Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Returning: A New Challenge for Venezuelan Migrants

Many Venezuelans who left the country are now going back, over hardships worsened by the COVID-19 crisis. Many think that if you're going to suffer, better do it at home

Mija, how are you? Are you alright?”

“Yes, mom, I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

“Are you sure? I don’t know, I don’t feel you’re doing well.”

“Oh, come on! Of course I’m fine, mom!”

Karina lies. She’s on the mattress, breastfeeding her two-month-old baby, while talking on the phone; her mother is in Venezuela, Karina, not her real name, in Ecuador. She doesn’t want her voice to break and let her mother know she’s crying. She’s been eating nothing but rice and lentils for two weeks and the bag of diapers won’t last for more than two days. Quito has been under quarantine for 54 days because of COVID-19, it’s the end of April and everyone knows that they shouldn’t leave their homes after 2:00 p.m. You can buy groceries but just on the days set according to the last digit of your ID. The only thing left to do is wait. Meaning, survive.

And she’s desperate. The situation with the baby’s father is very tense: he wants to kick her out of the house and keep the boy. He has beaten her before, and with his family’s support, he’s threatening her with calling immigration so she’s taken away for being a “disgusting veneca.”

“I’m fine, mom,” she says again. But she knows that over there in Turén, Portuguesa, her mom isn’t convinced. Karina decided to move to Ecuador two years ago with the assurance that she could get a job as a salesperson in a car dealership. A friend of hers that had been living there for some time told her that she would take her in. Everything was going to be fine.

The promised job was indeed there when she arrived. She rented a small space in the house of an elderly couple that treated her like a granddaughter and started saving money for her mother and eldest daughter. 

Then she met her baby’s father. A relationship that blocked part of her future.

When she got pregnant, this man promised to help her. He said she shouldn’t work because he had a business of his own. That his woman shouldn’t have to go out on the street to work. That since a baby was coming, it was his job to be the sole provider.

Protection From the Tribe

Three days later, the inevitable happened: the boy’s father went to the small apartment where she lived and an argument broke out. She thought it was safe to let him inside so he could see the baby, but she was wrong. He grabbed the child and wanted to take him by force.

“You’re not taking the boy!” she yelled as they went down the stairs, “He’s my son! Let go of him!”

In a nearby park, a group of Venezuelans who had been sleeping there for a week before they continued their journey back to their home country on foot, heard the ruckus and recognized the accent.

“What’s up, mami? What’s that guy doing to you?”

He has beaten her before, and with his family’s support, he’s threatening her with calling immigration so she’s taken away for being a “disgusting veneca.”

When he saw himself surrounded, the father let his guard down and returned the baby. She cried, with the little one weeping in her arms. He was very upset, he didn’t want to take her breast and his face was red with fear. One of the neighbors called the police and they arrived after 20 minutes. Statements were taken, forms were filled, and they were looking at their watches constantly: the police officers were in a hurry. Curfew was about to begin.

Karina, crying, asked where she and the baby would stay now. On the street? In a shelter? What would she eat? She was very hungry that day. So much, that the police bought her a soda just so she wouldn’t pass out.

“Do you have a place to stay? We can take you.”

She thought about her only friend in Ecuador. Her lifesaver friend. After the phone rang for a couple of times, a familiar voice said, “Come and bring the baby! I’ll take you in.”

A Flood of Calls for Help

Since the quarantine began in Ecuador, on March 17th, Venezuelan migrants have seen their troubles increase: according to the Government’s Ministry, by the end of January, we were 400,000 in Ecuador, and of those, 89% didn’t have a steady job.

They live on a day-to-day basis on street trading, and the imposed curfew means that they can’t go out and sell their goods or find jobs so they can pay for their daily needs. This has resulted in many not being able to pay their rent, buy food, or pay for basic needs. Andrew Castro, president of the Fundación Mueve, in Guayaquil, had to change phones. The previous one collapsed after receiving over a thousand WhatsApp messages.

