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.
According to many of these stranded nationals, they have been abandoned by the Government, and the exemption process in place is cumbersome, inefficient, and plagued by preferential treatment.
"The Minister of National Security puts it very nicely on paper, but the implementation of the process is a total failure...They are misleading the population," said Sangeeta Jagdeo, a national who returned to the country two weeks ago after being stranded in India.
"The Prime Minister’s daughter applied in November, and she is already home. What about all those people stranded since March or April?" Jagdeo asked.
On social media and in WhatsApp groups comprising hundreds of stranded nationals, stories of desperate cases are discussed–stories of people running out of savings and on the verge of being put out of homes.
"There are people staying at train stations and sleeping there. People on the sidewalk in New York," a national, who liaises with other stranded nationals, claimed.
Likewise, there are stories of nationals battling severe depression caused by loneliness and prolonged separation from loved ones.
"There are women here who call their children every night, and their children break down in tears, asking, mommy when you coming home?" a Canadian farm worker said, speaking about his colleagues.
"I don’t have the desire to go out because I’m all alone. There’s nobody for me to say, let’s go for a walk, or let’s go somewhere," a stranded national in Europe added.
Some people have sued Minister Stuart Young over the process while others are threatening legal action.
After several citizens complained of running out of money to survive abroad, in August Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley authorised the Ministry of Finance to issue USD$200,000 to the relevant embassies to assist nationals who remained abroad.
For many of these nationals, outside of telling close family members and friends, these groups are the only space they feel safe to share aspects of their heart-wrenching experiences.
That’s because they fear victimisation, they said.
"You don’t want to come out and speak because you don’t know if they see your name on the list they may decide to scratch it off," said a national stranded in Germany.
A few of the nationals, however, agreed to share their stories with Guardian Media.
Sangeeta Jagdeo returned to Trinidad from India two weeks ago
"If it wasn’t for Gary, I would have been in serious trouble."
In early March, Sangeeta Jagdeo travelled to India for a three-week programme that she was specially invited to.
Within three days of her arrival, India went into lockdown, and on March 22, before her departure date, Trinidad closed its borders.
Luckily for her, though, she had a place to stay–in a guest house provided by the Indian government, as part of the programme. Despite bearing the cost of rent and food herself, she said being in India was not a problem, as the Government took good care of stranded nationals there.
Her attempts to get home to Trinidad, however, was another story, she said.
Having first applied in April for an exemption, she said for six months she got no response, not even an acknowledgement.
While she waited for a response, the financial and mental stress of being away for so long took a toll on herself and her elderly mother back home in Trinidad.
Sending exemption emails more regularly, an acknowledgement of her request came in October. "When I got that response, I immediately started making travel arrangements. I made arrangements with Jet Blue for a return flight," Jagdeo said.
Leaving Delhi with a negative PCR test and a little more than US$100 in her pockets, she arrived in New York, hoping the second leg of her flight to Port-of-Spain would be permitted. It was not and was cancelled by Jet Blue.
After having been stranded in India, she was now stranded in New York.
However, unlike in India, she had no place to stay in the US. She was also short of cash. Yet to receive the Government’s grant for stranded nationals, and with the consulate closed, she desperately sought assistance from someone she never met before–Gary Mahabir–the founder of a support group for stranded nationals called T&T Citizens Overseas.
"He booked a hotel for me for the nights I had to stay in New York, and he paid for everything. He even bought food for me, ensuring that I was OK," she said.
Her first attempt to get to Barbados failed, but her second attempt proved successful.
From being stranded in India and then New York, she was now stranded in Barbados. "Every day in Barbados, I was sending 100 emails per day to all the relevant authorities," Jagdeo said.
Once again, while she received no updates or assistance from the Government, Mahabir stepped in to assist her, she said.
After arranging a hotel for her to stay until she received an exemption to enter T&T, and sending her money via Western Union, he stepped in as he attempted to get her exemption approved.
It worked. After five days in Barbados, she was heading home.
"Someone called and they said, you have one hour to book the flight. I said, what?” she recalled.
With no cash or credit card left, her brother had to book her flight home.
The ticket cost her close to US$800, while two additional pieces of luggage cost her another US$200.
"I was sitting in the middle seat and there were two people next to me–no social distancing. There were many empty seats, so more people could have easily come home that day. The entire front of the plane was empty," she said.
