Vashist Persad, 28, is a national scholarship winner who is among thousands of T&T nationals stranded abroad.
He is in New York City where he says, “We’re essentially refugees and many of us are becoming homeless, requiring financial aid, becoming sick, and undergoing tremendous psychological distress.”
Persad spoke to Guardian Media responding to questions about how he ended up being stranded in New York and his efforts thus far to return home.
Where were you when the lockdown happened?
I am a National Scholarship Winner, having completed undergraduate studies in medicine and now specialising in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in New York, since 2016, on a J1 Visa, with the blessings of the Ministry of Health, Trinidad. I was finishing my last year of medical specialisation in New York when the pandemic hit peak here and have now completed my specialisation in May 2020. My J1 visa is now expired.
Why didn’t you return home before the borders closed?
When the lockdown happened, I was still in training and close to the end of my programme, so coming back to Trinidad would have meant dropping out. At the time, no one thought the border lockdown was also going to be this long. Virtually all countries, including the Caribbean islands, have repatriated it’s peoples, except Trinidad.
How long have you been stranded?
I finished in May—so I’ve been stranded for four months now.
How many attempts have you made to get an exemption to return home?
I’ve emailed the travel exemptions people at the Ministry of National Security now four times. I’ve also tried calling the Trinidad Consulate in NY innumerable times, without much help.
Have you personally written to the Minister of National Security or the Prime Minister about your plight? If so did you get a response?
I have not directly addressed the Honourable Mr Stuart Young or Dr Keith Rowley directly—is that even possible? Can I do it now? There is no official avenue to do this. In Trinidad, my relatives have been trying to contact virtually anyone who might vaguely have a link to the ministries but no one seems to be able to help.
How do you feel about being unable to return home?
I feel completely abandoned and despondent at this point. It’s like they don’t even care. At the last news conference on September 12, the issue was not even addressed by either the prime minister nor the press. “Together we aspire, together we achieve” I was taught to say in primary school. I’ve got to say, it doesn’t feel like we’re “together” in anything right now. I’m in New York alone—my family, my fiancée are home and I would love to see them soon. I also am not allowed to work in the US, so I have no (legal) way of getting any kind of income to help with my expenses. I’m living on savings that are quickly running out. This must be the only country in the world where nationals are required to get an exemption to return home. Is that even legal? As a Trinidadian in the US, I can travel to any country in the world except to Trinidad. Even Barbados has published it’s guidelines for travel into Barbados since July.
How do they think government has managed the situation with regard to stranded nationals?
I think the Government is trying in their own way, but I do not think they have thought it through. Especially as a medical, I feel like many of the policies are not sustainable and quite frankly, nonsensical. Trinidad is now considered a “high risk” country, so locking the borders makes no sense. It’s almost like they act in the moment without a thought for what happens in the short term and long term. The biggest frustration for me, is the lack of information. The government has not put forth a clear action plan going forward that we can discuss—we seem to be simply awaiting the whims and fancies of the “powers that be.” Those of us on the outside are hearing stories of people getting onto flights but all our information is word of mouth, we don’t know how those people got selected to go home, or any clear timeline of when we will get selected to go home.
Living in limbo like this, day to day just waiting to hear something, it’s been really hard. Furthermore, in lieu of bringing us back home, our government and consulate has not brokered anything with the governments of the countries that we’re staying in—it’s been left up to us on an individual basis to keep applying and re-applying for (often expensive) visa extensions. As these things expire, there is real fear in the community that the attentions of groups like ICE will be turned onto us, knowing their history of treating illegal aliens.
I have worked in New York when this was the epicentre of COVID in the World, my hospital was converted to a “COVID hospital’ and as a gynaecologist, I served in the COVID ICUs that my hospital had become. I was involved in planning and execution when this whole scenario was unfolding, when much less was known. Now that much more is known, I wonder if the officials in Trinidad have been paying attention.
Are you prepared to pay your own airfare to return to Trinidad? Is it that all they want the government to do is to grant them exemptions to return home?
Yes. For most of us, we need the exemption and then we can gladly pay for a flight. Most of us probably cannot afford to charter a private jet directly to Trinidad though. And the longer I stay in the US and the more money I have to spend on rent, healthcare and living expenses, the closer I come to becoming bankrupt.
What kind of conditions are you living under at this time as opposed to if you were in your own home?
I got somewhat lucky, as I was able to stay with a family friend whose roommate left for the summer. However, I am soon be evicted and now looking at other living arrangements. In addition, I’ve had to renew my J1 visa now two times, each time getting one month extensions. The cost of this is US$367 for the visa and a little over US$600 for health insurance per month (as required by a J1 visa holder). On top of this I have to pay rent and food, and I’m not even allowed to work. Back at home, I would be staying with my parents in my old bedroom. No rent, with a job and, oh right, legal citizen status.
Are you prepared to undergo quarantine and other restrictions which may be imposed by the government when you return?
Absolutely. I’ve seen how serious this disease is and I think we are all willing to do the responsible thing. I think most people are willing to quarantine at home if the state facilities are full. COVID-19 is not going anywhere soon, so we have to adapt but closing the borders as is now proposed is not the answer as people are suffering on both sides and not just for health reasons.