Displaced by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican children trace new path in Central Florida

ORLANDO | Looking tired and overwhelmed, Samiliz Ruiz Collazo, 10, and her brother Mizraim, 14, hugged their teary grandmother at Orlando Sanford International Airport Friday after their trip from Puerto Rico.

 

“I don’t remember what that looked like,” Samiliz said, pointing to one of the neon lights over the baggage claim area. At night, their home on the east side of the island has been without power for nearly a month.

Samiliz and Mizraim, had said a temporary goodbye to their parents and their cousins earlier in the day when they left San Juan, en route to an indefinite stay at the Deltona home of their grandmother, Beatriz Rodriguez.

The children spent the early hours of Sept. 20 hiding from Hurricane Maria’s winds in the bathroom of their home in El Verde barrio of Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.

The traumatic storm took their water cistern, ripped off the zinc roof attached to the side of the house, left Brenda Collazo and Samuel Ruiz without power or water and limited phone signal. Their mother doesn’t have a job and their father’s position at a nearby supermarket is now uncertain because commercial distributions in their area have been halted for weeks.

It only made sense for them to send their two children to stay with their grandmother.

So Tuesday, the children will join 36 other displaced Puerto Rican students who have enrolled in Volusia County schools since the storm hit the island, leaving most of its 1,112 public schools inoperable.

Rodriguez’s home in Central Florida, where she’s lived for the three years since she moved from the island, has a spacious backyard where she grows chile peppers, pigeon peas, and quenepas — a slimy, sweet, round fruit also called Spanish lime, commonly grown in Caribbean climates.

Hurricane Irma did not damage her Deltona home. But Rodriguez’s voice cracks when she talks about the vast destruction she sees in her homeland, most of which she’s experienced through videos and photos online.

“I don’t know how they’ll get here emotionally,” Rodriguez said.

She bought two cases of Malta India — a popular soft drink in Puerto Rico — and arranged the beds of the two rooms from which her grandchildren can choose, as she prepared for their arrival.

On one of the doors still hangs a ripped piece of paper from last summer where Samiliz wrote in permanent marker, “Passwerd” and drew a pinpad of numbers below.

“I feel pretty calm. They can be one month, two months without their parents, because they’re used to spending summers with me,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said Collazo and her husband are making plans to visit for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But back in Puerto Rico, Collazo admits she still worries about supplying herself and her elderly neighbors with enough food and drinkable water.

Michelle Collazo, Brenda’s older sister, has been living in Central Florida for almost 20 years.

“Brenda called me yesterday and said, ‘Let me know if you hear of any jobs,’” Michelle Collazo said. “… This is the first time she’s asked. I think she’s starting to think, ‘I have to go.’”

The third Collazo sister, Beatriz, briefly considered sending her two daughters to be with her mother and sister. But they both attend Saint Francis School, a private school in Puerto Rico that has been operating for over a week.

The Collazo family’s strong ties to Central Florida are not unique, and schools throughout Florida are gearing up to receive hundreds — and likely thousands — of Puerto Rican students like Samiliz and Mizraim.

Nancy Wait, a spokeswoman for public schools in Volusia County, said the county overestimated how many students they would receive this year, which means they’ll have more seats and space for Puerto Rican students. It’s a choice many are making: In Central Florida, 292 Puerto Rican students enrolled in Orange County, 110 in Osceola and 40 in Seminole counties as of last week.

“We know it’s traumatic. … We’ll do whatever we need to do to make sure they get in a classroom as soon as possible,” Wait said.

Displaced students in Volusia County will fall under a homeless children category. That means that not only are they not required to show birth certificates, immunization or official report cards, they also qualify for other programs, like free lunches.

 

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