Aspen area J-1 visa holders struggle to return to home countries amid coronavirus pandemic
After a few months living and working in Snowmass Village, Karla Perdomo, 22, and two of her friends were set to head back home to Peru.
The three young women packed their things, said goodbye to their managers and coworkers and headed to Denver on March 15 for their flight. But just as they were arriving in Denver, Perdomo’s parents called and said the Peruvian borders had been closed in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“It was like what, we are about to take the plane and you say our frontiers are closed?” Perdomo recalled. “So we went to the airport and tried to change our flight but it wasn’t possible because all the flights were canceled. Can you imagine in that moment how we feel? We want to come back to our country, but what can we do?”
Luckily, Perdomo and her friends were able to return to Snowmass, pick up their seasonal jobs at Clark’s Market and move back into their housing until the Peruvian lockdown is lifted and they can catch a flight home.
But the three Peruvians’ story is not unique — many Aspen-Snowmass area J-1 visa holders are in the same situation, staying where they are if they can or going to major airport destinations to try and figure out how to get back home during a pandemic that has no clear end in sight.
“I’m so glad I’m here because I have housing, I have work and I’m really happy because of that,” Perdomo said.
The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program allows roughly 300,000 foreign visitors from 200 countries and territories to experience U.S. culture and society each year, according to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) program website.
Through short-term summer vacation work and travel experiences, to long-term internships and training, international candidates from high school age to adults can apply for one of 15 different programs linked to the J-1 visa.
In Colorado, there are over 200 sponsor organizations that place more than 11,000 exchange participants across the state through each of the 15 J-1 programs, according to 2019 ECA data.
In Aspen, there are currently 322 exchange participants with an additional 229 participants total in Snowmass Village, Woody Creek, Basalt, Meredith, Crested Butte, Twin Lakes and Eagle.
On March 12, the ECA “temporarily paused” its programs in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and countries all around the world have closed their borders — most over the past month — to mitigate the virus spread, leaving many J-1 visa holders in a sort of limbo.
Aspen Skiing Co. is one of the largest local employers of J-1 visa holders, hiring 250 exchange participants for its 2019-20 winter season.
Since the company’s four valley ski areas were closed by state order March 15 to help slow the spread of coronavirus, 150 of Skico’s J-1 employees have made it back to their home countries, according to Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications.
Another 50 are stuck in the Aspen-Snowmass area and Skico officials were working to track down the whereabouts of the last 50 as of March 27.
“We’re just trying to stay in touch with everybody. Our senior management has been making phone calls several times a week to see if there is anyone in need,” Hanle said, noting that Skico is waiving April rent fees for the J-1 employees still in the company’s Aspen-Snowmass area housing.
“We’ll keep an eye out to see if anything else comes up and how else we can help.”
SAFETY AND SUPPORT
Although Skico is one of the largest J-1 exchange participant employers in the Aspen area, it isn’t the only company ensuring its international employees have a place to stay until they can return home.
On a recent afternoon at the Westin Snowmass Resort and Wildwood Lodge complex in Snowmass, most everything was shuttered and dark.
No one sat in the hotel lobbies. The outdoor pool covers were in place. The conference center and restaurants were empty.
However, 27 J-1 visa holders were still calling the complex home, staying in their hotel employee housing free of charge and eating two provided meals each day after being laid off due to COVID-19.
“I think the Westin management has been very helpful in keeping us calm, keeping us updated and checking in, wondering how we are,” said Nadiné Engelbrecht, a 20-year-old woman from South Africa.
“They’re very supportive and that’s the most important thing right now, especially for us who are so far away from home.”
Both Engelbrecht, who has worked at the Westin as a line cook since November, and Brenda Kambari, a 33-year-old woman from Zimbabwe who has worked as a front desk agent since December, were hired at the Westin/Wildwood complex on J-1 visas for a full year.
The women said they were drawn to the village resort location because of the mountains and the snow, which they’d never really experienced before.
“When I landed at Aspen airport I almost kissed the snow because it was the first time I saw the snow,” Kambari recalled, smiling. “I was so happy to see it and so happy to see all of the beautiful buildings and everything here.”
In early March when the numbers of COVID-19 cases began increasing in the U.S. and in Colorado, both Engelbrecht’s and Kambari’s initial inclinations were to get back to their home countries as soon as possible.
But after learning that their country’s borders were closed and thinking about how risky up to three full days of international travel would be to get there, Engelbrecht and Kambari decided to wait things out at the Westin/Wildwood complex, dipping into their savings a bit but staying positive about starting work again in May.
“When it got a bit worse, I then wanted to just book a ticket back home — you know you’d rather be with your family in this time,” Engelbrecht said.
“But I’ve read that young people can be carriers for COVID-19. I have a little sister, I have grandparents and I have parents that I live with. What’s not to say if I did go home I would have maybe infected them? I think this whole situation has helped me get a little more of that adult method of thinking.”
As some of the Westin/Wildwood J-1s wait for their home country’s borders to reopen so they can travel and others choose to stay at the complex until work resumes, general manager Jeffery Burrell said the resort is dedicated to supporting its international employees.
