but not us,” Yu said. “They just fired us.”
Without savings, connections, or unemployment benefits, Yu, 20, a Chinese citizen who resides in Peru, decided to go home. But on March 16, the same day he was laid off, Peru closed its borders, preventing him from taking a commercial flight back.
“People often misunderstand our situation,” said Yu, who had been working at Westgate Resort in Park City, Utah for three months on a J-1 visa, which allows holders to have temporary jobs in America. “They think that because we come to work we have a lot of savings but rent and food are expensive here so if we have no income we can’t pay for our expenses.”
Yu is among thousands of Peruvian J-1 workers and international students struggling to return home with little financial resources and fears of contracting the virus. With limited guidance and financial support from their government, they have turned to social media for advice on how to get back home. The Facebook group “Universitarios Peruanos Varados en Estados Unidos,” with over 2000 members, has been the main platform through which these Peruvians have been sharing their stories, concerns, complaints and questions.
Hugo de Zela, ambassador to Peru in the U.S. told a Peruvian news channel that by the first week of April 3300 Peruvians had been taken back to Peru on flights sponsored by the U.S. government. En route to Peru to pick up stranded Americans, they took the Peruvians home. The Peruvian government estimates that there are 1500 citizens still waiting for repatriation.
Most of the marooned Peruvians hold J-1 visas, and many are college students who spend their summer break — from December to March — in the U.S. working in a service job. Many planned to go back to Peru in the last week of March to start their college classes. Among the Peruvians that requested repatriation are those who go to college in the U.S. and now want to go home because their institutions will remain closed for the rest of the semester.
After being laid off, Yu and his Peruvian coworkers from Westgate were unable to afford rent in Utah anymore. They heard from other J-1 workers that the Miami consulate was providing food and shelter to stranded Peruvians in the U.S., so they flew there hoping to get help.
Once Yu and his friend arrived in Miami, the consulate placed them in rooms at the Holiday Inn but Yu didn’t get shelter because he wasn’t a Peruvian citizen. Yu told the consulate that he currently goes to college in Lima and has his family there but that didn’t help. The consulate told him that since he was a Chinese citizen he should look for help from the Chinese government. Yu tried, but the Chinese embassy in D.C. told him via email that they weren’t providing repatriation flights or financial support to their citizens in the U.S.
After only being able to afford one night in an Airbnb, Yu ended up sleeping in the ground of the Holiday Inn’s parking lot.
“It was either eating or renting an Airbnb for another night and I chose eating,” Yu said.
The following days, Yu’s friends helped him sneak into their rooms and provided him with the hotel’s food, always fearing they would get caught. It wasn’t until a video of Yu pleading for help went viral that the consulate placed him in a room and then, in a flight back to Lima.
“The consulate told me: ‘We’ll give you food and shelter but you stop talking to the press and bury your story,’ and I accepted,” Yu said.
For Sarai Grados, her main problem along the repatriation process was that her consulate was never clear on whether there would be flights going off from her nearby area or if she would have to go somewhere else, a concern that was echoed by many in the stranded Peruvians Facebook group.
“Good evening, do you know if there will be flights from Washington to Peru in the upcoming days?” Grados asked on the Facebook group on April 3rd, after getting no answers from the Patterson, NJ consulate where she had signed up as a stranded Peruvian.
Two weeks before that post, Grados, a sophomore at St. Peter’s University in New Jersey, was moving to her college’s emergency housing after being evicted from her dorm. Knowing that St. Peter’s University moved to remote classes for the rest of the semester, she was trying to find a way to go back to Peru despite its borders’ closure.
After hearing about humanitarian flights taking off from Houston on social media and without a confirmed seat in any of those flights, she flew to Texas to try luck.
Grados arrived at Houston’s airport on April 11th and she signed up in a humanitarian flight waitlist at the airport counter and hoped to get on a flight, but she didn’t. After spending the night in a hotel paid for by the Houston consulate, the next morning she went back to the airport and found her name on the boarding list for a flight that day.
“They [the Peruvian consulate] only put me in the boarding list because I was already in Houston,” Grados said from her hotel room in Lima, where she is spending a 14-day mandatory quarantine for Peruvians arriving from abroad. “If I had waited in New Jersey until they confirmed my seat on a humanitarian flight, I wouldn’t have got it.”
Unlike Yu and Grados who made it back to Peru, Andrea Cuadros is still waiting.
Cuadros, a junior at SUNY Plattsburgh, was spending her spring break in Puerto Rico when she heard about Peru’s lockdown. At that time, that didn’t bother her because her plan was still to travel back to New York in 10 days. As coronavirus cases in New York spiked in the week of March 14th, Cuadros, who has asthma, decided not to go back.
“I thought of going back because I don’t know any doctors here but after calling my Plattsburgh primary physician she said: ’Don’t come because you’re in the group at most risk, stay where you are,’“ Cuadros said from her distant relative’s house in Puerto Rico.
Cuadros had been spending her spring break in an Airbnb in San Juan, but after deciding to extend her stay, she got in touch with a distant cousin who lives on the island and provided her with temporary shelter. She then contacted the Peruvian consulate in New York, because she is a student in that state, and registered in the stranded Peruvians list but got no further support.
“We, F-1 [international students], were the least of the priorities,” Cuadros said. “The consulate told me that we should abstain from taking charter flights because we aren’t in the critical situation that other Peruvians are in. I understand that J-1 students are a priority because they are here for a short term but we [international students] also need help to go back home, or at least receive a stipend.”
Grados echoed Cuadros’ desire to go home and acknowledged she had been fortunate to go back. “I think I was lucky because, as an F-1 student, people think that I can easily stay in the U.S. for four years but I didn’t want to spend more unnecessary months away from home,” Grados said. “Someone told me: It’s better to spend the apocalypse with your family than without them, that’s why I fought so hard to go back.”
Now, the country has added pressure to repatriate its citizens after President Donald Trump announced on April 10th that there will be visa sanctions on countries that don’t take their citizens back.
“Countries that deny or unreasonably delay the acceptance of their citizens, subjects, nationals, or residents from the United States during the ongoing pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 create unacceptable public health risks for Americans,” reads Trump’s memorandum for the Secretary of Homeland Security.
In a press statement, the Embassy of Peru in the United States stated that the government will be coordinating flights with private airlines but passengers will have to pay part of the costs. This wasn’t the case for humanitarian flights that Grados and Yu took, and has added a financial burden on many Peruvians that can’t afford $450 for a flight.
The embassy also urged its citizens to stop moving between cities without a charter flight confirmation to avoid contracting the virus. For citizens like Cuadros, who would have to travel to another city to board a charter flight and have chronic respiratory conditions, the repatriation process still looks too risky.
“I’m mentally preparing myself for the possibility of spending my summer here,” said Cuadros, who will be staying at her relative’s house in Puerto Rico until it’s safe to travel. “There are no direct flights from San Juan to Lima so I’d have to make a connection in Miami which is a hard-hit area and I don’t want to get sick on the way.”