After quarantining for seven days at the Debe Quarantine Facility, she completed the seven days of home quarantine this past week.
And while she was too intimidated to speak before, she said she now speaks freely. In no uncertain terms, she said the Government’s handling of stranded nationals and the exemption process has been a failure.
"There is absolutely no compassion. No humanity in these people in the Government and also the Opposition. Their silence is deafening. They are all talking, but nothing is being done to assist the people outside," Jagdeo said angrily.
"The process is impossible and there is discrimination. The Prime Minister’s daughter applied in November and she is already home. What about all those people stranded since March or April?" she asked.
Jagdeo also wondered why stranded nationals are being made to pay, what she called, exorbitant ticket prices.
While she claimed to have been let down by the Government, she hailed the help received from the founder of T&T Citizens Overseas.
"This man, who I am yet to meet, guided me through every step of the process. He is doing the job that our embassies and consulates should be doing. It would have been impossible to get home without him," Jagdeo said.
Asked what advice she would offer to other nationals wishing to come home, she said to get in contact with Mahabir.
After all, she said, it worked for her.
Megan (name changed) in UK/Germany since January
"I’m sorry, but I’m not prostituting myself for this Government’s mistake."
After spending much of the last decade working on contractual jobs abroad, Megan, a Tobago resident, returned to T&T in November 2019 with plans to start a business in the tourism industry.
The business, she hoped, would allow her to spend more time with her daughter and son, as well as the newest addition to her family, Manuel. Late last year, Megan adopted Manuel, a Venezuelan migrant. While Manuel and her daughter live in Tobago, her biological son studies in Trinidad.
Offered jobs in England and Germany on short-term contracts in January, she accepted the offers and flew out. She planned to put the money earned in Europe into her dream business in Tobago.
Her return flight on Condor was booked for April 7. She never imagined then, though, that the two-month stay would extend to 11 months and counting. Those 11 months, she said, has pushed her to the brink.
With her savings dwindling, she’s stranded in Germany.
Measuring about seven feet by six feet, the room she lives in is designed to hold office equipment. "I am living in nothing but a cage. I don’t even go outside because of my sadness, and I don’t have the money to go out and spend," Megan said.
But despite her circumstances, it’s still an upgrade to her situation between March and October. Having no alternative place to stay at the time, for those months she lived with an ex-boyfriend.
"I was living with someone who definitely didn’t want me around. The air was so thick, you could cut it with a knife," Megan recalled.
On most days, there was no communication between the two, and when she dared to speak, his response was snappy and condescending.
Fiercely independent and outgoing, she began to retreat into her self. Anxiety and depression, things she never felt before, started taking over her mental space.
"I’m known by my friends as the bubbly Caribbean girl. I’m usually the one who sings and dances in the kitchen, but that part of me died," she said.
"It was just grey. That’s all I felt, grey. There was no colour again in my life," Megan added.
Her once unbreakable sense of pride in being Trinbagonian also isn’t the same.
She feels abandoned by the Government and some of her fellow citizens, including people she considered friends.
"Look, I respect the Government has to take security measures, just like all other countries had to take measures, but they’ve waited too long. The worst part of my experience is the fact that I just don’t know when I will get home," she lamented.
The population, she believes, continues to be misled by the Government propaganda on the issue of stranded nationals, creating fear in citizens.
The Opposition and mainstream media are also failing stranding citizens, she said.
"This situation is like being in a camp with terrorists. That’s what I imagine it to be. I could not see the terrorists, but I knew they were somewhere back home in Trinidad..." she said.
Fearing that their names will be scratched off the exemption list, the vast majority of stranded nationals are too scared to speak up, she said.
Based on her interactions with the others on social media and WhatsApp, she believed the overwhelming consensus, among them, is that the exemption process is a failure.
"The chats were overwhelming for me, really overwhelming. I was seeing people saying they were writing 20 and 30 times a day for exemptions without getting a reply," she recalled.
At first, daunted by the sheer numbers of stranded nationals, she first applied for an exemption in June.
"When I finally got a response from them, I was numb. There was no reaction. I didn’t know how to react. I felt like there was nothing inside of me," Megan said.
While she battled depression, back home her children continued to rely on her for support, emotionally and financially.
