Gary Mahabir, the founder of the “T&T Citizens Overseas” WhatsApp group, is a Trinidadian who has been living in New Jersey, USA, for more than 30 years.
He has been organising food and necessities to Trinidadians stranded in the US and assisting nationals scattered around the world to return home.
Saturday marked 300 days since national have been stranded in countries abroad as the Government closed T&T’s borders to contain the spread of COVID-19.
As of December 23, 2020, 17,211 people made exemption requests to enter T&T. Of that figure, there were 9,557 exemptions granted, leaving more than 7,654 people, residents and non-residents, still outside, as T&T's borders remain closed.
With their allotted travelling money exhausted, as they cannot legally work in the diaspora, many are still awaiting their exemption cases to be processed at the Ministry of National Security. As the days increase, their despair, depression, and anxiety grow.
To literally survive to get food to eat and a roof over their head, several people have resorted to receiving handouts, food from soup kitchens and lodging at shelters meant for the homeless, and the grim situation has forced some into prostitution.
Mahabir said the situation had become so desperate for some Trinidadians, that several women were selling themselves to get accommodation in various countries which was reported on some sites and was confirmed by a Trinidadian in South Asia.
He said nationals faced many challenges and difficulties as they exhausted their limited travelling money and wore out their welcome by family and friends.
Mahabir said he received complaints of a family member wanting to call US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for their relative, and one person in Canada was forced to stay by a friend or neighbour because her own son had put her out.
He described as "magaguyism" the T&T Overseas Missions financial disbursements to nationals as they were not reaching the affected people. Prime Minister Dr Keth Rowley had mandated the finance minister to make funding available to citizens stranded abroad. In October, Foreign and Caricom Affairs Minister Amery Browne said US$205,958.99 was distributed to 298 stranded nationals through five overseas missions between August and September. The overseas TT missions used to distribute the money were the Consulate General in New York, the Embassy in Washington, DC High Commission in London, the Consulate General in Toronto and the Consulate General in Miami.
Mahabir said as more people reached out to him for assistance in the WhatsApp group and on the New Jersey-based community radio station WZYE-LP 95.9, he has been able to help out more than 300 people to date.
He said even when they are repatriated, their ordeal does not end. A strange man was reported walking the hallways of Canada Hall, at the UWI St Augustine Campus in the section where female nationals were quarantined and there were security issues with the hall's bathrooms having no locks. The Ministry of Health was informed and conducted an investigation.
Mahabir said the Government cannot tell its citizens to hold on or wait with no resources, some are now homeless and can't be located.
He called on the Government to expand its funding for the Ministry of Health to create more quarantine facilities and to fast track nationals' reentry to the country and the COVID-19 testing in time for them to board incoming flights.
To highlight the plight of hundreds of Trinbago nationals still stranded abroad Winston Ragoo, the Cry for Justice team along with friends, supporters and family members of those locked out of the country held a peaceful protest at the Queen's Park Savannah on Friday.
People speak out
*Althea Lambkin, from Valencia, said "My mom Isabella Lambkin and myself have been stranded in New York, USA, since March. My mom is 80 years old.
"We have applied for an exemption since July 1 and we got our exemption letter last week. I called. It has been a journey for my mom and I."
*David Lewis, not his real name from Cascade and stranded in the UK since March 24, 2020 said "I have since exhausted all means of living, I cannot provide or meet my needs for everyday living, sleeping rough on many occasions, and received help from homeless charities.
"I stayed with a friend who said they could not extend any financial assistance or refuge any further because I had become a great strain on them.
"The situation is very dire, I need financial help to assist my living needs and to return home to Trinidad where I can provide for myself
*Sarah Douglas, not her real name, from South, a mother of two, a cruise ship worker said "Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the cruise ship industry started to slowly come to a halt and began to send workers home in March, 2020.
"During this time the company was facilitating getting us on a flight to return home, and I was stranded on board a ship for eight months in SE Asia.
"I sent in my initial exemption request in June, and kept resending it as I didn't get any response from the Ministry of National Security. Fortunately, the cruise ship company offered us free food, accommodation, and medical assistance."
"The Trinidadian group of ten were the last to be repatriated, the company transferred us to another ship in English waters, one step closer to getting a flight back home to Trinidad."
Douglas said their hopes were dashed when they learned that both the UK and T&T borders were closed, and the T&T Government insisted they had to go through the bureaucratic exemption application procedure.
She said at this point some of the people she worked with on the ship (not Trinidadians) committed suicide, not knowing if they were laid off, if they were being sent home without pay, some people became frustrated and could not hold it together.
She said in November 2020 they were sent to Barbados and eventually reached Trinidad on December 2, they were quarantined for seven days at the Regent Star Hotel, Piarco and seven days at home.
Douglas said many people who were stranded didn't know where their next meal was coming from, she was fortunate that the cruise ship company took care of her.
She called on the ministry to streamline their exemption process, and to reply to applicants instead of sending an automated response to reassure Trinbagonians and let them know how long it would take to repatriate them.