Juan Carlos Zambrano sits with his family inside a room Sunday night at Liberty Square Church, where Red Cross has set up a shelter for Hurricane Irma evacuees. He intently watches the most recent weather updates on a TV inside the church, even though he hardly understands English, as he decides when he and his family should go back to Miami.
Zambrano is wearing ripped jeans — the stylish kind, not tattered — socks and sandals and a Ralph Lauren shirt. He would be indiscernible from anyone else around town if he were anywhere besides a Red Cross shelter.
There are a couple of characteristics that make Zambrano unique, however.
First, he’s a Venezuelan refugee who fled to the United States two months ago to avoid incarceration after working for the previous government administration in the tumult-ridden country.
Second, he is in a constant state of ear-to-ear smiling, repeating over and over how grateful he is, how well he’s been treated since coming to Cartersville, and recites incessantly that he’s blessed, despite becoming an evacuee just months after becoming a refugee with no home and no job.
“Me and my family and my children and we’re blessed,” Zambrano said in broken English. “We’re given a bed. We feel very, very well.”
Zambrano is with his sister, his wife Mayve, and two daughters, Shalom and Sarah, ages 14 and 10. They were five of the 59 evacuees at the shelter in Cartersville Sunday night.
While the shelter will hold up to 212 at max capacity, Red Cross does not expect the shelter to fill up, even though it is one of the few shelters between Macon and Chattanooga for Irma evacuees.
Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse donated food, there are showers and cots set up in the gym, and the guests at Liberty Square Church are getting the latest hurricane updates from the National Weather Service.
Zambrano came to the church Saturday morning, but a big rush came in Sunday morning, although a large group has since left.
Zambrano tried to get a hotel, but, of course, all were sold out. His family left Miami Thursday morning, slept in his sister’s car at rest stops Thursday and Friday night, and were “cold and tired.”
He said he would not have evacuated and come north if it were just him and his wife, but felt obligated to with two children.
Zambrano’s recent struggles — besides being a political refugee — are struggles nearly all of the evacuees at Liberty Square could relate to.
The family found out about Liberty Square Church’s shelter while eating at IHOP Saturday and he has been impressed with the friendliness of everyone in Cartersville.
He said he was given a discount at IHOP for being an evacuee and the staff said, “You don’t have to sleep in a car anymore. You can come here.”
Zambrano and his family have become all too acquainted with not having a place to go. In addition to Juan Carlos’ government job, Mayve was an attorney in Venezuela. But when Nicolas Maduro took power in the country’s socialist regime after Hugo Chavez’s death, the situation for the Zambranos changed.
In March, the Supreme Court dissolved parliament, transferring legislative powers to itself and increasing Maduro’s power and length of term.
Although the court reversed its decision shortly after, the country has been riven by violent protests for months as opposition leaders face off with Maduro supporters.
Zambrano is opposed to Maduro’s current regime and, as a result, was forced to leave the country or face prison time, likely 5-10 years.
“He said he can’t go back to Venezuela because of the situation,” Red Cross volunteer Bradley Ramirez said while translating for Zambrano. “If he goes back, they’ll prosecute him. He said [the government] obligated him to do a lot of things against his own will.”
His brother and mother are still in Venezuela and he talks to his mother almost every day. He lives with his sister and nephew. His sister has lived in the United States for three years, and she and their local church help the Zambranos with groceries and other necessities until he can get a job.
Zambrano filed paperwork for political asylum on Aug. 21, the same day his two girls started school. He hopes to get word soon that he can return to work.
Until then, he keeps himself busy by cleaning and helping out around his sister’s house, and has continued to keep busy while at the shelter by cleaning the bathrooms in the church.
He said, “Whatever is better than Venezuela,” but has been impressed with the U.S. so far.
“This country is very organized and they follow the laws,” Ramirez translated. “There’s respect and that’s important.”
As Zambrano speaks, Ramirez is hearing the story for the first time. Ramirez said most of the evacuees staying at the church are spanish speakers, and that is why he feels obligated to stay long after his 12-hour shift is up, because he doesn’t want to “leave [Red Cross] hanging” without a translator.
He volunteered to come to the shelter from Dalton, where he lives, after his attempt to go down to Houston to help with Hurricane Harvey didn’t work out because the flooding prevented him from getting there.
While he and many of the Red Cross volunteers are working difficult hours, he doesn’t complain and neither do the Zambranos.
Mayve thinks it’s beautiful in Georgia, and called the scenery “spectacular” and “a blessing.”
“The attention they’ve been getting here — everybody’s been helping them,” Ramirez translated. “They’re grateful. It’s a surprise.”
Mayve said the biggest challenges have been not being able to get a job without the requisite paperwork and leaving family in Venezuela without food or medicine.
“There’s nothing down there,” she said in Spanish through Ramirez.
It’s been difficult to settle in without a job, and after her daughters just began school, they had to evacuate, and the girls are trying to adapt without speaking English. However, Mayve said Shalom and Sarah are “very happy in this country and think it’s a blessing.”
Once the Zambranos hear it’s safe, they will head back to Miami and start over once again.
“First of all, they want to look for a church,” Ramirez translated of Mayve’s priorities in the U.S. “They want to serve God. And after that, they want to start working and start their lives.”