Two of her children lost their jobs during the pandemic.
"My daughter is having a really hard time dealing with the fact that I’m not home. I also miss my adopted son a lot. It feels helpless," she said, her voice breaking.
There are things she keeps from them.
Firstly, her financial worries. In addition to trying to survive in Germany and sending her children money, she has to pay for rent back home in Tobago as well.
The money, earned during her stint in Europe, she said, is completely depleted.
"I have to support them. I don’t want them to fall into depression because I had depression and I didn’t want this to affect my kids," she said.
She also did not tell them about her medical scare. Around two months ago, she collapsed in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. Luckily, he found her not long after.
"My blood sugar dropped so low that I passed out. They said it was almost like a mild heart attack, and if no one found me, I could have died," Megan said.
After that scare, she decided it was time to pull herself out the dark hole she had
found herself in.
This, she said, is what inspired her to begin speaking up.
"I started putting back on my music. I sang and danced to force myself out of this situation. I refused to allow my emotional state to be held ransom by the Government of T&T," she said proudly.
She said it was time for stranded nationals to start speaking up, demanding better from the Government and its exemption process. Every step of the process is "convoluted, unclear, and unreasonably expensive," she claimed.
Asked what message she had for others in her situation, she said, "Call your friends. Call your family. Get your family to support you. Get them to call the media. Stop sticking your head in the sand. It’s not easy but you have to do it because, so far, the Government has shown they do not care about us."
Andre (name changed), farm worker in Canada since July
In July, Andre, as he did every year for the last 20 years, flew up to Canada to work on one of the farms. This year’s journey, however, was, of course, unlike any other.
With T&T’s borders closed, and pandemic panic at its peak, Andre and hundreds of other local Canadian farm workers sought exemptions from the Government, eventually making the journey to North America.
The decision by the group of farm workers to travel abroad drew criticism from some quarters, something he still struggles to come to terms with.
"If I stayed in T&T, I would have been one of those stories that were on TV, one of the people who lost their job and lost everything because of the pandemic. I refused to be one of those people," Andre said defiantly.
In June, three months after the first cases of COVID-19 arrived in Trinidad, Andre faced arguably the toughest decision of his life–stay in Trinidad with his wife and sons or risk it and go to work in Canada.
Yet to receive any of the Government’s relief grants, he said the bills started piling up and his savings began drying up. A call from the car dealership threatening to seize his vehicle secured his decision.
"What was I supposed to do? Sit down at home and wonder if the grant will come through? And then lose my car and my house?" Andre asked.
"Every man and woman who came up to Canada on that plane took a chance. They put their lives at risk, knowing it’s a pandemic, because we just didn’t want to lose what we had," Andre said.
While he stands by his decision to board a chartered flight in July, he never imagined that in December he would still be in Canada.
"Farm workers, like himself, became forgotten souls," he said angrily.
Reading the negative comments about farm workers on social media, according to Andre, hurt him deeply.
" 'Leave them, let the winter kill them.' I am reading all of the foolishness people are writing. People should be applauding me for choosing to keep my family’s head above water," he said.
Estimating that there are close to 400 T&T farm workers still stranded in Canada, Andre claimed that while workers from dozens of countries came to work on the farms, only T&T workers remain.
Depression among the workers is rampant, Andre said. Living in a cramped, cold space, he said, it took hold of him.
He recalled the moment he told his 15-year-old son that he would not be home in time for Christmas, "He, literally, fell on the ground, you know. I had to call out to him. He said, 'but daddy, you are the man who makes Christmas. How you mean you won’t be here?' "
Not wanting their son to see how much it was affecting her, later that night his wife called him back in tears, begging him to come home.
To say Andre is angry with the Government would be an understatement.
Andre believes the Government took too long to begin bringing back farm workers after their contracts on Canadian farms ended.
If not for the intervention of the Canadian Government and media, he believed the T&T Government would not have taken steps to start bringing them home.
"In September, they were boasting that there was room in the facilities, but yet farm workers could not come home. They don’t know what they did people," Andre added.
If not for the generosity of the Canadian people and the country’s Caribbean communities, he said it would have been much worse. When the farm workers needed an extra meal or winter boots to battle the freezing temperatures, Canadians provided it.
Seeking an exemption since October, Andre struggled to understand why citizens are returning to Trinidad to visit for three weeks, when there are permanent residents, like himself, still outside.
