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Natalia: A Picture of Resilience

Following the Diaspora is a blog designed to serve as a platform and opportunity for those experiencing displacement to share their stories and experiences in their most authentic voice. In the past, we have focused on the Mediterranean context and shared the experiences of refugees and volunteers in this area. We would like to expand our storytelling platform and include voices from other contexts.


This month we were joined by Natalia, a woman from Venezuela who is currently living in Peru. Her story is nothing short of extraordinary, and we are thankful to have the opportunity to share it with you in both English and Spanish. Natalia met with Madi and our friend and translator Juanjo this July for an interview about her experience leaving Venezuela.




 


Before I left Venezuela, it wasn’t easy to make up my mind of leaving my country and coming to Perú. I had a partner at that time, the father of my children, who had been in Perú for over a year. I left Caracas on the 23rd of October of 2018 and arrived in Lima on the 26th. It was a strange experience because it felt like the police were chasing me. You had to run, hide your satchels, your bags and your luggage to avoid them taking it all away from you. Even if you had all your papers in order and weren’t traveling illegally, this still happened.


I arrived in Lima at midnight and my ex-partner welcomed me. At the beginning when I started meeting people here there was a lot of receptivity but with the passing of the days, the people on the street started saying bad things. The men told me indecent things and that made me feel bad. If you were Venezuelan, the men offered you money and the women felt suspicious from you without knowing you. That was a cultural shock because we are a very sociable people. Back in Venezuela, we are very welcoming and we don’t care if you’re a foreigner. Even more, we treat people from other countries as part of our family and we aim to give them that human warmth needed to feel like home. When you leave your country, you expect other to have the same attitude towards you. Finding out that it wasn’t like that was a shock.


That was also the first time I had been separated from my children. I have 3 kids: my oldest daughter is 21 now and my youngest is 13. I left them almost 3 years ago and that was the most difficult part for me. Being apart from them for so long makes it feel like if 10,000 years have already passed. For a mother, this isn’t easy. And there are many cases just like mine. People tend to think that we’re victimizing ourselves but it’s not that. This whole thing is like a spite that you have with yourself for leaving all your life behind and running away. But this experience isn’t the same as when you leave your country willingly looking to discover new places or growing culturally and professionally somewhere else. What happened to us is completely different: leaving Venezuela because the crisis was drowning us and we need to support our families and find some way to give them at least the most basic quality of life that any human being needs to properly develop.


Before I left, the crisis was complicated up to the point when we sometimes only had yucca to eat. There were days when we had no food and I, as a mother, had to continuously search for it. Sometimes I only had enough for my two youngest children and my older daughter and I would spend days without eating. In view of all of these, I decided that it was time for me to go. My main goal is and always will be to bring my children here so we can be together as a family again. Sadly, I haven’t been able to bring them due to multiple situations aside from the pandemic. In regards to the latter, it has definitely reduced the chances of being able to bring them to Perú.


In Venezuela you can see two sides of the same coin. I know this has always been the way in all countries but right now it’s particularly notorious that in Venezuela there’s one side of abundance for the ones who have more power and other side of shortage of the ones who only earn minimum wage. This wage is not enough to cover the basic needs of one person, let alone a family unit of 5 or 6 people. Right now, if you go to one of the “good” parts of Caracas you can find an abundance of basic necessity products, all imported from other countries. But all of these are sold in dollars even when our national currency is the bolivar.


Even working outside of Venezuela in a full-time job, I still can’t cover all the basic expenses of my 3 children. My oldest studies at a university and also works but that’s not enough for her to cover her expenses like college fees or even personal hygiene items. And this also happens with my 2 other kids. If you’re going to a public university, you still require money to purchase materials. This whole situation is not easy to cope with. A young person in its 20s no longer has any aspirations in Venezuela. If you study, the lack of income doesn’t allow you to take all your courses and the career ends up taking too much time. If you work, it’s almost never at a full-time job and it doesn’t pay enough. What can you do with your life, then? I can see this in my own daughter’s experience. She’s a woman of 21 years old who says that she feels frustrated because she should already be close to graduation but is still unable to do it. She works but she can’t purchase anything that she would like to have. She doesn’t want to leave her country because she loves it but she feels that her time to do it is coming. Where? She has no idea but she can no longer stay here. She feels stuck in her own country.