“Most of those were from Venezuelans asking for food, work, and help so they don’t get thrown out of where they’re staying,” he says.

President Lenín Moreno sent a Humanitarian Law project to the National Assembly at the end of April, asking to create ways for landlords and tenants to reach agreements in order to prevent arbitrary evictions, among other things. But as long as there isn’t a clear picture, the landlords have the power to do whatever they want.

Karina stayed with her friend for two days. A large apartment in downtown Quito, a safe place where she was able to talk to her mother again and tell her what was really going on: she was alone, with her baby, unemployed, and wanting to return to Venezuela.

“Come back, mija! Come! You never should’ve left. I’m here with your brothers. Your family is here. The people that love you are here and we’ll get through this together.”

Crying, she asked for her mother’s blessing, and told her that if need be, she’d go back on foot. In the last few days she read on social media about several Venezuelans that were getting together in groups to literally walk back. She also remembered the words of one of her rescuers that day of terror at the park: “Mami, this is no way to live. It’s better to go through hard times in our own country than abroad.”

In the Venezuelan consulates of Quito and Guayaquil, they have a list of more than 5,000 people that wrote down their names during the quarantine so that they can be returned to Venezuela with the Vuelta a la Patria plan. She stared with nostalgia and a bit of envy how on Thursday, May 7th, a Conviasa flight left the Mariscal Sucre International Airport headed to Barquisimeto, Lara.

They live on a day-to-day basis on street trading, and the imposed curfew means that they can’t go out and sell their goods or find jobs so they can pay for their daily needs.

“Here we are, thank God,” Uriel Molina says in a video taped outside of the Venezuelan consulate in Quito. “Waiting for buses that will take us to the airport. We’re going back to Venezuela.” Uriel started walking from Lima on April 17th and on the 30th, he arrived in Quito, where he managed to secure a place on the first flight of the Vuelta a la Patria quarantine plan.

Run to Turén

“Karina, our landlord can’t know you’re here because we’re already one month behind with rent,” her friend told her on her second day there. “We’ll do everything we can to find a safe place for you, so that man won’t find you.”

The Organización Internacional de Migraciones (OIM) of Ecuador offered her a place in a hostel in the central-north part of Quito where they rent rooms for immigrants. Karina sighed with relief because international organizations were working to help Venezuelan migrants, or so she had heard. She wouldn’t be alone.

Yet two days after entering the shelter, she found that three other Venezuelan families had been evicted, for not following the rules and their constant fights.

“Mom, they won’t stop smoking everywhere. The boy’s sick because of all the smoke. Besides, one of them hit his wife yesterday. I don’t want to hear about men who hit women ever again.”

Mija, come back already!”

“I can’t, mom. How am I supposed to walk around with the baby? There’s a curfew and the borders are closed.”

“But there’s people crossing through by-paths. Anywhere is better than where you are; we can’t help you if something happens to you.”

“It’s okay, mom. I’ll be fine.”

The OIM had to intervene at the hostel and get her out of there. Her new shelter was especially aimed at victims of domestic violence, where she has to pay 25 cents for 10 minutes of internet time to talk to her mom.

It was then when she learned she had to be quarantined, since she came from another country. They assured her she’d get three meals a day.

“Mom, the lady that runs this place is really nice. She calls the baby ‘gordito,’ chubby. As soon as I can, I’ll run back to Turén.”

Karina won’t be the only one. At least 90 Venezuelans are held at the Rumichaca International bridge, which connects Ecuador to Colombia. Sleeping out in the open and at the mercy of mafias who charge between $20 and $50 to cross them through the by-paths, they hail from Maracaibo, Caracas, Cumaná, Coro and Puerto Ordaz, all waiting for the border to be re-opened, all hanging on to the same motto: “If you’re gonna suffer, better do it at home.”

You can read this story in Spanish on Cinco8.

Jefferson Diaz

Born and raised in the most dangerous city in the world. Journalist and full time observer.