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Maryland Explosion Highlights Tenuous Immigrant Journey Of Upward Mobility


It's been almost three weeks since a gas leak explosion destroyed two apartment buildings in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Md., killing seven people, displacing dozens. Most of them were immigrants, and they're trying to find out what comes next. NPR's Adrian Florido reports that rebounding from this kind of setback can be especially hard for immigrants.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Last week, a dozen people were standing at the fenced-off site of the explosion, a tangle of brick and wires and clothing and toys. Maria Viera said she's lived in this neighborhood for many years.

MARIA VIERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She said she's never seen anything like this and is in pain for the mothers who lost their kids. Among the seven people who died in the explosion, there were two boys, an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old. Viera was here with her two boys, also 5 years apart.

VIERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Like many of the families here, Viera moved to Montgomery County because of its reputation for being friendly to immigrants and for its good schools. Alma Couverthie of the nonprofit social service group CASA de Maryland, which is helping the victims, says this neighborhood called Long Branch is a place where working-class families feel they can start building a good life for their families.

ALMA COUVERTHIE: It's one of the poorest communities in Montgomery County. This is the place where immigrant families that are looking to provide children with the best education go and live because that's what they can afford.

FLORIDO: But upward mobility is slow and fragile, and Couverthie says an event like the explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments can derail everything.

COUVERTHIE: It's heartbreaking when you think about how hard these families work, sometimes having two or three jobs. And in a few seconds, everything falls apart, and it's extremely hard to bounce back from that.

FLORIDO: Take Antonio Citalan. He came to Silver Spring from Guatemala 11 years ago and rented a room in a friend's apartment here in this sprawling complex.

ANTONIO CITALAN: (Speaking Spanish) shopping center (speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He said he liked the place because it was close to stores and to buses he rode to his construction job. Soon Citalan met his wife, and after three years, they'd saved enough for a security deposit and first month's rent on their own apartment. When they moved into the place, a couple of friends who were just getting started moved in with them. Eventually, Citalan could afford a car. On August 10, he got home from work around 11 o'clock.

CITALAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: After dinner, he and his wife were about to go to bed, he said, when they heard the explosion.

CITALAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: They and their roommates rushed down three stories to the courtyard. Within minutes, fire was engulfing the building. Then the floors collapsed. Everything Citalan owned was gone, including the savings he had tucked away in a drawer. Like a lot of people here, he doesn't have a bank account. Families say they lost thousands in cash. That would be hard for anyone. Alma Couverthie says, for immigrants, it's worse.

COUVERTHIE: If you are born in the U.S. and you look in a particular way, your identity and your right to be there is not questioned. But when you're an immigrant, you have to prove that you were here. These people, they ran out in the middle of the night to save their lives with what they had on. They left behind their car keys, their documents, their driver's license, everything. And now they are out there trying to establish all of that and prove who they are.

FLORIDO: On Friday, Antonio Citalan took the first steps in that process. He took a bus to the Motor Vehicle Administration to try to replace the driver's license he lost in the explosion. He got it after a recent Maryland law that allowed undocumented immigrants to get licensed. For now, families like Citalan's have been moved into temporary apartments where they're getting three months of free rent. CASA de Maryland has been arranging donations of clothes and other necessities.

CITALAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: But beyond that, Citalan said he doesn't really know what comes next. He just wants to get back to work so he can start saving again. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Silver Spring, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.