Nearly three months after Hurricane Maria, hundreds of Puerto Rican families continue to pour into Northeast Ohio, looking to escape the wreckage they left behind.
"They come from having, you know, everything on the island to in a couple hours, losing everything they’ve owned and having to come to a foreign place to them,” said Jose Gonazlez, director of the Multilingual Multilingual Office for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
The school district is one of the many Ohio groups helping Puerto Rican families secure the basics like shelter, food and clothing, but for those working to create a new life here, the basics are just the start.
Settling into School
On a normal day at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, the first thing you might notice walking in the front door are the flags; rows and rows of tiny flags from different countries cover the ceiling, but over the past three months, the school’s front lobby has become a waiting room. At any given time, half a dozen or more families who moved from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria fill the chairs, hoping to register their children for school.
"Right now, with this influx, we have seen more than we do in summer reigstration," said Senaida Perez, CMSD's family engagement and student support coordinator.
Since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico September 20, Perez and her colleagues have enrolled about 275 new students from the island.
It's a choatic scene as parents calm infants and attempt to entertain young children, all while students shuffle through the lobby between their classrooms, gymnasium and cafeteria.
The Placement Process
Before a child can begin in a CMSD classroom, each must go through a registration process that includes a language assessment.
During these assessments, students sit with staff members of the Multicultural Multilingual Office and are asked to answer questions out loud or read short passages in English to measure their proficiency in the language. The assessment helps the district determine how much help a student will need, if they should be placed in a special classroom for English Language Leaners or need an aid to help translate English instructions.
Normally, there are enough of these language resources to go around, but Multilingual Program Manager Sam Roman said that's starting to change.
"Multilingual sites that have comprehensive services for our English learners are getting full," Roman said.
Thomas Jefferson is one of those comprehensive sites. The school caters to immigrant and refugee families who come to Cleveland, providing them with the additional support they need to adjust both to the new language and new culture.
But Thomas Jefferson has stopped accepting Puerto Rican students. Classrooms there are at capacity, and Perez said the district needs to hold spaces for newly arrived refugees who need the highly specialized services the school provides.
Madalyn Rosario was able to get her three kids into the school right before the cut off. They arrived in October and started class soon after.
The two oldest are used to it, Rosario said, but her youngest daughter, age 6, is still adjusting.
Helping Children Cope with Trauma
Rosario had worried about how well her children would adjust to a new home and new school after experiencing the storm first hand.
She recalled how her 10-year-old, Alex, hid under a blanket as Maria charged across the island, covering his ears to block out the sound. Rosario herself became ill after the hurricane, she said from the stress of having to provide for her children in distressed conditions. Her home flooded and her family spent days without electrictiy and running water.
The district trains teachers to help children deal with trauma. Through specialized curriculum, students are encouraged to share their feelings and are taught how to support each other.
Rosario said her children have made friends at their school. Some are also from Puerto Rico and share similar stories. That’s helped, she said, but getting students into a classroom and helping them cope, those are only the start.
After finding a school, many families shift their focus to finding work.
In Puerto Rico, Rosario was a welder for a company that assembled airplanes. It was a good job, but she doesn’t plan to go back.
"Porque acá hay más oportunidades," Rosario said, because there are more opportunities here.
The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College estimates as many as 11,000 Puerto Ricans will come to Ohio over the next couple of years.
For many, finding a job will be key to making that move permanent. That’s the case for Elvin Colon, who moved to Cleveland a few weeks.
For Some, a Job Means Reuniting with Family
On the island, Colon worked as a nurse, but he needs a paycheck now.
He left his partner behind as he travelled to Ohio to stay with a cousin. She is eight months pregnant, and he wants to bring her here as soon as he can. So, Colon took the first job he could get, packing boxes for a local plumbing supply company.
He said he does want to get back into nursing, calling it his passion, but he’ll have to get an Ohio license and improve his English first. For now, he's focused on what he said are the three most important things in his life.
"Mi parre, mi mio, y mi futuro," Colon said, my partner, my son and my future.
Challenges Remain for Workers and Employers Alike
Colon is like a lot of recent arrivals that Carmine Izzo sees.
Izzo runs the Cleveland-based staffing firm Amotec and said many of the newly arrived Puerto Ricans he's encountered are highly-skilled and highly-educated, but speak limited English. That’s a problem, Izzo said, when they choose Northeast Ohio.
"In our Miami office, if you speak Spanish you’re fine, you can find work tomorrow," he said, "but in the Greater Cleveland area, you need to speak English."
Over the past couple of months, Amotec has seen a surge in Puerto Rican job seekers. Before Maria, Izzo said his firm would place two to five jobseekers a week.
"Now, we're up to 10, 15, sometimes 20 a week," he said.
To handle the influx, his company has hired a bilingual recruiter to help overcome the language barrier, but for new arrivals, just getting prepared to work can be a struggle.
"They don’t have a car. They don’t have steel toed boots," he said. "They don’t have a suit."
But Izzo believes the expanded labor pool could be an opportunity for some local businesses who are short-staffed.
The Centers for Families and Children in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood is also working to connect employers with Puerto Ricans looking for work. The nonprofit social services agency holds job-hunting seminars specifically for Spanish speakers-- helping them craft resumes and prepare for interviews.
As many as half of the seminar attendees at any given class could be from Puerto Rico, including 27-year-old Abimelec Rivera who arrived in Cleveland in November.
Rivera doesn’t have any family in Ohio, just a relative of a friend from the island. And although he's still looking for a job, he said he feels good about his prospects.
"Difficulties don't exist; it's a mindframe that you choose," he said. "I never put myself in a place where I can't move foward. Always positive." But then, he paused, sniffed and began to wipe tears from his eyes.
The mental toll the move has taken on many Puerto Rican families is ripe in Rivera, who said he hasn't spent a lot of time thinking about what's down the road for him.
It’s a reminder that even as Puerto Ricans take steps to settle down here, the emotional scars of leaving home are still raw.