Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia couple split by COVID-19 hope Caribbean flights resume soon

When Joan Ortega's mother died in April 2020, he wanted to rush back to the Domincan Republic from his home in Antigonish, N.S.

Joan Ortega returned to the Dominican Republic after his mother died, but got stuck when flights stopped

The Ortegas hope to be reunited in May if Canada resumes direct flights to the Dominican Republic. (Submitted by Jo Ann Ortega)

When Joan Ortega's mother died in April 2020, he wanted to rush back to the Dominican Republic from his home in Antigonish, N.S.

But the start of COVID-19 lockdowns prevented him from leaving. He waited through the summer and fall, hoping the situation would improve. 

"At Christmas, he was like, I can't — I have to go," says his wife, Jo Ann Ortega, a construction safety specialist in the Nova Scotia town. 

In January, he boarded a flight to the Dominican Republic and gathered with his family in Gaspar Hernández, a countryside community about 60 kilometres from the city of Puerto Plata, a popular tourist destination.

But before he could book his flight home, Canada cancelled direct flights from the Caribbean to Canada until at least the end of April.

"No flights in, no flights out. No boats in, no boats out. That was heartbreaking," his wife said.

He tried to get on the last two flights out, but couldn't pull it off. Canadian rules require a negative COVID-19 test, but Puerto Plata is the nearest destination for testing. 

"Which doesn't seem very far, but if you don't have a car, it is pretty far. Especially if you're under restrictions that you can't travel after [2 p.m.]," Jo Ann Ortega said. "Of course it's monster stress. What's going to happen?"

The only flights now go via the U.S. and as he's a permanent resident of Canada, but not a citizen, that would add complications.

He'd have to book a special interview at the otherwise-closed U.S. embassy in Santo Domingo and apply for a special transit visa. Even then, he's not certain he would be able to continue on to Canada.

Vaccines coming

So Joan, which is pronounced Johan, Ortega remains stranded in the lush Dominican countryside, surrounded by chirping birds, buzzing motorcycles, and a longing to return to his wife and life in Canada. 

He's had some good news this week: his 86-year-old father got vaccinated Tuesday.

Joan Ortega grew up in Gaspar Hernández, but met his future wife when she was in the Dominican Republic in 2009. They married in 2013 and he immigrated to Canada in 2016.

He landed a job at the Antigonish Atlantic Superstore in 2017. They've told him his job will be waiting for him when he returns. 

When COVID-19 first hit and everyone was thinking about how it would change their lives, Jo Ann Ortega said her husband had a different thought.

"Nobody has any money. There are no tourists, so there's no money. He decided he would start this food package. He didn't even tell me about it," she said.

He sent money back to the neighbourhood and appointed a shopper to get goods and deliver them to areas most in need. His wife pitched in when she saw what he was doing.

His neighbours sent a thank-you video, which she shared on social media. That led to more offers of help, and more aid packages sent to Gaspar Hernández. 

A cousin of Joan Ortega's delivers food supplies he sent to help his former neighbours during the pandemic. (Submitted by Jo Ann Ortega)

In pre-pandemic times, he quietly organized back-to-school drives, sending money to one of the neighbourhood kids to buy and share supplies where they were needed the most. For some kids, not having a uniform or the right supplies means they're not allowed to go to school.

The Ortegas hope one day to create an after-school sports club in the area. In the meantime, they're waiting for May and hope Canada will resume direct flights to the Dominican Republic. 

"I just wait. My hope is to wait and see what happens," he said. "It's the only thing I can do at the moment."