When asked to describe the exemption process, he said "Failed!"
Days after our interview, Andre’s exemption request was approved. After five months away, Andre is scheduled to return home on Monday.
19 of the 50 farm workers on the farm he worked on were granted exemptions, and more than 100 farm workers in total will be on his flight. The others will have to wait their turn, as the infamous Canadian winter continues.
But even in the logistics of his flight home, the Government managed to fall short, he said.
With a negative PCR test no more than 72 hours old required, he said, there is simply no way for the farm workers to meet that stipulation.
"Friday is Christmas. Saturday is Boxing Day, and that leaves Sunday. These people have so many degrees. They boast of being lawyers, and nobody could have seen that the date could have been an issue?" he added.
Instead, the farm workers took their tests on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"If they tell me I can’t get on that flight after I waited so long, I will tell them straight I am not leaving the airport. They will have to drag me out," he said.
Ryan (name changed), offshore worker in the United States Since March
As an offshore worker with one of the world’s most well-known oilfield services companies, Ryan has been travelling to the United States annually since 2004 for contractual work.
In March, two weeks before T&T’s borders closed, the T&T resident made the journey to the US to join his mother who made the same trip a few days before.
With long-standing kidney issues, his mother, also a T&T resident, upon the advice of doctors, opted to seek specialised medical care.
"A friend made an appointment for her to get treatment for kidney stones in the US. She has severe kidney stones. She passes kidney stones as long as three inches," Ryan said. Thankfully, the procedure and tests went well, providing the 69-year-old pensioner with much-needed relief.
Their return flight was booked for April 2. On March 22, T&T closed its borders.
At first, Ryan didn’t make much of it, opting to avoid a possible scramble to return home.
"I told her listen, I’m sure they will probably do something. I said, we will wait until the Government decides to open back the borders," he recalled.
In the interim, they stayed by family and friends, who treated them well. When an exemption process subsequently announced, they decided, once again, to hold off a bit, expecting scores of applications. There were others whose need to return home were more pressing at the time, they assumed.
In October, they submitted their requests. However, Ryan claimed that since then, they’ve heard nothing about their exemption requests, only receiving an automated response.
While he tried to remain patient, his anger reached boiling point this past week when news broke of the Prime Minister’s daughter being granted an exemption before residents like his mother and himself.
"The Prime Minister said his daughter has been out here for a year. Well, I’ve also been out here for a year. The Prime Minister said his daughter lives in New York. My mom and I live in Trinidad. We both live in Trinidad," he said, questioning the decision.
According to the offshore worker, the stress of being away from home so long is taking its toll on his mother.
While she longs to return home, he said, like many other stranded nationals, she is too terrified to speak about her experiences.
"She said she remembers what happened with that (Joanne) Pantin lady (who was stranded in Florida) who spoke out. She doesn’t want to end up like her, so she keeps quiet," Ryan said.
But, while his mother opts for a more reserved approach, he chose to go on the attack. He hired an attorney to increase his chances of getting an exemption.
Ryan estimated that every month it costs him approximately US $1,500 to live in the United States. He is staying at his uncle’s home.
"Even when you call the exemption office to find out about your exemption process, it’s expensive. I have friends telling me they spent US$70 trying to get through on the ministry’s phone," Ryan said.
He said every step of the exemption process seemed "cold-hearted, inefficient, and expensive."
"Minister Young said he was going to make it a better and more efficient system, but he did not do that," he said angrily.
Ryan, like many others seeking exemptions, complained that the cost of the repatriation flights was excessive.
He estimated that it would cost another US$1,700 to pay for two one-way tickets back home, as well as for the PCR tests for himself and his mother.
"The Government is charging us more than anyone else to get home. Most airlines are charging the same money as before, but Caribbean Airlines is charging us more. Why is that? I don’t understand," he said.
"I’m lucky I have a job out here, but what about those without a job?" he asked.
Responding to claims by stranded nationals that Caribbean Airlines' ticket prices are overpriced, CAL's Head of Corporate Communications Dionne Ligoure said, "Caribbean Airlines is aware of concerns regarding the fares. The airline is doing its best, at this time, within the confines of its operations to ensure the tickets are priced fairly."
No response from Young
Calls and text message to Young were not anwered.