Two years ago, I turned my life upside down. Reorganized it completely around one goal: helping Venezuelans get out. The survivor’s guilt of knowing I’d left while those I loved were stuck, suffering, gnawed at me. I changed everything, moved cities, left my husband behind and started a new career just so I could help people escape.
Since I was a child, I knew I’d leave Venezuela. I wanted to be left alone, but I was born in a culture where people are together all the time and personal space is an unknown concept. Being gay didn’t help. I yearned for a place where I wouldn’t be defined by my sexual orientation (“ayyyy, marico”), where I didn’t feel smothered by the small-town morals of people surrounding me. Life was already hard as an atheist faggot in Valera.
Approaching my graduation from Universidad de Los Andes, in 2007, I realized Venezuela was full of opportunities. If things were stable and we had access to foreign markets, there was so much we could do!
I didn’t want to leave, even if I didn’t completely fit in. I was in love with the dream. It was never about patriotism, it was about the possibility of using my knowledge to help others and make money while doing it.
I created a biotech company, people got interested, we got featured in the journal Nature, and we got a grant from the Chilean government. It all failed in the end. It was messy. I fought tooth and nail against it, but it finally dawned on me: Venezuela was going to crash and, if I was foolish enough to stay, it would drag me down with it.
It was never about patriotism, it was about the possibility of using my knowledge to help others and make money while doing it.
I moved to Chile, tried my luck and failed. I did odd jobs, taught at a university, cleaned the proverbial toilets, made beds. I got depressed, considered suicide. I rejected marriage proposals from the man who is now my husband, twice. But not for a second did I consider returning home. Home as I knew it was gone.
I got better, married the man I loved, moved to the U.S., got the much-needed emotional support, and seemed to be back on track. But the situation in Venezuela kept getting worse, and even those who never thought about leaving finally understood that it wasn’t really a choice but a necessity.
Slowly, I started getting depressed again, because I was completely powerless to help them. Because no matter how good I was at my PhD or at science communication, how much my husband loved me, the rest of my life would be torture: sentenced to watch the people I love suffer or die under the monstrous and heartless destruction of the country caused by Chávez, his allies and his successor. Hunger, illness or violence, lots of people would die. I had to do something.
I am not a warrior, I am a thinker, and I am doing what I know: I think.
In 2016, as Venezuela decomposed, I decided to change careers, retrain. A friend suggested I try data science, a new field with lots of demand and legendary salaries; all that exotic, seemingly useless math I’d learned for fun for my second degree took on a new relevance. These days I have a sweet job at Slice, a tech company in Silicon Valley as a data scientist, and I am using that income to help people emigrate.
So far, two months into 2018, I have helped 29 people to get out of Venezuela.
A 65-year-old grandmother from Barquisimeto, a 36-year-old engineer from Valera, a 25-year-old tour guide from Valera, a motorcycle courier from Caracas and two biologists in their thirties from Mérida. A doctor from Barquisimeto, and his entire family.
The goal is simple: to help pay for tickets, rent apartments and lend a hand until people get jobs and are able to fend for themselves.
They’re just a handful of the almost three million Venezuelans who have left the country. Some are family, some are friends, others are complete strangers who have been ready to leave and needed a boost. They don’t deserve to be crushed and die because of chavismo. It’s not their fault that — like most people — they never planned to move out until it was too late.
This year, I decided we needed to scale up. That’s why I launched the Salto Project: an organization to help people emigrate.
The goal is simple: to help pay for tickets, rent apartments and lend a hand until people get jobs and are able to fend for themselves, so they can help their family back home and help others to emigrate as well.
This isn’t just an idea in the making. The project is up and running already. In one apartment in Santiago we’re giving Venezuelans the chance for a new beginning. We’ve helped Venezuelans start a new life, in Lima, Quito, Panama City, and Bogota.
Some days I’m tired. I miss my husband back in Colorado, I miss my home, I’m overworked. But then I get a WhatsApp message, or I see a Facebook post, a picture with bright eyes and smiles, even if la procesión va por dentro, I know I’m doing the right thing.
For those people, this makes all the difference.
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