Refugees turn to Cayman’s ARK for safe shelter

A. Serrano, a refugee from Cuba, lived in this Newlands home with his wife until they were asked to leave by 1 Oct. Finding a new rental has proven difficult. - Photo: Alvaro Serey

It has been more than three weeks since A. Serrano and his wife, Y. Rodriguez, left their rental house in Newlands and faced life in Cayman without a place to call home.

The one-bedroom house had been a small but reliable place to live for a time, and Serrano, a refugee from Cuba, had been able to afford rent there through his wages from the Margaritaville resort.

It seemed, after Serrano’s years-long struggle to secure asylum status, that the pieces were coming together to restart life in Cayman – now the couple’s closest concept to ‘home’.

Seven months since the shutdown of Cayman’s tourism sector, however, life remains uncertain for them – and for many other unemployed or underemployed foreign-born workers who remain on island – for a variety of reasons.

The order to vacate their Newlands rental by 1 Oct. came as just the most recent setback in an already-difficult year for Serrano and Rodriguez.

To get back on their feet, they’ve discovered it will take the support of community and a lot of patience.

15 applications a day for help

At Regatta Office Park in West Bay, Cayman’s charity Acts of Random Kindness has settled into a new work space.

With the pandemic’s continued economic impact, director Tara Nielsen explained the office, donated by Provenance Properties, became necessary for ARK to answer the ongoing community need. Volunteers required a place to sit down with applicants and assess their situations.

Even now, ARK receives up to 15 applications a day from individuals in crisis across Cayman. Many of these people, like Serrano and Rodriguez, hadn’t relied on charity until the crisis hit.

But with the pandemic has come a wave of humanitarian need that extends across the islands’ many communities and nationalities.

ARK has expanded its mission this year to address immediate food and housing needs across the community.

Serrano and Rodriguez represent just one of around 2,000 cases ARK is tracking in Cayman.

While the islands have been tested in the past, COVID-19 is different than disasters like Hurricane Ivan, Nielsen explained.

This crisis has no foreseeable end and, with each month, the economic impact worsens for the islands’ most vulnerable and marginalised community members.

“In Ivan, everything was destroyed. Everyone knew everything was bad,” she said. “Right now, the sun is out. The buildings are nice. Everything looks great. But inside, behind the curtain, families can’t feed themselves. They can’t feed their children.”

As the crisis continues, vulnerable families are falling out of sight and out of mind, she said.

For these individuals, making contact with ARK may be the first break they’ve encountered in some time.

“A huge amount of people do not have any backup, any savings, any family member, any credit card, not even a bank account,” Nielsen said.

ARK has been working hard to identify and reach out to these individuals, as part of an expanded vision to provide immediate relief to those most in need.

In the past, ARK concentrated resources on addressing Caymanian housing requirements. Now, they also accept applications for rent, utility and food support, regardless of the applicant’s nationality. When members of the Nicaraguan community were stranded in Cayman earlier this year, for example, ARK was able to provide support until they returned home.

Despite efforts to repatriate foreign workers impacted by the crisis, not all have been able to leave Cayman, Nielsen explained. To survive, some workers have crowded into shared accommodations, including shared bedrooms and even shared beds with other adults, also struggling to make ends meet.

For the islands’ Cuban refugees – individuals granted asylum and the right to remain indefinitely by the Cayman Islands government – Cayman is now their home, through good times and bad. They don’t have the option to repatriate.

This community has become one of the latest to benefit from ARK’s outreach efforts.

Y. Rodriguez, left, and A. Serrano have been fighting to have their marriage recognised by the Cayman Islands government for nearly two years. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

Spare bedroom offers refuge for couple

When Serrano and Rodriguez first met with ARK volunteer Lisa Wray in early October, they had recently moved their belongings from their Newlands rental into the only accommodation they could find – a spare bedroom in the home of a charitable Caymanian woman, who sympathised with their story.

The former children’s room and its twin bed came as a welcome, albeit small, refuge, until the two could locate a permanent place of their own.

Serrano had recently received a job offer, as a painter on construction projects, and he was eager to get back to work. But first he needed to address their immediate need for housing – a months-long search that has turned into a job of its own.

The stress of the simultaneous job and rental searches was beginning to wear on Serrano.

His knee bounced up and down, and he fidgeted as they settled in to explain their story to Wray.

Jobless in COVID lockdown

Before the crisis, Serrano earned a modest salary through hospitality work at Margaritaville, and his wages met the couple’s basic needs. They had housing, food, even a car.

But, like many others in Cayman this year, Serrano learned how tenuous earning a living actually was here.

“With my work, we were fine. I paid rent. I made it work,” he said. “But when the virus came, I ended up without a job.”

