Help Hill Family Trapped by COVID Get Home

Costly 'Repatriation' Tickets from El Salvador Beyond Reach of Server's Family

Nikina Lowry-Schiller and her husband Francisco Lopez are pictured with their two children, aged 5 and 22 months, outside Ilobasco, Cabañas. A two-week trip to introduce the children to Lopez’s sister now has no end in site as the family is trapped by the country’s strict quarantine. Photo: Courtesy N. Lowry-Schiller

Nikina Lowry-Schiller has been frantically calling airports in an effort to get home from El Salvador. She has successfully booked two previous flights for herself and her family, but both have fallen through –and she hasn’t gotten all her money back yet. Now, she’s asking for help through a GoFundMe page to get her family back home to DC.

The Hill East residents—including Lowry-Schiller, her husband Francisco Lopez and their two kids, aged 5 and 22 months—normally live a short walk from Stadium-Armory Metro, but are now stuck in El Salvador indefinitely.

On March 3, four days before the first COVID-19 case was identified in DC, the family went to visit Lowry-Schiller’s sister-in-law, who lives in a rural setting 10 minutes outside Ilobasco, Cabañas, 30 miles northeast of the capital, San Salvador. Flights out of the country were banned at midnight March 17 –the day before they were scheduled to fly home.

A 30-day national quarantine imposed by President Nayib Bukele on March 12 was extended to the end of April, and now another by another 15 days, and the US Embassy is telling citizens that if they can’t get tickets on repatriation flights, they should register to stay there indefinitely.

Now, the family wants to get out before they are trapped. Lopez and her husband both work in the restaurant industry and they cannot work from home to earn the money, so she has started a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the costly tickets to get home.

The restrictions are strictly enforced, said Lowry-Schiller, with only one person from each family permitted to leave the house, and only to go to the store.

“If the police catch you outside and you don’t have a reason, they arrest you and you go to quarantine jail, where your 30 days start all over again,” she said. On Sunday, 16 people were arrested just down the street from where the family is staying.

Lowry-Schiller said she and her family had been scheduled to fly home on March 18. Checking regularly with the airline, Volaris, she said she was assured the flight would take off as scheduled and she began to pack their bags. Then Nayib Bukele closed the nation’s airports at midnight March 17, the day before the family was to fly home to the District.

Lopez got some of her money back from the airline, and rebooked a flight with Spirit Airlines for April 19, when airports were expected to re-open. Then the quarantine was extended another 15 days, and her fare money is still in limbo with the airline.

The US Embassy offers evacuation flights on a first-come first-served basis, landing in either Mesa, AZ or San Antonio, TX. US Citizens and Permanent Residents can email the embassy to get on the list, and they get a bill for the tickets once they get home —another set of costs. No matter. While Lowry-Schiller put her family on the list, they were never contacted.

The family can still get on a few flights out of El Salvador. US airlines offer so-called “humanitarian flights.” Those tickets run about $1,700 each, she said, and land in Houston, TX.

Those tickets, however, are their only hope. In the District, both she and her hsuband work in the restaurant industry, so while they’re not missing any shifts these days, they are missing the pay. Lowry-Schiller is a server at Zaytinya (701 Ninth St. NW), where Jose Andres vowed to pay his employees as long as he could. Hers is the only income she and her family have had, but it is not a great deal for a family of four—and the cheques stop coming at the end of April.

There are still a few ways that you can help Lowry-Schiller and her family –both directly and indirectly. Lowry-Schiller has started to GofundMe to raise enough money to fly her family out of El Salvador. You can go online and donate now.

She is also listed in the DC Virtual Tip Jar, a way for people to send tips directly to restaurant workers unemployed due to the COVID-19 crisis. Her Venmo handle is @nikina-Lowry-schiller.