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Peruvian students holed up in Norwich as they wait out travel ban

Norwich — Seven Peruvian college students who traveled to Connecticut in December for a work exchange program are holed up in a Franklin Street apartment, waiting for the day their country will allow them to return.

They have food and some money, but they're not working and they miss their families, said one of the students, Xiomara Binas, 22, during a phone interview Thursday. The two men and five women, all ages 21 and 22, are living in a three-bedroom apartment.

They were working in food and beverage and retail positions at Foxwoods Resort Casino under J-1 visas, which offer cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States through a variety of programs overseen by the U.S. State Department, and bought plane tickets to return to Peru in mid-March. The casino, and their country, have since closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Airlines have dramatically reduced or canceled flights, and the students are unsure whether they will receive refunds from the airlines.

The South American country's president, Martín Vizcarra, declared a state of emergency and closed Peru's borders March 15 to stem the threat of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization reported that as of Wednesday, Peru had 437 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths. Other sources listed 580 confirmed cases.

"My country is not too rich as this country, so we can't have a lot of cases," Binas said. "Our hospitals are small and we can't afford it. The president had to take a hard position."

The Peruvian president on Thursday extended what started out as a 15-day travel ban through April 12.

The Day also is speaking with an American family who has relatives stranded in Peru, for an upcoming publication. A government employee told The New York Times earlier this week that about 13,500 Americans are stuck abroad. The U.S. State Department reported Thursday that it had arranged four flights to repatriate some of the Americans in Peru.

José Eduardo González, general counsel at the Peruvian consulate in Hartford, said 31 Peruvians are in Connecticut on J-1 visas and others are here as tourists. The country has 8,000 people visiting the U.S., most of them in Miami, New York, Denver and Los Angeles, he said.

"We are working to try to help them," he said of the students in Norwich. "Right now they are OK. I said to them, 'You have to stay here. You have to understand you are not the only people.'"

The Peruvian students say they have local sponsors who check on them. The group Peruanos Unidos De Connecticut, which advocates for Peruvians in Connecticut and celebrates the country's culture, contacted The Day about the students. A group of furloughed casino workers also is keeping an eye on the students and allowed them to post a link to a GoFundMe page, seeking help with airfare to return to Peru, on its Facebook page.

"We said, 'We'll help you in any way we can,'" said Valerie Mayze, a furloughed Foxwoods reservation agent who is an administrator for the Facebook page. Mayze said she has been in contact with some "higher ups" about the situation and that the students are considered part of "the Foxwoods family."

k.florin@theday.com

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