Behind Hotel Room Doors, Refugees Tell of Struggle and Survival

June 24, 2018 GMT

TEWKSBURY -- Since October, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports more than 19,000 survivors of hurricanes Irma and Maria have sheltered at hotels in 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico through its transitional sheltering assistance program.

For weeks the program’s deadline of June 30 has loomed over those who haven’t been able to find permanent housing, and remain in hotels. Below are the stories of just a few of the Hurricane Maria refugees who are currently staying at an Extended Stay America in Tewksbury.


What happened in Puerto Rico last September was brutal, Orlando Morales recalled from his hotel room on Father’s Day. With a pained look, he said Hurricane Maria was the most ferocious event to happen to the Caribbean, and to Puerto Rico.

After witnessing flooding and destruction in Toa Baja, his hometown on the island’s northern coast, the cancer survivor took his brother’s advice and left for the U.S. mainland on Oct. 25, 2017. He first stayed with a cousin but, once FEMA stepped in to help, he moved his belongings to shelter in the hotel.

Morales suffers from conditions including lymphedema and sleep apnea. His health has caused him to want to stay on the U.S. mainland. Morales said his cousin has helped him search for apartments and will continue to do so until it’s time for him to leave.

“I’ve been packing a bit,” Morales said as he pointed out two suitcases on the carpet floor. “But I have faith that I will find an apartment -- that the Puerto Rican families who are here won’t be left homeless. We have to find a solution.”


After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Dagmar Rivera did her best to remain in her apartment in San Juan. But a few months in, she said it became increasingly difficult to stay due to her poor health. Rivera is disabled and has lupus and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among other medical conditions.

Rivera has been staying in this hotel alone since December. She expressed gratitude to FEMA for the assistance but admitted feeling frustrated at times with her search for permanent housing. Rivera said she’s felt the cold shoulder from building managers when inquiring about apartments in the area.

She has no family here but for the one forged with other Puerto Ricans who have also sought shelter at the hotel. Seated last Wednesday in the room of Lizbeth Sandoval, another hurricane refugee, Rivera gripped her walking cane.

“Yo desconozco (I don’t know),” Rivera said in Spanish when asked what she will do come June 30. “Yo desconozco.”

Some people have told her the best choice would be to return to Puerto Rico. Rivera disagrees. She said she fears going back due to her fragile health because the power on the island remains inconsistent.

Rivera’s voice shook and she threw her hands up in despair.

“I need help. I’m not asking for anything to be handed to me. I was born in this country... and not just because we were born here, but we are part of the United States,” Rivera said through tears. “We aren’t being treated with dignity.”


When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Nelson Rivera found himself sheltering in place alone. He’s alone again, but this time on the U.S. mainland, at the Tewksbury hotel he’s been staying in since December.

“It’s been very, very difficult to try to lead a peaceful life,” he said. “I try to seek help but due to the conditions that I have, I can’t work.”

Rivera said he suffers from a host of medical issues that include depression, diabetes and problems with his mobility and eyes. He said he would like to stay here, if possible.

“There have been some good days, and some bad,” Rivera said.

But still, Rivera pointed out, he remains faithful that it will work out in the end.

Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.