Sean Samba in Brazil
By Sue Ann Wayow
BETRAYED, abandoned and forgotten.
This was how Sean Samba felt he was treated by the government of Trinidad and Tobago for the majority of 2020.
Samba, a part-time lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI), is one of the many citizens who were stuck outside when the country closed its borders on March 22.
Samba has since returned to his home, his only home he emphasised, in August but there are still mixed feelings about his homecoming.
He spoke last Thursday at an event to commemorate International Human Rights Day organised by EveryTTCitizensMatter and also featured Dr Karen Sohan-Seenath, a fellow citizen, who was also repatriated.
He shared more details about his experience with AZPNews.com with the hope that citizens of T&T be allowed their fundamental right of being able to return to the place they call home.
Samba, who lives in Tacarigua, left Trinidad on January 2 to go to Brazil via Panama along with about 20 other UWI staff members and their friends on an educational trip.
The trip was organised by UWI’s International Office for its UWI Discover Series. Samba was the academic advisor for the group that stayed in Brazil visiting three cities for two weeks.
The Discover Series offers study tours that provide immersion in the culture, history, politics, architecture and people of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries. The project was started at the St Augustine Campus in 2012 with an inaugural visit to India.
The group left when their time was up, but, Samba, who is pursuing his doctorate in cultural studies, had stayed on to do additional field research with intention of leaving Brazil at the end of April.
However, things did not go as planned and Samba was stuck in the Portuguese-speaking country for approximately another month eventually leaving on May 24 because of the closure of borders in both T&T and Panama.
In March, he had reached out to the T&T Embassy in Brasilia, and Samba was told the embassy was awaiting information from the government.
“They were also very clear to say they had no money. If we needed any financial help, we had to find it ourselves, ask our family and friends to help,” Samba said.
While speaking to relatives in New York, a US state that was already recording high numbers of Covid-19, Samba was encouraged to travel there because it may have been easier to return home from the US instead of Brazil.
He was further advised to leave Brazil as soon as possible because US President Donald Trump was going to announce closure of US borders to non-US citizens soon.
In order to get to New York, he had to book a flight from Brazil to Miami, Florida, first, because Brazil was only allowing flights to Miami and to Europe at that time.
He described his flight out of Brazil on May 24 as a miracle.
“I was in the airport when I got the news that President Trump had just announced that all persons who were not US citizens were not allowed to enter the country. Thank God that policy was not in effect immediately.
“The airline was kind of holding up wondering what to do, but everything was already in place so we left. I do not know what would have happened if I did not leave that particular day.”
Trump’s May 24 proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Non-immigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Novel Coronavirus, had specifically mentioned those travelling from Brazil where Covid-19 cases were reported to be among the highest in the world.
Although grateful for the hospitality shown to him by his family in New York, Samba longed for home.
He signed up with a group on Facebook citizens seeking to return to Trinidad and Tobago for support and encouragement upon arrival in New York. Some of those individuals were elderly persons, businessmen and students who had completed their studies. Finances were depleted and visas were expiring.
News of other Caribbean countries assisting their students gave him some hope as he read reports about countries such as Jamaica and Barbados organising chartered flights to get their nationals out of foreign countries.
The Facebook group that he joined had initially applied jointly for exemptions at the end of May, but, requests were immediately turned down with no reasons given. The group eventually found out that exemptions will not granted collectively but individually.
“We had to go through the entire process all over again,” Samba said.
By early June, persons had re-applied individually for their exemptions.
Samba said, “When you are out somewhere and something happens, your first inclination is to go back home. This was a time when your passport was worth nothing. I felt like I was in exile. I felt forgotten, abandoned and a gigantic betrayal by my own country. Every day was a struggle. I longed for home.”
He continued, “I never had a clear sense of the exemption process. It was absolute torture, just waiting and waiting for a positive response. It was very insensitive the way we were treated.”
Samba was eventually granted exemption and was able to board a flight out of the US to return to Trinidad and Tobago on August 28.
Undergoing the hassle from airport to quarantine facility, Samba also expressed similar concerns shared by others who have spoken about their experience upon return.
And while he is here in Trinidad, some persons from that group were still on the waiting list to be granted an exemption.
He still keeps in touch with some of them especially those who have returned to Trinidad at least virtually.
Samba said, “You are being treated as though you don’t belong. We are citizens of this beloved country. We have to question why our rights are being denied? This thing that we call home, we really need to question if this is indeed our home. We are all prisoners here in our own country.
“It is very strange feeling being back home. People who I also thought I could have depended on, they did not reach out. Some also had insensitive remarks to be made. This Covid-19 period has really shown up some of our true colours.”
His hope is that all nationals who are still stranded outside will be able to return home soon.