Immigrant Helps Her Community Survive COVID-19. ‘We Were in the Shadows.’

Ethel Wirth, 35

Title: Founder of Se Fuerte Annapolis, a Facebook group for Latino immigrants. Wirth is maintenance manager for the Islamic Society of Annapolis and also works as a housecleaner.
Location: Annapolis, Maryland

In April 2020, Wirth, a bilingual Mexican immigrant launched a Facebook group in Spanish for Latino immigrants, some undocumented, who were seeking information about the COVID-19 pandemic. The group, Se Fuerte Annapolis (Be Strong Annapolis) provides a forum to exchange details on everything from where to get and donate food, how to find work or hire workers, and how to get vaccinated.

As told to Ruben Castaneda, as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you start a Facebook page in Spanish to help immigrants get through the COVID-19 pandemic?

We went into lockdown on March 11. At the end of March, I started getting phone calls from Spanish-speaking friends about how bad things were outside. People didn’t have money, many of them lost their jobs at restaurants, at hotels, in landscaping. They couldn’t buy things. They didn’t have food.

I thought: ‘There must be something we can do.’ I didn’t feel good doing nothing. I said to my friends, let’s do a Facebook group. We can swap grocery items that are hard to find — or if you needed something you can post that and maybe one of us will give it to you.

I was on other Facebook groups in the city. All the information about COVID-19 was in English. We didn’t have any in Spanish. It was hard for people to understand. I created the group on April 2. I expected we’d have maybe 10 people join. Within three days we had about 300 people. It kept growing. Now there are more than 5,000.

[Read: Unsung Heroes Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic.]

People weren’t just posting about food — they needed information: I need to go to the Motor Vehicle Administration, it’s closed, what can I do? Are these symptoms of COVID-19? What are the COVID-19 protocols when it comes to kids?

I started getting posts from educators — teachers explaining what was going on in schools. Some schools provided lunches outside the school, but required parents to come with kids to get the lunches. Many parents were sick with COVID-19 and couldn’t do that. I called the county through the multicultural affairs office, and a week or two weeks later, they waived that requirement. I don’t know if it’s because I told them, or they realized it didn’t make any sense, but they changed it. They know I’m very pushy. I felt that my community was in the shadows; that we were afraid to ask for help, that we were stranded.

At some point I think we immigrants thought that we were not entitled to ask for help. It felt like nobody was doing anything for us, and the COVID-19 protocols were made for a classic American family. You go to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website or the Anne Arundel County website, and it says if one person in your family gets sick, you isolate them in one room, and that person should have his or her own bathroom.

[Read: A Day in the Life of an ICU Nurse During the COVID-19 Pandemic.]

Immigrants usually don’t have that kind of space. We could be a family of four living in one room with one bathroom. Many immigrants are working-class or poor. That’s how we live in order to afford rent. Ninety percent of us have roommates. Sometimes the roommates are a family of four. It was hard, everybody in a household would get sick. The federal help started coming in but undocumented immigrants didn’t qualify for any of that; didn’t qualify for food stamps or unemployment.

There was nothing for the immigrant community. Some people were afraid to even go to a church food pantry, they thought it was only for American citizens. They were afraid to get tested for COVID-19, they thought you needed to be an American citizen or have insurance to get tested. I posted that If you were having trouble breathing, you were OK to call 911. You could go to the hospital and get help, no matter your status.

In the beginning, there were barely any jobs. Now it’s much different. People are going back to work. Business owners reach out to me and join the group to look for employees. Here in Annapolis, there’s a crisis. Businesses don’t have enough employees. People with legal status are still receiving unemployment so some don’t want to go back to work. Landscaping, restaurant work, cleaning, construction. People post if they have certain skills and are looking for a job.

County and city authorities have told me that the Facebook group is a great tool to reach out to the community. I get posts from the health department, the libraries, the city of Annapolis. I feel this page is connecting people. If we hadn’t opened this page, we would be in a worse position than we are now.

[See: A Look at Hospitals, Health Care Workers Fighting the Coronavirus Pandemic.]

I do this all on my phone. I don’t have a laptop. I cannot say I am happy or glad about what we’ve done. Last week someone reached out to me and said, ‘My daughter is 29 years old, she has DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), she doesn’t have health insurance and she has a daughter who’s losing her hearing and eyesight because for a year during the pandemic she went without medical treatment.’ That’s just one example. There are so many people who need help.

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