SAO PAULO – They live from donations, they sleep on mattresses and wash themselves with a hose in the restrooms. Some 200 Colombians have been “trapped” for many days at Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos international airport, Brazil’s largest air terminal, by the coronavirus pandemic and have been waiting for a “humanitarian flight” to be arranged to take them back home.
Whole families, some of them with babes in arms, elderly members and even pregnant women, have been camping out in four halls in Terminal No. 2 at the airport located in the Sao Paulo metro area without any clear idea how they are going to get back to their country.
“It’s a very degrading situation for us,” Daniel Gallo, a 25-year-old singer whose pre-booked concerts in Belo Horizonte were cancelled along with his return flight to Colombia scheduled for May 24, told EFE.
Among the group are tourists and students but also workers who lived in Brazil and lost their jobs overnight due to the social isolation measures that have paralyzed the economies of most of the Portuguese-speaking nation’s states.
Arnubia Narvaez, from the central Colombian city of Pereira, was one of the first to arrive at Guarulhos airport, where she has been staying for two weeks along with her husband, her two daughters ages 13 and 16, her siblings and nieces and nephews. She said that she has lost count of the days she’s been at the terminal.
“We don’t know if it’s day or night,” she said. She made her living in Sao Paulo selling clothing and by preparing typical Colombian food, but the virus, which in Brazil has killed some 23,000 people and infected at least 360,000, has left her and her family in an unsustainable situation.
“Not having any way to pay rent in houses, or to buy food, we’ve come here to ask the government of our country … to help us return home,” she told EFE.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the Colombian government has organized three “commercial” flights with permission to enter Brazil for humanitarian reasons, and 346 Colombians stranded in the neighboring country have been able to return home on them.
But Arnubia said that those flights “haven’t been humanitarian” since the passengers had to pay for their own tickets.
“For me, the word humanitarian is when you do something humane for people,” she emphasized.
“Many people don’t have any money to return to Colombia” because they were left without work by the pandemic and were “left out on the street,” tourist John Henao, 51, said.
He had intended to return by road from Rio de Janeiro to Leticia, Colombia, near the triple frontier including Brazil and Peru, but that route has been shut down.
Leaving Brazilian territory doesn’t seem like it’s coming soon. According to the Colombian Embassy in Brazil, “at this time” there has been no “confirmation of conducting another potential flight.”
In addition, the Colombian foreign affairs authorities said in a statement that “under the prevailing situation” arranging a free humanitarian flight “is not possible.”
One of the main complaints of the Colombians stranded at the airport is the lack of communication with their country’s diplomatic corps.
They say that Colombian consular personnel came to the airport some days ago to make a list of the citizens staying there but since then they haven’t returned and haven’t been in contact with any of the stranded people.
The consulate did offer them the chance to move to a municipal shelter in Sao Paulo, but they rejected that offer because of what some families had told them about the poor conditions in which locals were living there.
Colombian Foreign Minister Claudia Blum said last week that since the entry of international air travelers into Colombia was suspended about two months ago some 6,000 Colombians have been repatriated via flights on which they had to pay for their own tickets.
In addition, from Monday through June 3, expectations are that “more than 1,000 (of our) countrymen” from Cuba, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Italy will return to Colombia.
Without knowing when they’ll be able to set foot on Colombian territory again, the 200 unfortunates have already created their own routines at the airport.
They wash themselves with a small hose in the restrooms, they receive donations of food, facemasks and hand sanitizer from various associations and they have set up a space near the airport where they can cook their meals.
“We want to return to our homeland, we want to reunite with our families, we have children in Colombia who are waiting for us, we have our mothers who are anxiously waiting for us,” Daniel Gallo said in a message to Colombian President Ivan Duque.
Sandra Patricia Muñoz, 51, was fired from her job as a cook in Rio de Janeiro amid the health crisis. With her are five of her relatives and they are asking Duque “Please, put your hand on your heart (and help us).”
“If the people of Brazil have helped us, how can the president of our own land not help us?” she asked.