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'We are abandoned': These tourists stranded in the U.S. because of coronavirus want to go home

Over 1,000 tourists from Argentina ended up in Miami, exhausting their money and supplies. Some have lost jobs as they've waited to return.
Edgardo Zeheiri with his daughters and wife.
Edgardo Zeheiri with his daughters and wife.Courtesy of Edgardo Zeheiri

MIAMI — Analía and her husband, Mariano, are desperately trying to follow the strict stay-at-home orders mandated around the world. The problem is they haven't been able to get home.

The couple are among over a thousand tourists from Argentina who have found themselves stranded in Miami, some for over two months.

They arrived in the U.S. just a few days before Argentina responded to the threat of COVID-19 by closing its borders in mid-March and then shutting down repatriation flights, leaving about 10,000 Argentines traveling abroad without a way to get back.

At the time, the couple had budgeted just enough to sustain them for a short trip. Now, they are running out of money — and they are increasingly desperate.

"My husband has diabetes, and we are both immunocompromised," said Analía, 56, who requested that their last name not be used.

"In the beginning, the most important thing was getting a prescription for insulin," Analía said. "It wasn't covered by insurance, because we were here. We had to spend $1,000 on enough for a month."

"We are abandoned," she said, adding that they feel "vulnerable" in a foreign country.

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In early May, Argentina began allowing its citizens to trickle back into the country — but there are limited flights every week, ensuring that many will be stranded for weeks to come.

Monica Grande, 51, and her husband, Martín Paravecchi, arrived in Miami from Buenos Aires in late February, intending to stay for a couple of weeks.

"When you think you're coming for a week and it lasts longer, most can manage financially for maybe another week," Grande said. "But not longer than a month."

From left, Argentine tourists Jonatan Lopez, 33, Guillermo Hernandez, 29, and Noelia Perales, 34, in an abandoned home where they were living on April 10, 2020, in Miami's Liberty City after their flights back home were canceled.Matias J. Ocner / Miami Herald / TNS via Getty Images

The cost of living is steeper for Argentines, whose currency, the peso, is much weaker than the dollar, and their purchases are also subject to a 30 percent foreign currency tax from their government.

Some stranded tourists have had to seek shelter in abandoned homes, crowd with strangers in motel rooms and max out their lines of credit as they endure the lockdown away from their home country.

Some have lost their jobs, Grande said. She knows of people who traveled without their laptops, and now, in the U.S., "they had to choose between 'I buy a computer and work from home or I eat and find a hotel to stay,'" she said.

Seeking help, forming a community

The tourists say their repeated calls and requests to the Argentine consulate in Miami and the Argentine Embassy in Washington didn't yield much help except for a list of hotels, though Grande said she recently heard "they have reached out to some people with medical problems," to get them on flights."

Still, this has come after almost two months in the U.S., and during that time, Paravecchi and others decided to turn to one another for support through websites, WhatsApp and Instagram. They use the platforms to share information on securing food, medicine and accommodations, finding one another from afar via the hashtag #varadosenmiami ("stranded in Miami") and spreading their message through #queremosvolveracasa, ("we want to return home").

"These people need help, and we want to help them," Grande said. "So we organized social networks to help in different categories: food, medicine, flights, visa information and accommodation. We formed a full-fledged crisis management team and two GoFundMe pages to help pay for essentials, especially medicine."

An Argentine woman holds up a sign that reads "Stranded in the USA," at the Miami International Airport.Monica Grande

Grande said the consular office in Miami sent out an alert to Argentine Americans about the tourists' situation. Between that and the tourists' social media mobilization, Miami's Argentine community has responded.

"They are donating, opening their homes and taking food to those who need it. We just tell them who needs what, and they get it done," she said.

The consular office in Miami referred NBC News to the embassy in Washington, which hadn't yet responded.

"What we have found is that even though times are hard, there are people who want to help," Grande said. "It is inspiring. We were all strangers, and now we are in this together."

'We have formed a little family'

"I am putting everything on this credit card, and when it fills up, I don't know what I will do," said Edgardo Zehiri, 47, of Cordoba, Argentina. "But for now, I have no choice."

Zehiri, along with his wife and two teenage daughters, is part of a group of 20 people who have sought refuge at a hotel by Miami International Airport. "We are in a private room," he said, "but there are people in this group who are sharing rooms and beds with strangers."

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"We are from all over Argentina — from Salta, La Pampa, Santiago, Cordoba, Buenos Aires — who are anywhere from 15 to 90 years old," he said.

Argentines staying at the Clarion Inn Hotel in Miami receive a food delivery sent by Argentine-Americans.Edgardo Zeheiri

They are hoping each passing day will bring good news. Without knowing when they will be able to get a flight, it's hard to plan — even to know how much food to buy.

"We have formed a little family in another country. Everyone has a role," Zehiri said. "The young men walk to different supermarkets and shop. The people who can cook, cook. We all make the same meal and eat together.

"But it is getting harder and harder each day," he added. "We just want to come home."

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