Valeria Muñiz began her work exchange program in Park City full of hope and wonder as she traveled to a new country from her home in Argentina. She was excited to spend the season working at a restaurant in the Canyons Village Resort.
The 21-year-old joined several other Argentine students in Park City on exchange who came to the United States to work for a period between college semesters to gain experience and see a new country. Life was good for all of them until the pandemic shuttered the resort and caused their homeland to close its borders.
Now, Muñiz is among nearly 80 Argentine students stuck in Utah with limited resources and many without housing as they wait for their home country to allow them to return.
“Some of the private sponsors aren’t taking the responsibility to help them anymore because they were supposed to go back home March 15. Some of their housing has expired, so they are having to live with strangers,” said Marcello Rikli, owner of Nostalgia Cafe and co-founder of the Utah Argentinian Alliance.
Muñiz said some of her co-workers were lucky and made it home before the borders closed because their families urged them to leave. She decided to stay to finish out the resort season before coming home. The resort then closed, leaving her without money to pay for the house she was renting with co-workers.
“I rented a house with friends that we had through March, but we ended up without a home once the month ended,” she said. This is because her work visa limits her ability to work outside of the resort.
Muñiz and the other students are here on J-1 visas that allow them to work and study in the United States for a limited amount of time. In all, about 300 students from Argentina, Peru and Paraguay were stranded, according to KPCW. The Argentine students were supposed to return home March 15, but the Argentine government canceled flights from the United States and Europe before they could make it.
Muñiz heard about the Utah Argentinian Alliance through family who urged her to contact it immediately. She filled out a survey through the group and received a phone call two hours later. The nonprofit had found her a place to stay and was coming to pick her up.
“I have a nice place to stay, but not everyone is in the same situation as me,” she said. Many of her friends and co-workers face uncertainty as their funds dwindle and their housing becomes unstable.
Rikli has been helping the students by collecting and distributing food donations through his cafe and the nonprofit, as well as helping coordinate housing for those without it.
“I can’t imagine how their parents are doing; I know the kids have contact with their parents, but the country is totally locked down,” Rikli said. “They are anxious to go back to Argentina, but they will have to follow protocols.”
He said many students who booked flights for May are finding they are canceled or pushed out until later that month and possibly into June. Once they finally arrive home, they will still be separated from their families to complete a 14-day quarantine before being allowed to travel.
Ana Valdemoros, Salt Lake City councilwoman and a business owner, is helping process food donations for the students through Square Kitchen, her incubator kitchen. She and a small team of volunteers sort, prepare and package the donated goods before delivering them to Park City.
“We started the UAA a few months ago and formalized it a couple of months ago. We are a nonprofit organization to advance the Argentinian community and culture in Utah,” Valdemoros said. “We want to help with scholarships and education.”
Right now, though, the UAA is concerned with helping the stranded students by reaching out to the larger Hispanic community for help and hopes this will bring more people together, Valdemoros and Rikli said.
Currently, the UAA needs food and housing for the students, but they will also take personal hygiene products and monetary donations. People interested in donating can drop off food donations to Square Kitchen or the Nostalgia Cafe Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m. Those interested in making cash donations are encouraged to contact the UAA through its Facebook page.
In the meantime, Muñiz and the others are facing increasing uncertainty about returning to Argentina.
She said no one has really heard from the Argentine government about when they can return home or if they will even allow them to return. She said she feels like the government doesn’t want them back.
“The lack of communication from Argentina is frustrating. We need information and so do our families,” Muñiz said. She added that the UAA is working with the Argentine Embassy in Washington, but that the consulates don’t know either.
“They are trying to be kind and are telling us ‘we don’t know’ because Argentina isn’t talking to them either,” she said.
Muñiz now spends her days talking to her family and co-workers through WhatsApp, cooking and exercising to keep her spirits up. She also is helping the UAA when she can because she says the organization saved her life.
She misses her little sister the most and really wants to go home to see her. She says she has hard days but that she’s trying to accept things the way they are until she can finally return home.