Then came the discovery of unpaid pension contributions by Margaritaville and the struggle to qualify for displaced tourism worker benefits. Despite his efforts, Serrano had no safety net to fall back on.

Low-cost homes remain elusive

An exodus of foreign workers and the absence of tourism have opened up Cayman’s rental markets in recent months. For families looking to live on the beach, a two-bedroom rental may cost them as little as $2,500 a month, explained Century 21 real estate agent Amber Yates.

That doesn’t mean individuals on a budget – or workers earning the $6-an-hour minimum wage – will have an easy time finding low-cost accommodation.

Of 120 residential rentals listed on the CIREBA website as of 22 Oct., only 16 were available for under $2,000 a month. For individuals on a Needs Assessment Unit or Customs and Border Control rental budget, there were two options, neither of which accepted children, in the $750-$850 range.

The availability of rentals under $2,000, however, represents a notable increase from this time last year, Yates said, adding the availability of rentals in that price range had doubled in recent months.

In contrast, after Hurricane Ivan hit Cayman in 2004, about 30% of rentals on island cost less than $1,000, according to data from the Economics and Statistics Office. At that time, a rise from 3% to 11% in the number of households out of the population paying $2,000 a month was considered a significant increase.

That’s when Serrano and Rodriguez applied to Customs and Border Control for rental and food assistance.

As a refugee, Serrano does not qualify for support through the Needs Assessment Unit, and as his wife, Rodriguez does not qualify for any form of government aid.

Due to the wording of Cayman’s asylum law, currently under review by Customs and Border Control, Rodriguez is not recognised as Serrano’s legal dependent in Cayman and therefore cannot work or claim benefits.

Rodriguez said that her greatest desire in Cayman has been to work, support herself and assimilate into the culture. But her immigration struggle has kept those goals just out of reach.

“It’s difficult, not being able to work, not being able to help, to spend the entire day inside,” she said. “It’s very difficult to come to a country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language.”

As the couple searched for rentals, the fight to have their marriage recognised continued in the background, creating an extra layer of stress and complication.

After months of protests that culminated in the arrest of three demonstrators, including Rodriguez, the Cuban refugee community has been reassured by CBC that the visa and marriage issue will soon be resolved, Serrano said.

Through CBC, Serrano currently qualifies for $750 in rental assistance and $220 for food a month. CBC did not respond to Cayman Compass requests to verify the amount of assistance it provides to refugees.

Unfortunately, after months of searching, Serrano and Rodriguez have not been able to find a rental for $750 a month or a landlord willing to sign a contract with government.

Like many others, by the time they reached ARK, the couple had already lost faith in government’s ability to help with their housing needs. Others who approach the charity, Nielsen explained, have given up on government assistance entirely, choosing to pitch a tent or hide out in an unauthorised accommodation, rather than deal with the stress and uncertainty of the official bureaucracy.

ARK offers one last option for many of these people.

A home in Bodden Town, lacking a proper kitchen, rents for $850 a month.
The family who lives here may soon have a new place to call home, with the support of ARK. – Photo: Kayla Young

A new home

After an intake meeting with Serrano and Rodriguez, Wray returned with good news. Theirs were the kind of case with which ARK could assist.

If the couple could find a rental property, ARK would set them up and put down the first month’s rent. From there, the idea would be for them to take over the lease and begin living independently again.

It was the break that they needed. Serrano’s nervous jitters gave way to tears of gratitude.

Suddenly, the path forward became a little clearer, and they wouldn’t be going it alone.

To double their impact, ARK suggested Serrano and Rodriguez find a shared accommodation with another Cuban refugee couple, facing similar circumstances.

For $850 a month, the second couple had been living with their baby by a cement yard in Bodden Town in a house so small that not even the crib fit inside. The house lacks a proper kitchen and bathroom, but it was the only rental they could find.

The offer from ARK came as welcome news.

Together, the families would be able to share living and food costs, and work towards a more dignified, stable quality of life.

They now faced their final hurdle – finding a landlord in Cayman willing to rent to two Cuban refugee couples and a toddler.

Even with the support of ARK and money to put down, this last challenge proved difficult. Several potential landlords wouldn’t accept children. Others wouldn’t allow sharing. One real estate agent said she didn’t trust Cubans and avoided working with them.

On the verge of giving up, Serrano and Rodriguez followed up with one final advertisement about a property near Spotts Beach.

After weeks of searching, they finally found a landlord willing to give them a chance and an accommodation that fit not only their needs but their budget.

If all goes according to plan, from here will come the lease agreement – to be reviewed by ARK – moving day and soon, a place to call home.

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