Just like her, many other young people feel stuck. Children’s infancy is no longer normal because they don’t have opportunities for recreation. They can’t go to a park or eat candies or an ice cream. If they wanted to go to McDonalds, for example, they wouldn’t be able to do it in the same easy way that you can do here. I recently went to Lima and I went by a McDonalds and I said to myself: “wow, it’s been years since I’ve seen one!”. I went in and I saw an ice cream at S/ 6 and I couldn’t resist the urge to buy it. But as soon as I did, I felt guilty because I thought that my children could be enjoying this. It’s been so long since they have eaten something as tasty as that. In Venezuela, something like that is a luxury. If you start making a comparison of the dollar’s exchange method between Perú and Venezuela, it’s easier to get them here but in Venezuela it definitely isn’t, which makes everything more complicated.


Madi:


One of the first questions that I have that it’s kind of a common thread in people who have to leave their country points towards the fact that the journey itself is intense and stressful and scary and dangerous but I think that what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that once you’ve made it somewhere else, the reintegration process that you talked about is difficult in terms of finding a job, integrating appropriately and having options for the kids for school and education. How has your overall experience been in that aspect? Living in displacement and having to integrate. It’s a complicated issue because there’s a lot of expectation. How can I support my family? How can I support my kids? How do I grieve the loss of my homeland? How has that experience been for you?


Natalia:


How have I managed to handle the emotions caused by leaving my kids, my home, my family and my life? As I mentioned, when I came here, I had my partner waiting for me. Nowadays we are no longer together. It’s been 2 years since we broke up. He’s back in Venezuela with my 2 younger children. My oldest daughter is from a previous partner so she lives alone. Since I left my home the experience hasn’t been easy. When I left my kids at school in the morning of the 23rd of October of 2018, I followed my regular routine. My older daughter had to do some paperwork for the university so I said goodbye to her in the morning. After that, I dropped my children at their school. When we arrived, I said goodbye to them, hugged them and gave them my blessing, which is something that’s traditionally done in Venezuela.

My youngest daughter, who’s the most sentimental, hugged me with her eyes all red and said: “Mommy, I hope you come back soon!”. I told her that I would either come back soon, bring them to Perú or send their dad to pick them up. They started walking towards their school and just before crossing the entrance they turned around and looked at me. That’s a memory that I have etched in my mind that repeats itself all the time, every night.

How do I tackle those feelings? Sometimes it’s really difficult to do because I live alone in a room so, as soon as I return home after work, the nostalgia seizes me. Despite that, since I’m continuously working, I try to come back as tired as possible so I can arrive at home exhausted and just go straight to bed. I have friends in my building and from work and I try to joke around and laugh as much as possible with them. I try to smile as much as possible because what else I can do? I can’t live feeling depressed all the time. But there are of course certain moments when I just can’t handle it. Moments when I just want to get of here and go back to Venezuela without caring about the consequences but then I think more reasonably and I start cooling down, saying to myself that I have to calm down and stop crying. I also always ask God for support and He comforts me. I know God is there with me and He calms me down. I might be feeling nostalgic and might be crying but suddenly it all goes away because of Him. So, I always thank Him for calming me down, supporting me and helping me overcome this sadness that I feel.


So, some of the ways in which I can manage my emotions and my nostalgia are keeping my mind busy with work and doing as much as possible to arrive as tired as possible to avoid thinking and just sleeping. I sometimes go out with my friends; we get some beers and that makes it easier for me to be distracted and sleep at night. Hanging out and sharing with my friends helps. I also have a bike and I use it to go to my work, which also distracts me because exercising fills you with positive hormones. I look for ways to avoid thinking too much about home and I completely avoid looking at photos. I can’t look at photos from my family or my kids because is the worst I can do. If I do, I fall straight into a depressive state. And that’s another thing: I don’t make posts on social media about my kids because it makes me feel horrible. I end up feeling as the worst mother in the world for leaving my kids back home. Those are the ways in which I can battle the sadness: share with other, work hard and avoid looking at family photos.


I also try to remember all the happy memories that I can recall. I try to think about my kids, their voices and their smiles, even though they no longer are the same children that I left because now they are teenagers. My oldest daughter is already a full-grown woman. They are no longer the same. When we meet again, I’ll have to get to know them all over again even if I know that they are the same inside their hearts. I have also changed a lot. This whole experience has changed me. Looking at the bright side, I thank God because leaving them wasn’t easy but I grew as a person, I experienced things I didn’t thought I would experience and I’ve done things that I never thought I would do. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve always aimed to do so: try to learn as much as possible from all the positives things in Perú so, when the time comes, I can come back to Venezuela and apply those learnings there to make a difference.