Through free accommodations, the free meals while food supplies last, and daily check-ins, Burrell said staff hope to support the J-1s in any way they can and help the ones who wish to return home when it is safe to do so.
Until the Westin and Wildwood resorts reopen, Engelbrecht will continue to help prepare daily meals for the complex’s J-1s, talk with her family at least three hours each day and color in an adult coloring book while Kambari said she will watch TV, gain support from her family and husband and meditate to keep calm and stay sane.
“This isn’t just something you can buy (your way out of), it’s a global thing. I think everyone has an idea of what’s going on because we’re all in this together,” Engelbrecht said. “I just think people need to take this more seriously and I know it’s a difficult situation, but don’t take your family time for granted. … Those who are quarantined with their families are very lucky.”
Natalka Melova, a 17-year-old Rotary Youth Exchange program student from Slovakia visiting Aspen on a J-1 visa expressed similar thoughts to Engelbrecht and Kambari.
Melova — who has been living and going to school in Aspen since August and is supposed to stay in town until June — said while she hasn’t felt too homesick or stressed over the coronavirus pandemic, she thinks it’s important for people to understand what it would feel like to be on their own, away from their families and in a different country during the global crisis.
“People have to understand how it is to be somewhere, 17 years old with all of this stuff going on,” Melova said.
“You sometimes feel very homesick but I don’t really because I have an amazing family and I set my mind to be happy, … but people should think about what it would be like to be in another country without the chance to go home right now.”
For Melova, the Aspen experience has been great so far. She’s lived with three different host families, rediscovered her love for skiing and met a lot of new and interesting people.
When the COVID-19 outbreak started to ramp up in the U.S. and Colorado, Melova said she didn’t think about leaving early at first. But now that the last leg of her U.S. trip (a whirlwind visit to 25 states in 28 days) has been canceled and her Rotary sponsors are encouraging her and the other exchange students still in Colorado to return home, Melova feels that is the best thing to do.
“I feel like I should go home for my health,” Melova said. “But I do think this whole thing makes me feel stronger and helps me to have more responsibility for my life. I had to decide if I want to stay here or not, I really had to think about it … so I’m glad that I’m growing (more mature) in this way.”
NAVIGATING THE UNKNOWN
But while J-1 visa holders like Melova have decided it’s best to go home early, many don’t know how early that may be.
In Melova’s case, Slovakia’s borders are shut down and she must wait for an evacuation flight into the country before she can leave the U.S. She plans to be home this week.
In Claudio Mendieta Canessa’s case, he’s stuck in Miami with little to no idea of when he’ll be able to catch a flight back to Peru.
“There are no plans about flights to get us back, or at least that we’ve been informed of,” Mendieta Canessa said via email. “We are not getting any kind of information on how Peru is going to handle our situation, when we are going to be allowed to go back or how.”
Mendieta Canessa, a 24-year-old Peruvian who worked at Snowmass Sports this winter season, took a chance by flying to Miami with another J-1 visa holder on March 25, knowing there were no direct flights from Denver to Lima, Peru, and not knowing how the pandemic would continue to evolve.
When the men arrived in Miami, they stayed in the airport about nine hours waiting for a flight. Mendieta Canessa said none showed up and that he hasn’t been able to reach anyone from the Peruvian consulate’s office since.
He said while he understands the pandemic isn’t an easy situation for anyone to manage, Mendieta Canessa never thought Peruvian authorities would make it this hard for its citizens to return home.
“I feel confident that I’ll be able to manage whatever situation comes my way. That being said, I am fortunate and grateful there’s people watching over me, friends and family,” Mendieta Canessa said. He’s staying with a cousin in Miami until he can get a flight back home and said he’s thankful his manager from Snowmass Sports, Cameron Wenzel, continues to check in on him.
“But not everyone can say the same; a great amount of J-1s are stuck here or somewhere else by themselves without resources and/or help to stay indefinitely.”
This uncertainty and potential danger of being stranded on the route back home is exactly why Trevor Moodie, store director at Clark’s Market in Snowmass Village, is encouraging his J-1 employees to stay in town until they have a definite way back to their countries.
Moodie, who is from New Zealand originally, says he understands how it can be scary to be away from home without your family during a time like this, but that he feels the safety and security of his J-1 employees is what’s most important.
“The navigation part can be so difficult because there are limited options for them to get home,” Moodie said. “Here, they have a place to stay, a job, money coming in… it’s a safe place to ride out until there are more flights available.”
Of course, every J-1 visa holder in the Aspen-Snowmass area and across the U.S. has their own experiences, opinions on whether to stay or go home, and connections to help them navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.
But for people like Perdomo, having a place to call home for the time being and a support system of other J-1 visa holders makes the difficult situation that much easier to work through.
“There is a percentage of J-1s that have jobs like us because we work in a store, but I know the hotels and restaurants and ski areas are shut down. Some of us are not in good situations and some of us are, but we all just want to come back to our countries,” Perdomo said.
“But J-1s are together, we’re like a family, so that’s a good way to be here. You’re not alone… I just really hope that all of us come back to our countries in a good and safe way.”
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