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Some Puerto Ricans who fled island face greater challenges in midstate

Written by Rachel McDevitt | Apr 2, 2018 7:00 AM
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Executive Director Gloria Vazquez Merrick helps children at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg. (Photo: Tom Downing/WITF)

(Harrisburg) -- More than six months ago, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, devastating the island and sending thousands stateside in search of a better life.

While people who stayed are still without power in some areas and hundreds of homes remain damaged, those who left are facing their own challenges, often with limited resources. 

Carmen Carmona has found a lifeline in the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg since her family of five moved from Puerto Rico in January.

"I've found many little angels," Carmona said through a translator. "We're not blood, but they really act like it."

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Three-year-old Keilianys Torres Carmona colors at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center. (Photo: Tom Downing/WITF)

Carmona heard about the center just days after she arrived in the midstate. They've been helping her find clothing and addressing question about her applications for assistance. She says they've saved her life making phone calls with her, since she does not speak much English. 

Hurricane Maria turned Carmona and her family's lives upside down. It badly damaged their home in Carolina, near the capital San Juan. But, her application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair it was denied and they had to spend three months in a shelter before they could leave. 

Now, her family is trying to find its way in the midstate. Carmona's working with the community center as she looks for a permanent home.

Her current living situation has become a huge source of stress.

Carmona's family came to Harrisburg because her brother in law was already there and could offer them a place to stay, but the home wasn't what she expected.

As she described it, she started to cry.

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Carmen Carmona tears up as she describes her living situation. (Photo:Tom Downing/WITF)

"When we arrived, we thought my brother-in-law and his wife lived there," she said. "But when we got there we found him, his wife, his mother-in-law, and ten more siblings. It's been really hard. With the little we had, we bought food and they ate it all. They didn't leave any food for the kids. What's been horrible is now they're turning off the heat."

She said her brother in law drastically lowered the heat in the middle of February, during her family's first winter. Carmona suspects it's because he wants them out of the house.

Her children-- ages 12, five and three -- cry when they have to take a bath, because it's so cold.

Carmona's husband was able to get a job with Vantage Foods in Camp Hill, Cumberland County, right after their move. However, she's not working right now in order to care for their youngest child, who's not old enough for school.

"What I need is my own space, where my children can be at ease," she said. 

But saving for the first month's rent and security deposit has been challenging with only one income. After all, the family had to scrape together their savings just to get off the island.

In spite of all this, Carmona's optimistic. She almost needs to be. 

"Right now it is not worth the pain to return to Puerto Rico," she said. "Everything looks like it's getting back to normal over there, but it's horrible."

Things are starting to look up for Carmona and her family. She recently received a voucher from Help Ministries in Harrisburg, which provides emergency rental assistance, to help secure an apartment.

"Our plan is to stay here. Only God knows what's going to happen next, really, but right now we don't plan to go back," Carmona said. 

Part of the plan is to take English classes, so she can get a job when her youngest child starts school next year. She was a nurse in Puerto Rico, but she says she'll work whatever job she can get, to make a better life for her children here. 

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Carmen Carmona poses with her children Keilianys and Caleb. (Photo: Tom Downing/WITF)

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