Still, I know that many years will have to pass before I can do something like that because there’s no way of telling when will Venezuela manage to get out of the crisis. So, for now, I want to bring my children to Perú and form our new home here. Nevertheless, the current political situation in Perú worries me because I don’t want what happened in Venezuela to happen here. I don’t want this country to become like mine. This is a prosperous country. I don’t wish what happened to us to any country. We Venezuelans don’t want anyone to have to live what we went through.


Going back to the main question, that’s how I manage my emotions: arriving home as tired as possible, not looking at photos and sharing with my friends. And if drinking some beers with them feels necessary, then we drink some beers! But it’s not easy, it’s truly painful. Despite that, we have to smile. I’m always laughing. People say: “Ow! You’re always smiling!”. But what else can I do? I can’t be permanently frowning and crying. What would I achieve by that? I would end up getting sick. That’s the way I make my kids feel that they have to be strong. I have to be strong for them. That’s the way it is.


Madi:


First of all, parts of that were like poetry. I was trying not to cry, it’s just beautiful the way you speak. And it makes me sad because the part of the world that I live in, and even in the US, we don’t hear about this. The south-to-south migration in Latin America is something we don’t hear about. So, with that in mind, the last of the main questions that I ask people, especially for this context or stories where it’s not headlining the news the same way that other news are, and especially in the midst of a pandemic, is: if you were speaking to the general public from America or somewhere outside that doesn’t have the same perspective and experience that you have, even someone in Perú who might be biased against refugees coming or migrants coming from other countries, what do you want them to know?


Natalia:


I definitely have been through situations where people say: “why don’t you go back to your country? Venezuela is okay now!” That’s not true, Venezuela is not okay. At the moment he said that, which was around 1 and a half year ago, that person said: “go back to your country, you’ll be better there. Venezuelans are already going back. It’ll be better for you there instead of here.” And that’s not true, the reality is different. There are people who blind themselves and don’t want to accept that Venezuela is a country that’s been kidnapped by a dictatorship. There is no security. You can’t go to a park with your children so that they can play or roam around with their rollerblades or bikes. There is no freedom to do that because there are delinquents everywhere and its overall too risky to be outside. Getting a call and pulling your phone out on the streets is highly risky too. Venezuela isn’t a country where you can live freely. And yes, of course there’s still people who manage to go out, and they have to because live carries on. I see some of my old friendships organizing meetings and parties back in Venezuela but that’s only for those who can afford it. An even then, there’s always a risk that comes from doing something like that.


I came to Perú with one goal in mind and I have to reach it. I’m the kind of person who can’t remain still until whatever I want to achieve is completed. Here you have the freedom of going out, playing outside, going to buy groceries at a corner store, sharing with your friends and riding the public transportation. When I arrived here before the pandemic, you could find public transportation at any time. Nowadays, that doesn’t happen in my country. You can only find public transportation up to a certain time. After that, there’s a self-imposed curfew because you know that if you’re outside at night, you’re at risk. Not only because of delinquents but because of the police itself. Those who are meant to protect you can also kidnap you. That happens: they kidnap you and make calls to your relatives outside of Venezuela asking for dollars as a ransom. It seems as they think we make tons of money outside of Venezuela when, in reality, to save USD 100 you have to work really hard! And that’s a reality for both natives and foreigners.


That’s why we say that things are not as how most people think. It’s really not easy to return to Venezuela right now. Of course, we all think about it. When we thought about leaving Venezuela we had to start thinking: to which country will I go? How much money do I have now? Based on that, which country could I afford? You think about it, review your options and make a choice based on your budget. That’s what we did before leaving. In the same manner, we have to do the same when thinking about going back. You think about how you’re going to do it, how much money you’ll need to save up for the ticket back home. Right now, it’s really expensive to return to Venezuela. Going to Miami is actually cheaper! Or even Spain! USD 900 for a ticket back to Venezuela. It’s truly crazy! And even then, there are people that don’t think that Venezuela is in a bad condition.


What I say to people here in Perú in regards to all that’s happening with the presidential elections is not to vote for Pedro Castillo because he’s saying the same things that we heard 21 years ago. It’s the same speech from our old president back in that time.

People tell me that there won’t be a problem because Peruvians aren’t like us. They say that we haven’t fought for our country. What!? Of course, we fought! How many young people died on the protests, kids between 15 and 19 years old who gave their lives for Venezuela? I myself participated in those protests because I believe you can’t support something if you’re not willing to fight for it.

