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Covid-19 hunger crisis—A migrant’s story

Feelings of uncertainty, stress, and intense hunger are not the experience of locals only during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Santiago (not his real name), 26, left his homeland of Cuba February 2019 with his wife fully aware it would not be easy, but with the lockdown, the struggle to survive has intensified. They have a one-year-old son.

He left Cuba because of “political problems” and disagreement with the government. His decision to try Trinidad was because a visa is not required for entry.  Santiago says, “My job was to load bags in a port, very forced and very badly paid. I left my parents in Cuba who are still pressuring me to return to Cuba”. Santiago arrived in Trinidad February 2, 2019 and registered with the Trinidad and Tobago UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

He describes the situation here as better than in Cuba but “embarrassing” since they have no rights.  Trinidad and Tobago has a policy, but no domestic legislation for refugees and asylum seekers. They mainly come from Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Colombia and Nigeria.

Santiago says, “We must work in jobs Trinidadians do not want to do.”  They want the opportunity “to work in better places with better payment and better schedules”.

He lives Curepe in a two-bedroom apartment shared with his wife’s parents; they split the $4500 rent with them, $1500 each.  Santiago says, “My first job was in construction, and it was very hard. I had to do a lot of time in the sun, which I can’t do for my skin”. He was diagnosed with skin cancer at five years so exposure to excessive sunlight is not good for him. Santiago has done various odd jobs to earn an income to support his family—painting, cleaning in a restaurant, kitchen assistant, grasscutter and cook.

His last job was in a gyro/taco outlet where he prepared the food and also served customers.

Under restrictions with COVID-19, all restaurants, including delivery, were to be closed April 7 until April 30.  This was subsequently extended to May 15. Prior to this, Santiago’s routine had been to leave home 6 a.m. for Arima, work from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. with a 30- minute lunch break. He returned home approximately 11 p.m. Santiago worked daily.

He admits to having little time for himself and family, “but everything is a sacrifice to be able to live”. The business is closed and Santiago remains at home because he does not want to end up in any confrontations for breaching the regulations. With everyone out of work, income has dried up and there is still rent to pay. He has his half to pay for May.  “Having no money is driving me crazy. I don’t know what to do every time they tell me there’s nothing,” he says.

Santiago and his family got assistance from Charmaine Andrews of the St Joseph Parish Ministry to Migrants. He got in contact with her from a referral by UNHCR. He calls her his “guardian angel”.  “She takes care of us,” he says. Through the church, he has received supplies and the family has been able to “survive”. Santiago adds, “the help is little but at least my son and my wife can eat. I try to only eat once a day and take some vitamins …that I had.” Dinner is his only meal for the day.  They sleep a lot these days and the salve of sleep keeps them from thinking about the bad. Santiago hopes to one day be repatriated to another country, “to be able to be free”.

Rochelle Nakhid, coordinator, Ministry for Migrants and Refugees of the Living Water Community (LWC), implementing partner for UNHCR said the need for food was great in the country.

“We do have a lot of people who have said they have gone more than 24 hours without eating or more than two days without eating,” she says. The LWC started doing home deliveries as much as can be done. “We don’t want people lining up in the office—this is all the migrants and refugees, the Community is also doing distributions for the Trinis,” Nakhid says.

The LWC is reaching out to supermarkets to have arrangements where persons can access food directly and the businesses are reimbursed after. Nahid explains, “We are actually looking for people who own supermarkets around the country and who want to partner with us. That would be much better; we need a sustainable solution. We can’t deliver to everybody.”  Donations are being accepted. Interested persons are asked to identify that it is for the ministry for migrants and refugees.

Last Wednesday a crowd of locals and refugees gathered at LWC, Frederick Street from as early as after 5 a.m.  The first person in the line reported being there since 10.30 p.m. Tuesday. The line extended up Frederick Street to Keate Street and down Pembroke Street. Several people were interviewed and received parcels and a meal. By 8.45 a.m. 400 parcels were distributed. There was not enough for 300 others. There were 120 refugees in the queue. An appeal has gone out for hampers for distribution Friday, May 1.