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Bahamian consulates in U.S. help Bahamians navigate uncertainty

With the government’s decision to shut down borders for all incoming people, including Bahamian citizens and residents, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States, some of the consular offices in the U.S. have had their hands full assisting Bahamians abroad.

Larry Cartwright, the Bahamian consul general in New York, said “there is definitely concern” among Bahamians in the area about the spike in COVID-19 cases in that region in particular.

He said the consulate is in daily contact with Bahamians in the region “whether they’re in distress, stranded, or just want to talk”.

“We do have right now nine persons in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, Connecticut and Boston who we are working with one on one,” Cartwright said.

“Some of them are students, some are Bahamians who were traveling at the time and just got stranded here, so we are keeping in contact with them and making sure that our ministry in Nassau is aware who they are and where they are and what their problems are.”

According to Cartwright, there are also 27 Bahamians employed in four official offices who the consulate is keeping in direct contact with.

However, he also noted that most Bahamians had already left by the time the outbreak began to dramatically worsen.

“Luckily for us, the crux of the virus came at Spring Break time so most of the students in this area [have] traveled home or other places, and by the time they would be ready to return here they found out their campuses were closing or working online, so most of them went home,” he said.

The remaining registered Bahamians “are either students who are living in dorms or persons who are visiting relatives”.

“No one has reached out for any sort of assistance as yet,” Cartwright said.

“There’s one gentleman who indicated that he was trying to seek help in getting back to The Bahamas, and I understand that he [got] into Florida which would now be out of our jurisdiction, but…we tried to reach him, without success.”

In Florida, Consul General Linda Treco-Mackey said her consulate has been assisting almost 70 “displaced” Bahamians.

Those Bahamians include “students who are on Spring Break or others whose classes have closed and they are now working remotely, but now seeking to go home”, she noted.

“Additionally, we have persons who came for medical purposes, and others who were just stuck because the borders closed,” Treco-Mackey said.

“But, fortunately, for the most part, most of them have been accommodated with either friends or family, with just a few not having any family or friends that can give them accommodations.”

As she assured that none of the “stranded” Bahamians are “on the street”, Treco-Mackey added: “We’re in touch with them.

“We’re trying to keep them updated with all the relevant information, especially those whose visas may be in jeopardy.

“…Even under these circumstances we have to be very careful because we don’t want their visas canceled just because it’s a crisis.”

Treco-Mackey said her office has been “really busy” with assisting those Bahamians in need, but that it’s nothing new as Miami gets a lot of traffic due to being a major hub for travelers.

“Our office is constantly busy,” she said.

“We just managed the hurricane and thought we had a breath of fresh air and then came COVID-19, so it’s been crisis after crisis. So, I think we’re professionals, for sure, in crisis.”

Theo Neilly, consul general in Washington, said his office has also seen an uptick in the number of Bahamians reaching out.

However, he said it was mostly from Bahamians wishing to register rather than seek assistance due to being stranded.

“We have received calls and students, persons that wanted mostly to register themselves and make us aware of where they were,” said Neilly as he noted his office covers 24 states.

“Just a handful who said they were stranded and couldn’t get home, and that would be mostly concentrated around California and this area.”

Like in Florida, Neilly said “stranded” Bahamians in the area were mostly able to stay with relatives or friends.

Some university students, meanwhile, have received permission from their schools to stay on campus until the end of May.

However, like in New York, he also noted that most students had already left by the time COVID-19 cases began to increase.

“As the cases started building, we contacted them weeks ago and said, ‘Hey, listen, this might be a time where students if you’re working online perhaps [you] should be looking at going back to The Bahamas, and many of them did that,” Neilly told The Guardian.

“So thankfully we don’t have as many cases [of persons left here] because of that…because they left earlier.”

There are only two individuals who have reached out to the consulate for assistance, Neilly said.

But he noted that the office is still trying to keep in contact with all registered Bahamians in the area to keep them updated and encouraged in what he described as a “worrying” situation.

Consul General in Atlanta Astra Armbrister-Rolle said a sense of fear and worry is growing among some Bahamians in contact with her office.

“We have not had the alarming cases that we see in California and like you see in New York, but that is growing,” she said.

“The other thing that’s really important is there are some Bahamians who are in the United States just visiting, and they have a certain date that they’re supposed to leave the United States. If our border closing extends beyond the date they’re supposed to leave the United States; there is some assistance that we can give them.”

“So we don’t want them to panic because of that. We want to make sure that they understand that there is some kind of assistance that they can get.”

Although Bahamian consulates in the United States have been physically closed due to the pandemic, the offices have implemented different ways to communicate such as having emergency phone lines that ring to cell phones or laptops.

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