Displaced by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans seek new lives in Syracuse

Feb 12, 2018

The Young Women's Christian Association or YWCA of Syracuse, along with churches and other community groups in the area, have been working to help the people of Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit the island in September. Some Puerto Ricans, displaced by the hurricane, have made their way to Syracuse, to stay with family and friends and start new lives.

After Hurricane Maria, Dorothy Huertas and her husband, who live in Syracuse, received a call from a friend they have known for 20 years, Jorge Luis Rodriguez Malave, who lives in Puerto Rico.

“He was homeless," Huertas said. "He lost everything in Puerto Rico. My husband goes, ‘What do you need from me?’”

They bought Malave a plane ticket and drove to Philadelphia to get him.

“We picked him up," Huertas said. "We gave him a place to stay and tried to do what we can do. He came with one little bag.”

Malave has been staying with the Huertas in Syracuse since October. Malave’s wife, Zaida, has joined them. He said before the hurricane, things were great in Puerto Rico. Then it all started going downhill.

"There was no light, no water, no food where I was," Malave said through a translator. He is from the city of Yauco.

But Malave said since coming to Syracuse, he has decided to stay here and he has started looking for a permanent place to live.

"It's been hard, I don't know much English," Malave said. He said the first thing he wants to do is learn the language to get a secure job.

Fanny Villarreal is the executive director of the YWCA in Syracuse. She greeted families from Puerto Rico into the building from the winter weather outside, earlier in January.

“We want to give them a warm welcome in this cold weather,” Villareal said.

Inside the gym, there were donated clothes, winter jackets, toys, and a spread of hot food.

“Habichuelas, that’s beans, then you have white rice and empanadas,” Villareal said.

It was a meet-and-greet the YWCA hosted for residents to get to know displaced Puerto Rican families and determine what they need. Villarreal estimates there are around 25-40 families in Syracuse that came from Puerto Rico after the hurricane, but she said it is hard to know for sure.

“I’m thinking the housing is the number one priority because here you have to have security deposit, first rent, last rent," Villareal said. "Believe it or not, when they came here, they dropped everything, they left everything, so that’s the hardest part. How do you get that funding?”

The YWCA does provide some housing, but to women and children only. Villarreal said others are staying with families, friends and in hotels.

Sarah Merrick is the commissioner of Social Services-Economic Security for Onondaga County.

“Anyone who doesn’t have the means to pay for rent, or needs assistance for extra money for food can come down to the Civic Center and we can assist them,” Merrick said.

Her department administers federal and state programs like temporary cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid to county residents. Merrick said after the hurricane, there was some sense that thousands of Puerto Ricans were going to resettle in upstate New York.

“We have not seen it," Merrick said. "We’ve seen a few here and there. We’re monitoring the situation, but it's been a handful of individuals. I am anticipating they’re trying to figure it out. If they’re going to stay here long term, maybe they will seek our assistance. We’re prepared.”

The challenge continues for people that want to help, like Luz Encarnacion. Through the YWCA, and support from the community, she went to Puerto Rico with a shipping container to distribute supplies.

“They are so proud of being Puerto Ricans," Encarnacion said. "You see the flags in almost every house. You see the flags in the cars. They’re patriotic. It gives you that sensation like, we’re here, we’re not dying, we’re going to work together, we’re going to face this.”

But she admitted, the devastation she saw across the entire island was sometimes beyond words.