Returning Nicaraguans settle in at home

The Nicaraguan group at Owen Roberts International Airport prior to finally flying home.

For Norlan Jimenez Gutierrez, life is beginning to return to normal, or as close to normal as a post-COVID-19 world can be.

It’s been two weeks since he was reunited with his family, after enduring four of the hardest months of his life while stranded in the Cayman Islands amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“I am doing fine. I am so happy and thankful to be back home with my family and friends,” Jimenez Gutierrez told the Cayman Compass. “Because of the people of Cayman, I was able to survive and keep my promise to my children.”

That promise was that he would return to them no matter what. He made the vow in March after he and 119 other Nicaraguan residents were left in Cayman with no food, no money and no jobs, due to an eleventh-hour cancellation of a repatriation flight destined for Managua, Nicaragua.

Employees at Island Taste restaurant prepare fresh-baked bread and hot meals to deliver to a group of Nicaraguans left stranded in Cayman.

How they survived

Within hours of the Cayman Compass publishing a story on the plight of the stranded Nicaraguans, scores of volunteers stepped forward, each wanting to offer a helping hand however they could.

The Cayman Food Bank was the first on the scene and helped by offering groceries. Island Taste also stepped up to provide warm meals. Random Acts of Kindness’s Kindness Kitchen, which was busy serving hot meals for several hundred residents across Grand Cayman, also pitched in to provide them with cooked food.

The Cayman Islands government also provided the stranded residents with vouchers to local supermarkets. Several landlords waived rent, allowing the Nicaraguans to live for free until they could return home.

With hunger at bay and roofs over their heads, they were able to turn their efforts to what would be the most daunting task – the fight to get back home.

The fight to return to Nicaragua

At first, the residents recorded cellphone videos of themselves, in which they pleaded with their Nicaraguan representatives to reopen their country’s borders and allow them to return home.

When this failed, they turned to the media in Cayman and in Nicaragua. It didn’t take long to realise that they were but a fraction of a large group of Nicaraguan nationals who were left stranded all across the world.

When media reports failed to provide the desired results, they joined their voices in protest. Mini protests were held in Cayman and in Bluefields, Nicaragua, during which they demanded that the borders be reopened.

While the protests also did not provide the results the stranded residents had hoped for, they did grab the attention of the Central American Council of Human Rights, which condemned the actions of the Nicaraguan government and asked other countries to join the fight by mounting pressure for the repatriation of all stranded Nicaraguan residents.

Governor Martyn Roper met the stranded Nicaraguans to hear their stories firsthand.

Just as things seemed hopeless, the Nicaraguan government began to give way. An initial group of Nicaraguan cruise ship workers were allowed to re-enter the country.

However, the fight was far from over, and Cayman’s stranded Nicaraguan residents were growing increasingly frustrated and overwhelmed.

That’s when Governor Martyn Roper stepped in, to offer a few reassuring words, and to let them know his office had been busy the entire time behind the scenes through various diplomatic channels, with one goal in mind – their successful repatriation.

The journey home

Roper was able to deliver on his promise, and in the third week of July, the original 120 stranded residents were told they would be able to go home.

However, only half of that group made it on the flight.

“Some people spent their ticket money trying to survive, others decided to stay, hoping that the economy might open back up,” said Jimenez Gutierrez.

When Cayman Compass staff attended the airport on the morning of the flight, the feeling among the Nicaraguans was a mixture of anxiety and hopeful optimism.

“This just feels so good to be going home,” said Lois Lindsey Hunter. “But I won’t truly believe it until I am back home with my family.”

Armed with their COVID-19 tests which showed they were negative for the virus, each departing resident checked in, but many would have to face one final hurdle.

Cayman Airways does not accept cash, which meant paying for luggage was not a viable option for most of the Nicaraguans. Fortunately, Neil Rooney of ARK was there to save the day, by accepting the cash and then making the payment on a debit card.

“It’s really bittersweet to see them leave, but this is not goodbye,” said Rooney. “It’s like sending off [60] kids to college; we’ll see them again when things are better.”

Norlan Jimenez Gutierrez poses with his ticket for a repatriation flight back to Nicaragua.

When they finally arrived in Nicaragua, they were greeted by police officers, loaded onto buses and provided with an armed escort out of the country’s capital and to their homes. For Norlan, that was an eight-hour bus ride.

“The ride home was worth it,” he said. “I just want to say a big thank you to everybody who helped us. We will never forget the kindness of the Cayman people.”

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