I have fought for my country and there were multiple deaths, particularly from young people. They were just kids who hadn’t even finished high school and didn’t had a chance of experiencing the world. That’s why I say, of course we fought! We Venezuelans have fought but it’s not easy to fight against a regime that has taken a whole country as a hostage. It’s something truly hard to do.


I’m not sure what else I could say about the current reality of Venezuela. How could I explain it? How could I show them? They would have to live there; they would have to go through that experience. And they say: “But you can’t compare that with our situation. How could I vote for Keiko Fujimori, who’s a thief?”. The thing is, in my personal opinion, at least she’s more democratic. I can’t comment much because this isn’t my country but I love it and I don’t want Peruvians to go through what we went through. They say that we don’t know the whole story but we do. At first, we Venezuelans were mostly ignorant when it came to politics. We didn’t dabble with that subject. But then Chávez came and we were forced to learn more. We used to live in a fantasy world, we celebrated all the time and didn’t thought much about politics. Now we’ve learnt that you have to properly study your presidential candidates. You have to check their background before deciding who’s best. That’s how I’ve explained people here how we over the years have learnt to study more even when we don’t like politics because that affects us all.


Venezuela isn’t definitely what most people think it is. It’s a bit complicated to explain properly how it all goes. You’d have to live it by yourself. We used to be a prosperous nation and, in a way, we continue being so but only for certain sectors. Not like here, where you can make it if you put the work in. We used to be able to do so in Venezuela but now that’s not possible. Here, you can work, save some money and start your own small business. Back in Venezuela, that’s no longer a possibility.


Madi:


The last question I want to ask you is: what can those of us who are interested in supporting people who have been forcibly displaced do to better support someone who’s gone through the experience that you have and has the perspective that you have? What can we do to better support these people?


Natalia:


You can’t judge a book by its cover. Sometimes you can see someone with very humble clothes but that person can be extremely instructed with tons of knowledge and a broad education, both in technical and personal terms. The fact that you aren’t using high quality clothes doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. There are people who still judge you by your appearance and that happened with many Venezuelans because they lacked proper clothing when they arrived to Perú. They tried to find a job and they were rejected because, at that time, they weren’t properly dressed. You have to give them a chance! How can you support someone who has gone through that experience? Giving them a job!


Over time, we have received many things as a gift intended to support us but that can daily end up not being that positive. To do it right, you have to earn your things by working. If an immigrant is looking for a job, you should give them a chance. Nobody left their country because they wanted to become beggars on the street. Those of us who left did so with the goal of working, even if it was a menial job. Even if you had spent 5, 10 years studying at a university, your goal was to work in whatever area you could.


Back in Venezuela, I worked as a pharmacy assistant. When I arrived here, I asked for a job in that sector but was rejected by people saying that they weren’t accepting Venezuelans. This made me feel terrible because I truly wanted to work. I had been a pharmacy assistant for several years, had all my papers in check and had no criminal records. You should get to know me before making any judgement. All the pharmacies that I went to said the same thing: we’re not accepting Venezuelans. But why? That’s simply terrible, I said to myself. This went on until I ended up getting a job in the restaurant business. I’ve learned how to handle myself there and that’s where I’ve been working since then.


I assume that I was rejected because, due to my nationality, they thought that I didn’t had the proper knowledge. But even if you give someone the opportunity and they aren’t as efficient at the beginning as you were hoping, having the will to learn and work is valuable. And those are traits that you can definitely notice because there’s a difference when someone truly has the will. If we end up doing more than is required from us, we carry on. If we have to work extra hours, we manage to do it. All because we really want to work. We have families to support. And I think that this is something that’s valuable for the employers because they have workers always willing to improve themselves. So, giving people jobs is a great way of supporting them.


You can also provide other types of support, a donation that comes from your heart, but is important to aim to not make immigrants used to only receiving donations. Right now, they might not have any food so you give them something to eat but is important to avoid making this a fixed routine. If someone gives us a sweater or a shirt, we will of course accept it warmly and lovingly. But there are people who get used to always receiving donations. So instead of that, is best to give them a job. For me, that’s the best thing you can do: supporting them through employment.


And for the young people who are working but also want to study, as an employee you should encourage them to go for it. That person is someone who wants to thrive and that’s a positive thing to support. And this applies not only to immigrants but to anyone. If one of your workers wants to study, you should give them the chance of doing both things. There are bosses who are closeminded to that idea but it shouldn’t be that way. That’s another great way of supporting immigrants.


