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Global Tamilian: Freedom from fear for flyers homebound

Despite being settled overseas, the Tamil diaspora loves to recreate the life they left behind in India. Here’s a glimpse of their lives, celebrations and struggles on foreign shores

Global Tamilian: Freedom from fear for flyers homebound


While the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging the world by freezing people’s physical movement, the state of stranded Indians in the US is in a worrisome Catch-22 situation. The panic seems to be more on the uncertainty that surrounds the pandemic timeline. People are in a state of shock, looking for avenues to get back home in the safest and quickest possible manner and thankfully their evacuation plea is being heard.

The plight of these stranded people is a sorry story to be told. When things were normal and the flights were operating normally, many of these people’s stories went unnoticed and were accepted to be normal happenings in the lives of immigrants. Not so today. Ironically, their woes are complicated to be attended to where pandemic threat compels to care for arresting the spread which is rightfully the priority for everyone.

Some have lost jobs with H1B visas expiring; with universities closed indefinitely, students face fear for their safe stay; some have OPT visas expiring, visiting parents with unexpected deteriorating health conditions need medical attention, a pathetic few have to reach India to perform the last rites of the deceased parents and the list goes on.

An interesting thing happening through social media in these hours of desperation and despair is the connection between people. Through the pandemic times, however much the social distancing is being stressed, social media made sure that the strong human connections are maintained. This has helped to amplify the voices of those looking for help from the government of India for a safe evacuation.

The ‘USA to India evacuation flights’ is one such group. “Formed initially as a WhatsApp group of people with similar concerns, it exceeded 300 members within hours of initiation and had to be moved to a larger platform. “We then started a Facebook group. Within two weeks our membership grew to 2,000 and has soon reached 7,000 and is still growing every minute,” said Michael Khanna, a marketing professional from Dallas, who moderates the group. “I am looking for safe ways to send back my mom with health conditions that prompted me to form a group,” he added.

“I was in a deep state of shock when our university gave the notice to vacate the dorms,” said Richa Vohra, an 18-year-old ambitious girl from India who requested permission to stay until finding another safe place. She narrates, “I am completely lost in the pandemic. Running low on money, no family or moral support, no health insurance and living in one of the high-risk zones in shared accommodation, shared washroom, shared cooking space... I have to put up with constant fear of exposure to the virus. There are thousands of students like me and we all feel not cared for and request immediate evacuation.”

There are visiting parents with underlying health conditions whose medical attention becomes a huge concern. Ankit Malhotra needs to send his diabetic father, as he already extended his stay after losing his mother in November unexpectedly during their US visit.

For many who had their returns planned in March have no excess medication for the extended period of stay, some have to apply for extensions of I-94 to make their stay legal. Bindu Manjunath, who travelled in between her cancer treatment for a two-month break to be with her children, needs to be back for continuing her treatment and soon expects to fly back in the evacuation flights that have started to fly.

Some go through the worst emotions with losing a parent or loved ones back in India and just cannot visit them for paying the last respects. The psychological trauma of these people is too harsh to be told. Also at a time when people are following the social distancing, the grief period is spent all alone. “My mom passed away on April 1. Both the sons are in the US. We were not able to perform the last rites and we need to immediately fly back,” grieved Suresh Muthupandi who could luckily find himself on the evacuation flight arranged by the government of India.

The social media groups rightly offer the emotional connection, the bonding of holding hands remotely and support each other to grapple with the situation. The group works on forming task forces to address specific issues like guidance to reach local doctors for the refill of prescription medicines, for legal help in applying for an extension, sharing contacts for teledoc facilities to treat non-COVID emergencies, raising petitions for evacuation. “A list of most deserving cases for evacuation has been sent to all the officials concerned,” said Michael Khanna.

“The problem is that no one knows the exact number of people stranded in this kind of situation. Our efforts through social media groups have yielded some attention and we are glad to see evacuation actions initiated by the Indian government,” added Michael. And now, even with the evacuation plan being methodically executed, the emotional stress for the stranded continues and will remain to haunt until getting united with their families back home.

The safety of the people who travel back, by not getting infected themselves, is a challenge. Even bigger a challenge is not becoming a carrier. The smooth execution of the evacuation certainly depends on many odds. Will all those deserving evacuations find themselves a seat on the return flight is everyone’s concern now. The odds during the quarantine period in India, because most of these travellers are old and have health issues, are also a worry for the kith and kin. The cost of emergency evacuation is pinching the ones who lost jobs and are forced to leave due to financial distress. Indian citizens with US-born children may have to worry additionally about being allowed to evacuate with their kids who are technically American citizens. True, the plight of these stranded Indians is one of the many unfortunate episodes in the COVID-19 story. Hopefully, they all find a safe return back soon.

— The writer is a journalist based in New York

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