It was an ordeal that could shake your faith in country, family and leaders.
It might leave you uncertain about your place in the world and unclear as to how fellow citizens dispense their empathy and to whom.
By the time Darren Tyson had made it back to his Central Trinidad home after nearly eight months in “exile” in New York, USA, he felt disoriented, disconnected from his homeland and was battling a “bitterness” he couldn’t quite identify.
He was also left disturbed by the exemption process —which he described as “bizarre”—and further claimed a person purporting to be from the Ministry of National Security had attempted to “hustle” him following his application to re-enter the country in May.
Tyson’s tale began in early March when he decided to chance a trip to New York to conduct business.
The 41-year-old graphic artist said in an interview with the Express recently that he knew of the risks and that while no decision had been announced at the time, the Government could possibly have shut the borders against the spreading novel coronavirus.
Tyson said he was aware, but was anxious his personal business would have suffered greatly.
“I took the risk because I really felt I had to,” Tyson told the Express. “It wasn’t a light decision; sometimes there are things you feel you have no choice but to attend to.”
He added: “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up out there so long. Maybe if the communication was better, if you were not being made to feel like a pest for wanting to just get back home after so long, I would feel more understanding right now about how the process is being handled.”
‘Shockingly cold, shallow’
Tyson understood that local health facilities could easily become overwhelmed and was prepared to abide by the request of the Trinidad and Tobago Government that nationals stranded abroad “shelter in place” until better could be done.
But by his seventh month, in what had begun to feel like “exile”, Tyson said. “I really felt better could be done by that point. I found it really hard to believe that the authorities could not have come up with a better system and allow more people home,” he added.
As the pandemic wore on and he felt increasingly “abandoned” and “invisible”, Tyson’s stay with his family in New York began to suffer pandemic fatigue as well and spats arose.
There were periods where he kept to himself to avoid further stressing awkward situations.
“In many ways, I was still fortunate to be able to stay with family, but everyone has their lives and routines and after a while, it can cause problems,” Tyson said.
Tyson’s tale of being stuck abroad while the local borders remain closed against importation of the novel coronavirus, which continues in the community spread stage in T&T, has similarities to the experiences of thousands shut out of their homeland since March.
Yet each stranded citizen’s tale is also unique, and Tyson wants his fellow countrymen to know “it is not a picnic. Thousands of T&T citizens are suffering and will suffer tremendously for winter”.
Tyson found the process by which stranded citizens were required to apply for exemption to return home to be as “daunting, confusing, discouraging and hurtful” as it could be.
He found out commentary on stranded citizens by his Government, Prime Minister, National Security Minister and some fellow Trinidadians to be shockingly cold, shallow and sadly unproductive.
“I saw a different side of many things,” Tyson said, voicing disappointment that T&T now appears to pay lip-service to its reputation as a kind and progressive place.
A systematic nightmare
Tyson said his business in New York took three weeks, by which time the local borders had been shut on March 22.
At the time he left, citizens were being advised not to travel unnecessarily, but Tyson said, “It was a must that I be present to get the business done.”
Tyson was “back and forth” between his father’s and brother’s homes and said months into his stay, living conditions began to get uncomfortable.
There was a fallout among relatives about an increase in bills as a result of his stay, but Tyson’s financial situation had begun to deteriorate.
“I realised eventually that I would be there for a while,” Tyson said. “So I started to find ways to contribute, including visiting a “pantry”—a food distribution centre—where I was able to get essentials.”
Tyson said he began to feel resentment that since May, his exemption request had returned only an automated reply, and calls to the Trinidad and Tobago Consulate in New York had started going unanswered.
“I had no support system, no contact with any groups of nationals,” he said.
“It is very scary for people who are on their own out there, trying to get home. It is almost impossible to find information on flights on your own.”
When Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced in July that Government was seeking to provide financial aid for stranded nationals who qualified, Tyson began reaching out to the consulate.
He was told to call back, which he did, but was eventually told that “all monies” had been distributed. Tyson said he attempted to reach the consulate several more times about assistance finding a flight home, to no avail.
In early August, Rowley announced he’d authorised the Ministry of Finance to issue US$200,000 to the relevant embassies to assist nationals stranded abroad.
Over the course of seven months, Tyson said he heard rumours about the exemption process and the way home—that the process was already corrupt and that one could, through the correct channels and for a chunky fee, access a private chartered flight into T&T outside the process.
“In the meantime, you have no real access to the authorities in Trinidad,” Tyson said.
“And you are just there, watching the country carry on. People are concerned about beaches and bars opening. Some are making hurtful comments about those abroad. It was a very disappointing time and I saw a different side of people and my country.”
Having had enough, Tyson said he started emailing the Ministry of National Security “every day” for around two weeks until he received an exemption towards the end of September and returned to Trinidad in early October.
Then, things got “weird”.
“A man called several times from a T&T number, claiming to be from the Ministry of National Security,” Tyson said.
“I got the distinct feeling he was trying to ‘hustle’ me. He wouldn’t say what he wanted, but was asking probing questions about my flight details and so on. Also, he knew I had applied for and received an exemption.”
The person stopped calling after Tyson refused to disclose any information, and when someone in T&T tried to reach the cellphone number that had called Tyson, there was no answer.
Stressful flight arrangements
Tyson also found the process of securing a flight to be incredibly stressful.
“When I received the exemption, I was given a number for Caribbean Airlines provided by the ministry to arrange a flight. The flight information had to be submitted in 24 hours or the exemption expires, that was my understanding. So it was further stressful to have this person calling me.”
Tyson said after hours on the telephone, he secured a flight and returned home where he quarantined under State supervision at the Paria Suites Hotel and Conference Centre in La Romaine.
“I have no complaints, my stay was excellent,” Tyson said. “You are very well-cared for.”
He is among thousands now calling for a review of the process, saying thousands of citizens will be left “marked” by the ordeal.
“I can’t describe the feeling of not being able to come back home, not knowing what could happen, what sort of turn the pandemic could take,” Tyson said, adding by the time he made it home, he felt “frazzled” and took some time to adjust.