Caribbean Students Endure Hurricane Season Away from Home

Photo by Andrea Johnson.
Diane Charles, an international Dominican student, waited nearly three days to hear from family after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

By Andrea Johnson

The Razorback Reporter

Since Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean and damaged thousands of homes, including those of UA international students, various campus groups have organized efforts to support those affected here and abroad.

Maria made landfall as a Category 5 hurricane over Dominica around 9:15 p.m., Sept. 18, according to the National Hurricane Center.

From Fayetteville, junior Diane Charles could only watch, wait and pray as Maria plummeted toward her home in Dominica.

A text message from her brother alerted her that the storm had taken the roof from their home, and as the storm persisted in its course, the updates came less frequently, Charles said. By midnight, she lost communication from home but stayed awake, checking for news and changes in the weather until 3 a.m.

“It was terrifying,” Charles said. “I was crying a lot that night; we were all just crying, praying and praying.”

Charles received a text message from her brother the evening of Sept. 21, informing her that her family survived the hurricane. Communication from family and friends came sporadically in the following days.

Ninety-eight students from countries in the Caribbean attend the UofA, according to preliminary numbers in the Fall 2017 Enrollment Report by Country of Citizenship. The majority of these students came from the Bahamas and Dominica with 61 and 11 students, respectively.

Undergraduate students who are citizens and permanent residents of qualifying Caribbean countries can receive the UA Caribbean Tuition Advantage, which may cover up to 90 percent of the out-of-state portion of tuition depending on GPA and test scores, according to the UA International Admissions website.

Michael Freeman, director of International Students and Scholars, identified communication as a problem for Caribbean students in the U.S. who cannot communicate with family abroad after Maria hit the islands.

Although ISS staff cannot provide means of communication to areas where phone and internet services are malfunctioning, ISS staff works with students’ problems individually, such as finding ways to work within Department of Homeland Security regulations for students who cannot get money from home, Freeman said. He advises those who want to contribute toward relief efforts to seek out an organization with the capability to do so.

“We have learned over the years that students may collect a lot of donations, and they had no way to get it to the people that really need it,” Freeman said.

UA Dominican students contacted various UA offices and organizations to help publicize a donation drive for items deemed urgently needed by a list released through the Office of the Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.  The students wanted to focus on the needs of women and children and will accept relevant donations in the Sam M. Walton College of Business’ Office of Diversity and Inclusion until Oct. 13, Charles said.

“We want to do our part, even if we are far away,” Charles said.

Two students from Dominica also approached Jacey Sites, senior president of the UA Red Cross Registered Student Organization, about getting involved with relief efforts. To Sites, directing blood donations from the RSO’s BIG Fall Blood Drive toward natural disaster relief seemed like the best way to help, she said.

The BIG Fall Blood Drive is scheduled for 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Oct. 5 and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 6 in the Verizon Ballroom in the Arkansas Union.

UA Red Cross officers began planning the blood drive before the peak of hurricane season, but Sites thinks the greater student response can be attributed to a general desire to help victims of recent natural disasters, she said.

In the spring, one student unaffiliated with the RSO volunteered to help at the blood drive. As of Sept. 29, 80 students had signed up to volunteer through the Volunteer Action Center.

To Caribbean students, hurricane season is a part of life, said Cherrianne Davis, a sophomore from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Each year, they expect and prepare for storms at home by taking actions such as gathering dry foods, securing their roofs and barring windows, Charles said.

“There’s always a hurricane season, but it’s different this year,” Davis said. “They keep coming like there’s not a break.”

UA Caribbean students braced for Hurricane Irma, and although most of their homes abroad were not directly affected, their islands still displayed effects of the storms.

“When we say it didn’t affect us, we just mean it didn’t pass directly over us, but we still get all the side effects – the sea surging, the winds, the rains,” Davis said. “… The hurricane itself might not pass over us, but we are still generally affected as a Caribbean.”

A version of this article appeared in The Arkansas Traveler.

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