BALTIMORE — The Tavarez family struggled through a harrowing month and a half after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, living in their San Juan neighborhood without power, scrambling to buy necessities and driving in streets without functioning traffic lights.
After Evelyn Tavarez, a mother of three, had a near-death experience in a car accident, she and her husband decided to buy plane tickets to Washington.
“That’s what pushed me to the possibility of leaving for the United States,” Tavarez told Capital News Service in Spanish on the day of her arrival at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington. “But believe me, I bought the tickets and did not know where I was going to end up.”
Three-and-a-half weeks ago, with the help of a charity, the family arrived in Baltimore.
Back in devastated Puerto Rico, Tavarez started contacting organizations through Facebook, looking for housing assistance and employment resources in the continental United States. One of the page administrators connected Tavarez to Fundación Janet Arce, a charity based in Baltimore that has taken on the task of helping Puerto Rican families relocate to Baltimore.
After hearing Tavarez’s story, Janet Arce, the charity’s founder, told Tavarez that she would try to find a house for her and her family, as well as employment for her and her husband (he asked not to be identified for this story, citing privacy reasons). Arce is currently helping four Puerto Rican families move and settle in Baltimore.
Dawn Marie Jones, Arce’s friend and a landlord, owns a brick house with her husband in northern Baltimore, whose tenants had moved out recently.
Jones agreed to rent out the house to hurricane-stricken Puerto Ricans coming to Maryland. The second floor of the two-level house went to the Tavarez family, who were also given the opportunity to pay off the security deposit on a month-by-month basis. Jones put off making renovations to the apartments so they would be available right away.
“I spoke to my husband and said ‘You know, these families are coming in now and if we can help them now with a lower rent’ — because once I do the work that I plan to do, obviously, the rent will be higher,” Jones said.
After more than two weeks in the United States, Tavarez’s husband has not been able to find a job, even though the family moved to Baltimore relying on Arce’s assurances that they would have jobs lined up quickly upon arriving. Tavarez has been looking for other job resources and social services, but has problems affording transportation.
“Because he is not working, we don’t have enough money to be taking buses from one place to another,” Tavarez said.
The Tavarez’s rent is due on December 15. At the moment, the landlord said she does not have plans to extend the payment deadline.
Arce is helping the family connect with job opportunities through Barry Graham, Latino engagement specialist at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, Inc.
“The biggest challenge we’re going to have is the English.” Graham said. “What I’ll probably do is, I can get them registered right here in Baltimore with Baltimore City Community College.”
Arce would consider the possibility of organizing a fundraiser for the family, in case they are unable to pay rent, she said.
“In any case, if something were to be done, we’re going to ask people to donate money directly to them,” Arce told Capital News Service in Spanish.
Tavarez, her husband and three kids, arrived Nov. 11. They were met by a volunteer from the Arce’s charity who took them to their new Baltimore home, which was furnished with the help of local volunteers.
Jean Edwards, a retired education and training specialist from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, was one of the volunteers painting the apartment and collecting food and furniture. She was there on the first day to greet the family and help move a couch into the house.
“Our goal was to have a month of food so they wouldn’t have to go shopping and worry about that while they’re getting the children in school and looking for work,” Edwards said.
One her last day in Puerto Rico, Evelyn Tavarez wanted her father to say goodbye to her at the airport.
“It looks like it was going to be too tough,” Tavarez said.
Instead, she said her farewell to him the day before her travels.
“He advised me a lot to move to the United States, that the kids were going to be better off, that in Puerto Rico, with the crime and the schools not giving classes, they were not going to be fine,” Tavarez said.