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Harvey’s heroes: immigrant stories

If there is a silver lining to Hurricane Harvey it is surely the remarkable rescue stories and acts of courage and kindness that have emerged. Here are a few examples of how immigrants have helped Houston – and everyone watching the city – cope with catastrophe.
31 Ago 2017 – 7:32 PM EDT

Local heroes – dubbed the Cajun Navy – braved floodwaters in boats, big and small, to help their neighbors and total strangers. Houston businessman Jim McIngvale turned his furniture stores into a storm shelter.

Hurricanes seem to bring out the best in people, and not just the locals. Immigrants know all about personal struggle and are making their contribution too. After all, Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and its residents speak at least 145 languages at home, according to a new analysis of U.S. Census data released this week.

Also, despite political opposition from Republicans, Texas takes in the second-highest number of refugees of any state. Many of them end up in Houston.

Here are a few examples of how immigrants have helped Houston, sadly with tragic consequences for one group of Mexicans.


Jorge Abundis, El Bolillo Bakery

Mexican-born baker Jorge Abundis and his seven staff at El Bolillo Bakery in Houston were trapped inside the business by Harvey's rains. Instead of trying to go home to be with their families, they worked through the night to make bread for the storm's victims. They made 5,000 bread rolls for those affected by Harvey.

"It was a mixture of impotence and desperation," Abundis told Univison News. "Above all we were stuck here are there was nothing we could do. It was a very satisfying thing to do even though I knew my own family was running out of food and they had water outside the house."

The crew was stuck inside from Saturday to Monday, baking thousands of loaves of bread, including the store's signature bolillo bread, a torpedo-shaped loaf similar to a french baguette. In the mornings they delivered to shelters, first responders and churches.

The bakers quickly made headlines. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox tweeted a photo of the bakery. "These are the 'bad hombres' you're so scared of, giving a taste of solidarity in a time of need," he wrote.


Alexandre Jourde, 42, oil and gas worker

Alexandre Jourde was preparing to leave his home in the badly flooded Buffalo Bayou area of Houston with his wife and their two children when he was approached by a neighbor asking for help.

The father-of-two from Paris, France, remembered he had a paddleboard and wet suit in his garage, and used it to evacuate a four-year-old boy, Ethan Colman, from a Houston neighborhood inundated by floodwaters on Monday He saved the child before getting his own family to dry land.

Jourde, an oil and gas engineer, won hearts when a photograph emerged of him paddling Ethan to safety.

"They asked me for help as I was about to get my kids. It bought us some time while my family packed our belongings," he said. He then made two more trips - one to rescue his children, aged eight and six, and another to get his wife.


Gloria Maria Quintanilla, 60, hotel worker

Quintanilla was spotted by The New York Times photographer Julie Turkewitz wading through waist-high waters in the middle of the road with a sack over one shoulder and an umbrella on the other. Quintanilla “seemed to epitomize Houston’s work ethic, its resolve and its shock,” the paper wrote.

She told Turkewitz that she was an immigrant from El Salvador, here since 1982. She makes $10 an hour washing and ironing sheets and towels at a local hotel.

She had started the journey from home more than an hour before.

“It was my day to work, and I’m a very responsible person,” she said. “I had no idea it was going to be like this.”


María Ramírez, Catholic Church volunteer

Ramírez joined a group of church volunteers from St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Hempstead, about 50 miles from Houston, to serve food to rescue workers in the flooded city.

She decided to take action after talking to her husband and one of their sons about the families made homeless by the flood. "My son asked what we were doing to help and suggested we take them some food. That moved me so I decided to come," Ramírez told Univision.

Mostly immigrants from Mexico, the women served chicken, spagetti, rice and bread from the back of a pick up.

Ramírez has another son in immigration detention after he was stopped by the police. "Even though he's locked up, God has shown me it's nothing like what the people here are going through at the moment," she said. "The little God gave us we want to share (with the resuce workers). After the storm comes the calm and something good will come of this. Maybe my son will be released from jail," she added.


Benjamin Vizueth, Yahir Vizueth, Jose Vizueth, Jorge Perez, Gustavo Rodriguez-Hernandez.

