Sewa helps Indians stranded in the US finally make it home

Ritu Jha-

For Vatsal Gosalia and his parents, Sewa International, a nonprofit serving the needy since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the US is like a “God.”

“For me they are God sent,” Gosalia’s mother said about Minal Joshi, one of the Sewa International volunteers based in Silicon Valley.

Like many international students, Gosalia was based in San Jose, California, and desperately wanted to go back to India.

After a series of requests and petitions, the Indian government announced Vande Bharat Mission to bring back stranded Indians from different parts of the world in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. It is estimated there are more than 15,000 stranded Indians abroad globally.

The government announced 7 Air India flights for stranded Indians in the US, with the first flight left for India from San Francisco on May 9.

In a previous interview with indica the Indian consulate said they cannot give the exact number of stranded people in the US, but over 30,000 have filed the form to qualify for a trip home. And there is a lottery system.

Gosalia, like many other stranded travelers and students, this past Saturday went to board a flight from San Francisco International Airport home to India, but he was not lucky enough and was not allowed to buy a ticket. However, with the support of Ambassador Sanjay Panda, Indian consul general in San Francisco and Joshi,  Gosalia was able to board the flight from New York to Mumbai the next day.

“For a night I became a refugee,” Gosalia told indica from a hotel in Mumbai, where he is quarantined, following the protocol every passenger has to go through visiting India.

Vatsal Gosalia

Gosalia came to the US on an F1 visa and was on Optional Practical Training (OPT), temporary employment directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study, until March when he lost his job working with InSpire Transpiration Solutions, a Berkeley, California-based company.

Life was going as planned, Gosalia said, until the pandemic hit America.

He came to the US in 2017, earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Lawrence Technological University in Michigan in 2019 and then moved to Silicon Valley where he bought a car, which he sold on Saturday afternoon, the day he planned to board a flight to India from SFO.

It helped in going around in the Bay Area looking for places to stay while hunting for a job, said Gosalia, who sounded sad talking about his car.

“No matter how hard you work, if situations like this arise, you will be first to get fired if you are on any kind of visa,” said Gosalia and added he always planned to stay in the US for a while after graduating but never thought he would be moving back to India because of this.

“I guess I feel good coming back rather than staying there and finding jobs which is way too hard now. California is way too expensive. You can’t survive two months without a job,” he said. “It was kind off a reality check.’

Gosalia said he was running out of money, so he left the friend’s place, moved to a motel but soon the motel raised the price from $500 to $900, which was too expensive/

So, again he went to live at a place his friend recommended. They asked $500. He agreed.

Early morning Saturday, May 9, he got an unexpected call from the Indian consulate asking if he would like to get on a flight and if so, then pack and come straight to the airport. So, first thing he did was sell his car for $4,000.

“I had higher offers, but no time, and I was sad I had to sell my Ford Focus HB Titanium,” he said.

When asked since he went to the airport why he was not allowed to board the fight, he said the airline accepts only Visa and American Express. He had a debit card but wasn’t aware that Air India doesn’t accept debit cards to buy tickets.

Sharing his frustration Gosalia said, “I was way too pissed on them because they allowed Visa debit card for excess baggage and not for ticket … I mean how stupid is that.”

And he could not withdraw more than $800 in a day. So, Gosalia’s seat was given to another passenger within five minutes.

When asked so who helped you, he said Joshi. She on learning about his situation brought him to her home.

Joshi was supposed to drop him back to his place where he lived but they asked him not to come back because he went to the airport and was exposed to many people.

Gosalia told indica he was in shock: first Air India denied his attempt to buy a ticket and then his landlord.

He said he had no place to go and was hungry, so Joshi brought him home, called the consul general, who helped arranged a flight for Gosalia if he could fly to New York the next day.

Recalling Saturday night, Gosalia said, “Minal and consul general just slept for an hour or two at night but made sure that I get on that plane from New York.”

Thanking Joshi’s husband, Gosalia said that Abhay uncle dropped him at SFO at 6 a.m. for his New York flight, and he was lucky a friend of his agreed to share his credit card at the airport to buy the ticket. Gosalia paid him the money back through Venmo.

