“We were told we would be helped here, that someone was waiting for us,” Andres David Blanco, who left Venezuela a month and a half ago, said in Spanish after arriving at Union Station Tuesday night.
A network of mutual aid organizations with limited resources and a non-profit organization that operates on a federal grant They are scrambling to help migrants as the number of buses arriving in the city continues to increase.
That patchwork of aid fell through on Tuesday night after the core organizers and volunteers of the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network advocates were in quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus while helping migrants over the weekend. SAMU First Response, an international aid organization that has a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help the migrants, is only operating Wednesday through Saturday.
SAMU chief executive Tatiana Laborde said the organization was trying to assemble a team to find last-minute resources after it became clear Tuesday there were not enough volunteers to help the arriving migrants.
Laborde said in an interview that SAMU does not have the capacity to coordinate all the buses. “We are increasing our capacity, but all authorities involved know that this will take time,” she said. Of the approximately 15 buses that arrive each week, the organization can handle half.
SAMU’s FEMA grant is enough to provide emergency assistance to about 2,000 migrants a month, but the number has doubled in recent weeks.
SAMU worked at an animal shelter in Montgomery County, Maryland, where Laborde said they prioritize migrant families from Arizona, who often arrive with children. The shelter only has space for 50 people, who are not allowed to stay longer than three days. According to Laborde, the shelter was already full on Wednesday morning.
Laborde said the organization had begun talks with DC officials to secure a permanent spot near Union Station, but the talk “didn’t result in any concrete action.” The Migrant Solidarity Network has also asked for access to recovery centers, coronavirus isolation hotels and short-term shelters for the migrants.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) did not immediately comment.
Brianne K. Nadeau, a member of the DC Council (D-Ward 1), said it appeared SAMU was still fixing problems in its operations and underscored the importance of a stronger response from local officials.
“SAMU has a learning curve, they have a large group of people who are good at emergency response and refugee service, but have never done this work in DC,” Nadeau said. “If governments across the region depend on SAMU to achieve this, it is not feasible.”
She added, “As thin as our government is right now, we probably need more groundedness with SAMU until they get things up and running.”
Nadeau, who is chair of the Region Forward Coalition at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said local leaders who are part of the group will meet next week to determine exactly what officials and nonprofits, including SAMU, can do to increase support for this arrival in the city.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network said they took a two-day break following the coronavirus exposure, but the group was “exhausted” and needed help.
“Community organizations and volunteers from the DMV area have been coming every day to support migrants for over three months, but we are exhausted, burned out and don’t have the resources that the government has,” said Madhvi Bahl of Sanctuary DMV and Free Them All v.a.
Meanwhile, many of the migrants who arrived Tuesday night spent the night at Union Station. Shelters for families were unavailable Tuesday night, and those who could accommodate migrants could only accommodate males.
Venezuelans Ángeles Pinto León, 22, and Pedro José Sánchez, 30, and their two children left Peru two months ago. They reached the border last Wednesday and were told at a Texas animal shelter that they could be transported to DC on a bus for free
They said the space they had secured in Richmond was no longer available. Now they are seeking shelter or a home to stay in DC
At 9 p.m., volunteer Matthew Burwick, a Venezuelan activist who said he was on hand to help SAMU answer questions and distribute granola bars and water, coordinated the transportation of four families and seven children to SAMU’s Montgomery animal shelter County. On Wednesday morning, Pinto León, who was taken to the shelter, said she was told she could stay there for a few days but hadn’t found a permanent home.
Several migrants are trying to reach other states such as New York, or Florida Georgia, but many have nowhere to go hoping the city can give them a fresh start.
“Do you know where the 14th and U is?” Leonardo asked Javier León, 26, in Spanish. “I’ve been told there are a lot of restaurants where I can apply for a job.”
“I don’t have anyone here, but I have the will to work,” said León, who worked as a sous-chef in Venezuela.
Some, like asylum seeker Eduardo Antonio Mendoza, have to be canceled by friends or sponsors at the last minute.
“I called my friend tonight but he told me he couldn’t see me anymore,” said Mendoza, who traveled from Nicaragua and was planning to go to New York, in Spanish.
Mendoza said he took the bus from Texas because he was heading to New York, but now that he has nowhere to go he’s glad he ended up in DC
“I would have been lost there,” he said.
Michael Brice-Saddler and Julie Zauzmer Weil contributed to this report.