What started off as a discussion platform for stranded Keralites who were desperate to reach home grew into a thriving support group with hundreds of members.

A zoom meeting screenshot of 7 men From L to R Mohammad Fazal, Rahul Soman, Murali Das Mohan, Nishil Mohammad, Vishal Puthalath, Prasanth Venugopalan, Jimmy Antony. Founders of the WhatsApp group.
news Coronavirus Thursday, July 16, 2020 - 12:40

On March 24, Rahul Soman was streaming the news at his residence in Robert Park, San Francisco, when Indian Prime Minister Modi announced a nationwide lockdown. The 36-year-old techie from Kerala had been sent to the US on an assignment and was slated to return to India on April 1, when the lockdown left him and others like him stranded abroad.

“My wife and young son too were with me and a lockdown left us wondering when we could return home. Initially, we were relieved that it was only for 14 days,” Rahul says.

But the two weeks stretched into two months, leaving lakhs of Indians in the US desperate to reach India. Among them was Rahul, his visa nearing expiry, frantically searching for a flight back to Kerala. At some point, Rahul happened to get in touch with six other Keralites who were stranded in different parts of the US. Together Rahul, Mohammad Fazal, Murali Das Mohan, Nishil Mohammed, Vishal Puthalath, Prasanth Venugopalan and Jimmy Antony formed a WhatsApp group named ‘USA to Kerala Travel Group’, to discuss various solutions to get flights back to Kerala.

An initiative that started as a virtual discussion platform, today the group has grown into a thriving online community which has helped 1,000 people safely fly back home amid the pandemic.

“We were a bunch of strangers who got together out of desperation to reach home. But now we are family and we are happy that through our efforts, we have been able to arrange direct repatriation flights from different cities in the US to Kerala,” Rahul says.

How the group was formed 

“Although we knew that there were scores of Keralites waiting to exit the US, there were too many roadblocks to arranging flights. Initially, we had to register with the Indian embassies in the US and wait for our turn. But the biggest issue was that there were simply no flights to Kerala during phase one and two of the Vande Bharat repatriation mission,” Rahul told TNM.

Many of the early flights scheduled were to Bengaluru, Delhi and Ahmedabad. Keralites weren’t given priority in the list initially, according to the group’s members. “Also, we were a smaller community here as compared to Malayalees in the Gulf, and hence did not get separate flights,” Rahul added.

The group then rallied to get the attention of political representatives back in Kerala. Mails were sent to all 20 Members of Parliament from Kerala and also to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the Union Home Ministry as well.

Meanwhile, the collective also organically grew with more members joining by word of mouth. Data of Keralites who wished to travel back home were collected and categorised based on priority. Help was also received through organisations such as FOMAA (Federation of Malayalee Association of Americas), NORKA (Department of Non Resident Keralite Affairs) and Loka Kerala Sabha (a convention of non-resident Keralites) and other American Malayalee Associations in the US. 

“We had students with families who were about to lose their legal status in the US, elderly parents who had come to visit their kids. There were those who lost their jobs, whose visas expired, pregnant women and those who needed urgent medical care,” Rahul recalls. 

With 500 odd members, the group began to make noise collectively and had relative success in getting heard. After several Malayalam media reported on the plight of those stranded, a few of the MPs including Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi too raised the issue and got in touch with the group. However, it was Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan, who helped rally for flights from the US to Kerala. 

“A contact from FOMAA put us in touch with V Muraleedharan. He asked us to present the data we collected and make a case for ourselves, and promised to look into it. For days together, we had zoom calls with people who wanted to register.  We collected all of their data and presented it to the Minister of State. One of the members of the group, Murali Das Mohan, was responsible for collecting data and presenting it," Mohammad Fazal, another founding member of the group, added. 

After sustained efforts by the group, India finally scheduled one flight to Kochi from San Francisco in the Phase 2 extension of the Vande Bharat mission on May 23.  

The 225-seat capacity flight had a stop in Delhi, Kochi and Ahmedabad, which meant that only 100 seats were available for Keralites. So those who belonged to the priority category were filtered out and given tickets, Rahul said. 

Between May and July, the efforts of the group bore more fruit. As on July 15, eight repatriation flights have carried a 1,000 stranded Keralites from various cities in the USA to Kochi. Many of the members, founding member Rahul included, have now safely reached Kerala and are in quarantine. 

“Through our experiences, we have been able to extend help and information to those who were flying out of the US. We prepared two documents on the travel guidelines (including pre-boarding, connecting flights and what to do once you land) and quarantine rules in Kerala. We even held counselling sessions for members who were anxious. Even now, we organise video calls to speak to members who need any kind of assistance with their journey,” Fazal told TNM,

A support group back home

Back home too, the online community is now helping those who returned from the US to settle down in Kerala.

“It could be simple things like briefing them on how to apply for an Aadhar card, or identifying good apartments for them in Kerala and helping them get familiar with the place. Through our networks, we are even trying to help those who have lost their jobs and are looking for opportunities back home,” Rahul added. 

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