Gokul Kannan

Recalling the whole incident of flying back, Gosalia believes he is lucky to find people.

“We are alien in a foreign land, and that is true,” said Gosalia, who added he might not come back in the next few years.

Gosalia said half of the flight was boarded by students and tourists. A few of them were his friends. “It’s tough if you have a job in the alien land,” said Gosalia.

Another person stranded due to Covid-19 was Gokul Kannan, who came to the US on a tourist visa and at present is quarantined in the Renaissance hotel in Mumbai.

Kannan, an architect by profession who works at Jones Lang Lassele (JLL) in Mumbai,
was stranded in Phoenix, sharing his story with indica said he arrived in the US on March 6 and his return flight was scheduled for March 23.

He was staying at his friend’s place until he was able to get a flight home.

On learning about the lockdown, he emailed the Indian Consulate in San Francisco explaining his situation, and his email was forwarded to Sewa International.

That was when Joshi contacted him and gave him a contact number of a local Sewa representative in Phoenix.

Kannan said there were no updates from the government of India, and so he waited until he got news about repatriation.

Sharing further he said that from May 1 to 5, he got updates on how repatriation would be carried out by the Indian government. All the information was from news channels and a Facebook group called, “USA to India Evacuation.”

There was still a lot of confusion as there was no definite source from which to get all the correct updates on the process. He feels was lucky to get his name selected as there was lottery tickets and the first flight from SFO to Mumbai was scheduled on May 9th.

He said he got the email from the embassy on May 6 at 9:30 p.m. Phoenix time. The email stated that he needed to confirm the seat within 2.5 hours.

And since no one else in the group got the email, Kannan said, he was not sure if the email was legitimate. So, he called Joshi. “She helped me to confirm that the email was legit.”

The next day he got a call from Air India around 3 p.m. asking for a copy of his passport, and on May 8 around 9:45 a.m. he got a ticket confirmation from Air India with instructions.

Joshi told indica she let him stay at her family’s place, since he was not sure where to stay during the shutdown and was afraid of being infected with COVID-19, and his flight reached the Bay Area late at night. So, Joshi and her husband picked him up from the airport.

Kannan said Joshi and her husband had two rooms and kept helping people like him. “They were taking a huge risk to help people, and I cannot thank them enough.”

But Joshi candidly told indica that more than 1000 Sewa members are helping not just the Indian community but anyone looking for help, from medicine and food to help to get aboard a flight. Sewa members are helping frontline workers, students and seniors, but more than 50 percent or those needing help have been students. “There are helplines, and people keep calling for help since March 15.”

“Most of the student issues were food, lost job, need travel help and on OPT and need accommodation, “ Joshi told indica, Since the shutdown on the West Coast the helpline have received 116 calls altogether including from students.

Kannan said there are many students and even Overseas Citizens of India who want to fly back, but they are stranded. He feels lucky to have found Sewa International working tirelessly to help strangers.

The rules were strict, and twice thermal screening was done at the airport, once during the security check and once before boarding the flight.

The Air India flight from San Francisco was almost full. No gaps between seats. All seats we’re occupied.

Air India gave two boxes of meals and two bottles of water.

There was no in-flight entertainment, no cabin crew service and no blankets, and it was a 17.5-hour flight.

After landing they asked Hyderabad passengers to leave first. Then Mumbai passengers were asked to leave. They checked temperatures once again. Then there was a counter to help passengers install the Arogya Setu Covid-19 contact tracing app. They also provided new sim cards for those who didn’t have a local sim.

Gosalia, who presently is staying at The Orchid said, it was tiring and would recommend people carry food. The best food was the pudding he enjoyed, and it took six hours to clear immigration.

He said the hotel is following the strict rules, and his parents came to visit him and brought mangoes. They were not allowed to meet, but he got the mangoes.

“Indian mangoes are the best. After three years I had mangoes,” said Gosalia, who it said of not being allowed to meet his parents. “But at the same time I cannot risk their health.”