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Pandemic Leaves Colombians Stranded in New York

Colombians who came to New York on vacation are now scrambling to get home on repatriation flights.

When daily confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in New York City reached nearly 600 in April, Andrea Medina and her husband were quarantining in a Sunset Park Airbnb, roughly 2,500 miles from their home in Colombia. What was meant to be time spent visiting New York before heading to Barcelona in March, became a test of survival and a fight to return to their birthplace.

Medina is one of hundreds of Colombians stranded in the greater New York City area after Colombian President Ivan Duque imposed travel restrictions into and out of Colombia, alongside dozens of countries trying to help curb the spread of COVID-19. As of May 19, Duque had extended the restriction on international and domestic travel until at least June 30. 

Medina and her husband are in limbo and have not been able to board two humanitarian flights that left New York to Bogota. 

Back in March when borders first closed, Medina’s husband filed for an extension of his tourism visa, costing them $455 price tag. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had not responded to the request by the time of publication, Medina said.

So far the Colombian government has chartered 2 planes from New York to Colombia, but in order to board, passengers must show evidence of a return flight during the pandemic, which Medina does not have. 

A lawyer from Bogota, Medina has gotten the impression that she isn’t deserving of help from the Colombian Consulate in New York because she didn’t have a planned return to Colombia.

“It’s a flagrant violation of human rights,” said Medina. “I’m Colombian, I deserve to return to my country.”

With the common fears of falling ill without health insurance, running out of money and expiration dates of travel visas inching closer for many, the South American visitors have insistently filled out a form on the Colombian Consulate website to apply for a return flight, and have bombarded the consulate with emails and WhatsApp messages for clarity, with few responses.

Andrea Medina, a lawyer from Bogota, helped introduce legal action against the Colombian government to help secure humanitarian flights from New York to Colombia for stranded Colombians. “I’m Colombian, I deserve to return to my country,” Medina said. Credit: Paul Frangipane for Documented.
Maria Alejandra Gomez arrives at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan on May 21, 2020 to take a bus to Washington D.C. for a humanitarian flight to Bogota the next day. Gomez helped organize a nearly 100-member group chat of Colombians stranded in New York. Credit: Paul Frangipane for Documented.

“We need to be back in Colombia. There are many people that need financial help, people who need medicine,” said Maria Alejandra Gomez, one of the organizers of a 95-member WhatsApp group chat of stranded Colombians in New York. “Everybody’s resources are running out, our travel permits to stay in the United States are about to expire. If in many cases there’s no money to pay rent … imagine paying a visa extension of $455.”

Gomez came to New York to spend time with her mother, who is a U.S. citizen. She intended to return to Colombia on Jan. 22 but got sick with respiratory symptoms. When she recuperated in March, commercial flights were grounded.

“Since then I’ve been fighting alongside the other Colombians in New York and New Jersey to return home,” Gomez said.

When news of international flight restrictions spread, stranded travelers around the world began forming groups across social media. Hashtags and Facebook pages show desperate people spread across the globe trying to find their best way home. 

With delayed responses from the consulate, according to several travelers in New York, the groups have served as a unifying force for sharing information about the situation, offering experiences and organizing pressure on the Colombian government to send more humanitarian flights.

After the first repatriation flight from New York to Bogota left on May 8, Gomez kept track of the nearly 100 travelers she’s been in contact with who stayed, but the Colombian Consulate in New York has received more than 1,000 requests to return to Colombia since March 23, according to spokesperson Jenny Saavedra.

On Thursday, a second flight took off from New York to Bogota, with several members of the group chat on board.

In a generic email to travelers seeking flights, the consulate lists the protocol for securing repatriation, which includes having a return flight or flight cancellation between March 23 and April 30. It also gives priority to older adults, families with children, pregnant women, people with disabilities and people with health issues.

The 32-year-old Gomez boarded an evening bus to Washington D.C. on May 21 to take a humanitarian flight the following day to Bogota with nine other Colombians who were stuck in New York. Gomez did not have a return ticket for the required dates, but said she got priority for a flight after seeking legal help from the consulate regarding her immigration processes.

She is currently quarantining in Bogota for two weeks before returning home to her family.

Maria Alejandra Gomez’s suitcase is decorated with a sign in Spanish that asks the Colombian government to allow Colombians stranded outside the country to return home. Credit: Paul Frangipane for Documented.
Santiago Restrepo has had to juggle risking his travel permit and not having enough money for a return flight home. “…All our savings turned into money to survive. Until now, we are waiting for a humanitarian flight to return to Colombia,” Restrepo said. Credit: Paul Frangipane for Documented.

Santiago Restrepo, a physical education teacher from Medellin, Colombia, saved enough money with his girlfriend to spend a few months in the U.S. on vacation, but ended up scrapping for resources to survive, fighting to maintain their housing and anxiously awaiting June 15, the date his travel permit would expire.

“It all started as a good plan to get the most of our travels, that’s why my partner and I saved our money … but all our savings turned into money to survive,” Restrepo said. “We felt that our country had abandoned us without clear answers.”

USCIS advises temporary travelers to file for an extension of stay if they are forced to stay in the United States past their allowed time due to COVID-19. Applicants can apply for a fee waiver and USCIS may provide support for people affected by COVID-19 on a case-by-case basis.

Restrepo, 31, was eventually able to secure a return on the second humanitarian flight that left New York on Thursday.

Many Colombian visitors have criticized the consulate’s handling of the unprecedented situation, saying they have left anxious travelers in the dark about the process of returning to their country.

“The consulate has been providing assistance to all Colombians through the communication channels that we have enabled for this matter, we have been offering legal advice, social orientation through our program ‘Colombia Nos Une’ and thanks to the strategic allies, we have provided free meals in several occasions for those members of the community in need,” Saavedra told Documented in an email.

While travel restrictions as a method of protecting public health have been common during the pandemic, Colombia enacted particularly strict guidelines. The country’s bordering neighbors Ecuador and Peru have also imposed stringent restrictions, and their consulates are organizing repatriation for stranded travelers as well.

With humanitarian flights from New York to Colombia currently costing around $400, some travelers have said that the flights shouldn’t be considered repatriation at all.

Pilar Pena, who is renting out a basement in Flushing, was offered a ticket on the May 28 flight, but gave it up because she said she could not afford the airfare and accommodations when she arrived in Bogota to quarantine.

She is waiting until later in the summer for a commercial flight to Colombia because the ticket would be cheaper than what’s being offered through the government.

At the time of publication, one-way commercial flights from New York to Bogota were available for less than $300 throughout July and August on Google Flights. 

To budget, nearly all of Pena’s meals come from free food distributions throughout the city, which have risen to meet the needs of the hungry during the pandemic.

For now, the remaining travelers stranded in the New York area continue to wait for their tickets on an upcoming flight, while doing their best to maintain a livable situation in the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Medina and others still here have been pressing the consulate to give travelers numbers on a waiting list to give them more clarity on their futures.

And when they eventually do return, movement between municipalities in Colombia is currently suspended, meaning for those who don’t live in Bogota, they will face another challenge in getting home.

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