Dipinder Manocha weeps as he recalls his time outside of Trinidad during the COVID-19 lockdown during an interview at his home in Gulf View yesterday.

“We felt abandoned.”

These were the tearful words of prominent businessman Dipinder Manocha as he recalled the mental anguish of his four-month struggle to return home after the borders closed in March.

During an interview at his Gulf View home yesterday, Manocha, 66, said the experience has left him broken.

“Even to date, it is almost three weeks, I can’t go to work. I am lost. I can’t find myself. I just can’t relate, is like I am numb. It is like a bad dream. It had changed me to see that I had to fight to come back home,” Manocha said.

Scared, lonely and unsure of when he would return home, Manocha said what kept him sane and gave him strength was the support from other stranded Trinidadians.

India-born Manocha left T&T on March 11 to visit his 90-year-old mother in India but on March 21 he cut short his visit after learning T&T’s borders were going to be closed.

In a desperate attempt to catch the last flight to Trinidad from Miami, Manocha flew from Dehli to Singapore and then Tokyo, but when he reached Los Angeles—the last stop before Miami—the flight was delayed due to a COVID-19 scare. Having missed the flight, he checked into a hotel in Miami and remained in self-isolation as a precaution.

Alone in his hotel room, he began to feel frightened as time passed with no word from the T&T government on when he could return home. He applied to the Ministry of National Security for an exemption four times but got no acknowledgment. He missed his family and would video chat with them but at one point he was thrown into an emotional state after he one of his sons had to undergo an emergency bypass surgery. He eventually linked up with other stranded Trinidadians on social media.

“We started a group on Facebook, assist each other emotionally, and when we were doing that it gave us comfort that at least we were able to help each other in this process. Then we were told that we need to apply as a group because group applications could be done faster.”

Being on that group, however, also took an emotional toll on him because people shared their stories about hardships they were facing.

Recalling some of them, a weeping Manocha said, “It was heart-breaking. A mother had to feed (her) baby sugar water. So the group got together to send money to this woman.”

He recalled seeing a Trinidadian couple with a baby camping out at the Miami International Airport. He said that family bought all their meals at a fast-food outlet at the airport and used the washroom facilities.

It was that pain and suffering that gave birth to a father and son

He and fellow Trinidadian Nicholas Ramcharitar, an oil and gas worker whom he had never met before April, and five other Trinidadians, two of whom had stage four cancer, would meet regularly during the period.

“And we started to help each other emotionally, so we would go for a roti, go for doubles and laugh and talk.”

Noting that other Caribbean countries were making arrangements for their nationals to return home, he said they could not understand why T&T was treating them as outcasts.

He said he and the other six Trinidadians then made their way to Antigua, where they were treated with respect.

“We were treated as if we were Antiguans. We were welcomed. We followed protocols with masks, sanitise hands, it was more like self-quarantine.”

Eventually, he said the two cancer patients and their spouses got exemptions. After spending almost six weeks in Antigua, Manocha said he was forced to take legal action.

Within seven days he and the other Trinis got exemptions to return home. They arrived in Trinidad on July 24 but the treatment meted out to them turned their happiness into anger.

Summing up his experience at the Piarco International Airport as inhumane, he said, “We came through an emotional storm, mental fatigue, physically tired and we were treated as if we were criminals.”

Ramcharitar left the country on February 26 to work for three weeks in Saudi Arabia. On the day he was leaving to return home, the Saudi Arabian government closed the airport for two weeks and then T&T borders were closed. He made his way to Florida and stayed with his cousin and connected with other Trinidadians on social media exploring avenues to return home. He said the harsh social media comments from fellow Trinidadians to the plight of stranded citizens were also heart-breaking.

Together, Manocha and Ramcharitar spent about $200,000 while stranded abroad. But they said many people still stranded don’t have any financial support and are barely surviving. They called on the Government to set up a repatriation hub for citizens and start bringing home 200 citizens every two weeks.

—Sascha Wilson