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Fink student, dad fled here after devastation of hurricane in Puerto Rico

By Dan Miller

Posted 12/27/17

Nine-year-old Ilian Veliz Lugo had never seen snow before in her life, until she saw it falling in Middletown a few weeks ago.

“I like it,” Ilian said.

Ilian and her father, Manuel …

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Fink student, dad fled here after devastation of hurricane in Puerto Rico


Nine-year-old Ilian Veliz Lugo had never seen snow before in her life, until she saw it falling in Middletown a few weeks ago.

“I like it,” Ilian said.

Ilian and her father, Manuel Lugo, have been in Middletown for about two months.

Their lives in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, were turned upside down by Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on Sept. 20 and is regarded as the worst natural disaster in the history of Puerto Rico.

Ilian is one of four new students from Puerto Rico who have enrolled in Fink as a direct result of Hurricane Maria, according to the school district.

Including the new students from Puerto Rico, the number of students at Fink requiring English as a Second Language services has more than doubled since just the beginning of this school year — from nine to 22.

As a result, on Dec. 12 the school board approved an administration recommendation to advertise for hiring an instructional aide to assist Ashley Sabitsky, a Middletown Area School District English Language Development teacher at Fink who works with Ilian, and the other ELD teachers.

‘Nobody can imagine’

The devastation that occurred on Puerto Rico is “something that nobody can imagine,” Lugo told the Press & Journal on Thursday, Dec. 21, during an interview conducted through an interpreter at Fink Elementary School, where Ilian is enrolled in the Head Start program.

Lugo shows a video on his phone in which the devastation seems to go on forever; mile after mile of houses and buildings underwater, trees strewn across the highway, and debris everywhere.

He says he can talk about it for a long time, but unless you’ve been there, there is no way of getting across what it is really like.

Lugo had seen hurricanes before, as a police officer in Puerto Rico. He had been a police officer for 19 years, but  was able to retire because he had started the job at a young age.

“Nothing like this one,” he says when it comes to comparing Maria with other hurricanes he had experienced on the island.

“This was totally devastating. To go to bed at night and everything is in its place, then you wake up in the morning and everything is torn apart, destroyed houses are not there, trees all over the place, places disappeared completely,” he said.

Still, his family was “lucky” compared to so many others. They didn’t lose their house, but they lost everything that they had in a storage area — tools and everything else that Lugo needed to run the business that he owned.

Family history

Lugo was born in Trenton, New Jersey, but moved to Puerto Rico as a child and grew up there. He has two older children who already lived in the United States. He also had family that lived in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia — and Ilian had an aunt who lived in Middletown.

He decided to bring his family to the United States, mostly so that Ilian and her 5-year-old sister, Liana, can continue their education and get a better one in this country.

Ilian had only started school less than a month when Hurricane Maria hit.

Besides wanting to give his daughters a better education, the hurricane had been a “very traumatic” experience for him, his children, and his wife Iliana.

The Lugos first came to stay with relatives in the Philadelphia area. But when Lugo came to Middletown, it reminded him of where they used to live.

Located in the northern coastal valley region, Arecibo is the largest city in size on Puerto Rico. However, Lugo described where he lived as “rural,” yet within five to 10 minutes of everything you need, as long as you took the highway.

“Middletown is the same,” he said. “It’s very calm, it’s somewhat rural but accessible to things in a short amount of time.”

Gaining confidence in English

Lugo has a degree in criminal justice, and an associate’s degree in accounting. But because of his lack of proficiency in English, he said that the best job he can get here now is working at a warehouse.

“I understand English, but I do not speak it that well, so I need to get the experience and learn the English,” he said.

Lugo hopes he can become fluent in English, and then pursue a career in this country similar to the one he had in policing in Puerto Rico.

Lugo said he once came close to getting a job as a police officer in Baltimore. He passed the physical training and other tests. But at the time his two older children were in Puerto Rico and he didn’t want to leave them there. So he decided not to take the job with the department.

Lugo said he is “surprised” that Ilian speaks English so well. While he worries about “saying the wrong thing” in English, Ilian doesn’t seem to care.

Whenever they go to a store in Middletown and Lugo has a question, Ilian offers to ask it for him in English.

“She has no fear,” said Sabitsky. “She just takes it head on. Coming in the third, fourth and higher grades with no English is no easy task. From day one she has jumped in and tried everything.”

In most cases, non-English speaking students who are newly arrived to the school district “stay in a silent period for months. Not her,” Sabitsky said of Ilian.

Still in Puerto Rico

The Lugos have left a lot behind in Puerto Rico. Lugo’s mother, his sister, and his brother are still there.

Before leaving Puerto Rico Lugo recalls spending 10 to 11 hours in line to put $20 of gas in his car.

Looting, assaults and robbery were rampant the day after the hurricane. A case of 24 bottles of water sold for $36.

The area where Lugo lives only got its electricity back about three weeks ago. All the food had spoiled.

Lugo recalls the priest of the church in his town telling him of a family that was trapped in a kitchen during and after the hurricane.

For 17 days, the family lived on crackers and water because that was all they had.

What food was available immediately after the hurricane was scarce and expensive then. It still is. It recently cost his mother $45 to buy a turkey.

Lugo considers Middletown home now for himself and his family.

They'll go back to Puerto Rico in the near future, but only “to visit.”