If a country has a big group of people who are qualified and prepared with a good education, that country should make the most of them. They should aim to use their skills to improve the country as a whole. Here you have qualified Venezuelan doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants and many other professionals working as taxi drivers. Those in power should aim to make the most of these qualified people and see how the country starts to develop. I think that Venezuelans, even if some people say otherwise, have provided a considerable number of things to Peruvian economy, mainly through money remittance. We’ve sent tons of remittances to Venezuela and that generates a lot of money to Perú. Based on all the remittances that Venezuelans have made, we’ve contributed with millions of dollars to the Peruvian economy every year.


Of course, there are negative people: immigrants who came here to make bad deeds. But they are a minority amongst us. The good people are always more than the bad ones. The fact that a small group of Venezuelans is doing bad things doesn’t mean that we’re all the same. In the past, we’ve heard a lot of people saying that in Perú there wasn’t any violence until the Venezuelans arrived and that’s mainly thanks to the tabloids who repeat some news so much that it ends up creating hate against a group of people. That’s not how journalists and journalism should be. A journalist should focus on showing the reality without sensationalism, which is something that sometimes doesn’t happen here. This is criticism, of course, but I’m not aiming to frame it as something bad but as something that should be corrected. They should try to find a different way of telling the news that doesn’t end up causing mayhem. They should focus more on the positive things that people do, both amongst natives and immigrants.


Something that we’ve learnt is that we shouldn’t judge everyone because of the actions of a few people. And I also believe a lot in energy. I’m not sure if you feel the same but I think that you end up attracting what you radiate. So, if you’re always a pessimist, negative things will come to you. If you’re always angry and frowning, you’ll attract that type of people to your life. I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance of being surround by very good people. In fact, the family that owns the house where I live in is truly nice. I got infected by COVID-19 some time ago and they supported me during the process. I was alone here and they were there for me, something that I’ll always be grateful for. They are not relatives of mine and have no obligation of supporting me but still did so during my sickness. That’s why I think that if you maintain a positive attitude and you radiate it, you’ll attract positive people to your life. And that’s something that’s up to every person. If you’re in a bad mood, you’ll encounter people who might harm you.


But even if I’m not radiating negative energy, I’ve still had encounters with negative people. Still, I think that’s part of the whole experience of being an immigrant. All of us have to go through those type of encounters, no matter the country. There’s always something that happens due to the color of your skin or your nationality and we all have to go through those experiences. It’s something that we can’t escape from.


Madi:


I’m so grateful and humbled. I’ve learnt so much from you and I’ve a million more questions that will probably be other conversations about the logistics of your journey but really, I feel that I understand the whole experience in your region with the context and conflict so much better now and I appreciate the time you took today. Many thanks, Natalia! It’s so nice to meet you. Thank you so much. It was an incredible opportunity.


Natalia:


Thank you for the opportunity! For anything else you might need, I’ll be here to support you. If I can say something positive about someone or something, I will do it. Just to wrap it up, I wish that everyone, both Venezuelans and Peruvians, truly joined more. That mentality of saying “I’m sick of Perú” or “I’m sick of Venezuelans” should be left behind. We should join forces and aim to make the best we can. If you can provide support to unite people more then why not do it?


I’m here for anything else you might need. Thanks, Madi for the listening a bit about my story. I say a bit because I tried to make it shorter, if not we would be here the whole day. But I thank you for this, it was a truly liberating experience. I feel as if I had put a bit of weight off my shoulders. This topic is something that we immigrants tend to keep locked inside ourselves and it gets heavier by the day. But when you can talk about it freely, you can unload a bit of that weight. So, I thank you Madi for this opportunity even if I get very nostalgic when I talk about this: all that I’ve endured and all I feel I have left to endure.


My greatest sadness comes from my children. As a mother, being away from them is the worst thing that I’ve been through. Not seeing them growing for 3 years has been the biggest and toughest challenge to endure. I hope that when they grow up, they don’t resent me for doing what I did. They are teenagers now and in that time their mentalities change. I hope that all I’ve done ends up being worth it. I have to make it worth it. And if you can provide a new perspective about immigration to society, and my whole experience works to that end, then I really hope this helps you. That way, my children will be able to say that her mom did her part to allow others to know the experience we went through as a family and change society’s view of immigration. So, thanks once again for this opportunity.



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