Houston authorities recovered two bodies on Tuesday belonging to a group of five Mexican immigrants - including three brothers - who disappeared the previous day after they launched into a boat to help people in the midst of Harvey's floods.

Perla Jáquez, the wife of Benjamin Vizueth, one of the missing, confirmed to Univision News that the forensic office contacted her Tuesday night to let them know they had found two bodies and one survivor, who was taken to a hospital. Jáquez continued to search for her mising husband on Thursday and posted this video on facebook asking for help to find him.

"They found two bodies already ... the one of my brother-in-law and a close friend," said Jáquez.

Their boat was caught in a strong current and was pushed against low hanging power lines in the Greens Bayou in northeast Houston. Three jumped, they were struck there by the electricity," one of Vizueth's relatives told Univision.


Vizueth, 31, posted photos and live streamed videos on Facebook of how they were moving around the city to rescue people from their homes. A freelance photographer, Ruaridh Connellan, also joined the group.

Connellan, Jose Vizueth (Benjamin's brother) and another unidentified person were rescued on Tuesday morning and taken to the hospital on Tuesday. Images of Connellan showed him badly burned on the hands and face and he described spending the night hanging onto tree branches.

“Everyone jumped ship but we got zapped. I was in the water right by these power lines and I just felt this electric current go through my body and I thought I was done for. Then it stopped but it started again. I could see four of the men lying in the water – one of them, floating on his back in his lifejacket," Connellan told the Daily Telegraph in London.

Jáquez identifed the missing men as her husband Ben Vizuelt, 31, Yahir Vizueth, 25, Jorge Perez, 31, and Gustavo Rodriguez-Hernandez, 40.


Art Acevedo, Houston police chief


He garnered national attention when he broke down during a press conference announcing the tragic death of Houston police sergeant Steve Perez, 60, who died in his patrol car trying to get to work through the flooded streets on Sunday.

“He was a sweet, gentle public servant,” he said of Perez, a 34-year veteran of the Houston Police Department. Acevedo told reporters that Perez insisted on going to work despite pleas from his family not to venture outside. His last words to his wife were, “We’ve got work to do."

Acevedo grew emotional when he described police officers working around the clock sleeping on cots with only a power bar to eat in a day and a half.

Before taking the job in Houston this year Acevedo was police chief in Austin for 10 years where he presided over a drop in crime rates. Activists also credit him with sensitive handling of racial issues in the city.

A proponent of community policing, he is the first Hispanic to lead the Houston Police. Born in Cuba, he was four-years-old when he migrated to the United States with his family in 1968.

Politically, he has been an outspoken critic of policies to deport people in the U.S. illegally and testified against a Texas law allowing guns to be carried on college campuses.


Dayana Halawo, 28, teacher and Syrian refugee

Halawo and her family came to Houston from Syria as refugees last August. She was planning to throw a party to celebrate their one-year anniversary in the country, but instead stopped by her neighbors' homes on her way to the grocery store to make sure they had enough food and water, the Huffington Post reported.

Halawo, a former English teacher in Syria, works as a tutor at the Houston-based nonprofit Amaanah Refugee Services. Her husband, who worked as an accountant in Syria, is now a handyman. Once it stops raining, he plans to offer free repair services to flood victims, she said.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has tried to block Syrian refugees from entering the state and resettlement of new arrivals has dropped significantly after President Trump signed an executive order temporarily shutting down refugee admissions, which was partially blocked in the courts.

In spite of a politically hostile environment, Halawo says she already feels a bond to her new home. “I am so sad, because I love Houston and I love all the people here, the people here are so nice, I just hope everything is OK,” she said.


Nisar Ahmad Momand, Afghan refugee

On Saturday, Momand and other volunteers from the Afghan Cultural Center, a Houston area community group, helped firefighters put out a house fire.

The group had about 20 volunteers who distributed supplies, helped people get their belongings to higher areas and moved families to safe places.

“These people welcome us here in the United States and these people accept us here in the United States, and we feel proud that we helped someone,” said Momand, a former refugee. “As a human, we help them.”

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