Mark Arehart

WKSU public radio

“You don’t have the social net that other people have.”

That’s how 27-year-old Miguel Arriola sums up the immigrant experience during the pandemic.

Arriola’s father came to this country from El Salvador at a young age and worked hard to establish a life in Northeast Ohio.

“Immigrant families, they kind of need to create a structure within themselves so that they can operate fiscally. We have multigenerational homes, kids and grandparents living under the same roof, so that we can make ends meet,” Arriola said.

But during the pandemic, it’s up to Arriola to keep his father, who has an autoimmune disease, safe. And that means reevaluating the family’s living situation.

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“COVID kind of turned that on its head because now what was our way of being stable through any given situation was actually destabilizing our situation. So we had to rethink how we would operate.”

Arriola graduated from Cleveland State this spring with a computer science and engineering degree. But a once promising job market has all but dried up.

Arriola’s wife, fresh out of her podiatric medicine residency, got a job in Nashville, but he can’t afford to leave his part-time job at a Cleveland bank to be with her.

His brother and his family are living in a house Arriola owns, but they’re just scraping by financially.  

“Our family split into what is now three different homes,” Arriola said.

Arriola’s father moved with his wife in Nashville, where they thought he’d have less of a chance of getting sick.

They retrofitted the house with clear Plexiglas panels in several rooms so his father could still interact with his loved ones.

But on the day Arriola was interviewed for this story, his wife tested positive with COVID-19.

“They’re trying to stay separate, but my dad’s anxiety isn’t letting him separate. He wants to see if she’s okay. He wants to see if she’s doing well. But if anything he’s the one we’re most worried about.”

With all this resting on his shoulders, Arriola is still thinking about other immigrant families who may be in worse situations.

“There are people who are in a position where they don’t know what’s going to happen after the pandemic is over.”

As a first generation American, Arriola said COVID takes the biggest toll on the most vulnerable.

“If there’s anything that’s been humbling me, it’s the cumulative experiences that everyone has been going through during this period of time.”

When you mix in the political vitriol with a presidential election that’s just weeks away, Arriola wants people to “remember to love each other.”

“I think as a nation right now we’re coming to terms with a lot of our issues. So that makes me hopeful that we can actually put the work in what’s necessary to make a better future for ourselves and our kids.”

That means being open to have real conversations outside your own bubble, whether it be with someone from a different country, culture or socioeconomic status.

“It’s conversations like these that bring us closer together as a nation. So the more these conversations happen, the more people will realize what’s going on in the world and the more people are going to want to change it.”

Mark Arehart was among seven journalists who participated with Ohioans in October in Your Voice Ohio online dialogues to gain understanding of concerns people have in the 2020 election.  He is a reporter for WKSU public radio. 89.7 FM, in Northeast Ohio and can be emailed at arehart@wksu.org

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