Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Forced to Return… Only to Leave Again

Leaving isn’t easy, and neither is coming back to an old reality that you now have to endure indefinitely because of the pandemic

Migrating isn’t easy, especially in Venezuela where, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 5.1 million people have left not because of a war, but because of plain and simple hunger. But for some of those migrants, the COVID-19 pandemic meant a forceful return after living on a day-to-day basis, unable to afford rent anymore. Today, they’re waiting for the quarantine to be over to start a life, again, from scratch.

A 27-year-old woman from Barquisimeto, Lara State (who asked to remain anonymous), says that she left for Cúcuta, Colombia, during the first days of January 2020. Her aunt and uncle had already moved there in mid-2019 and they made a living teaching acting. The young woman, who was an Arts major at the Universidad Central Lisandro Alvarado and was only missing her thesis, decided to leave and try her luck.

She was able to work as an arts teacher for only two months. Her employers had to send her home because of the pandemic, and she didn’t have savings to pay for her room, so she had no choice but to return to Venezuela. Her aunt and uncle were left without pesos too, even though they had spent more time in Colombia, and were also forced to leave. “If we ate, we couldn’t pay rent. If we paid a month’s rent, then we couldn’t eat. We returned to Venezuela because at least we have our own place here,” says the young lady’s aunt, who requested to remain anonymous.

On April 29th, the three of them entered Venezuelan soil. The government that expelled them through absurd economic policies, received them with mismanagement. The young Larense and her aunt and uncle, had to spend six nights in the San Antonio del Táchira bus terminal, near the border with Colombia, waiting for a bus from the Maduro administration to take them to Barquisimeto.

On May 6th, they reached their assigned shelter: the Villa Bolivariana. All three of them spent 14 days in lockdown, where the young woman says that things “were unbearable”. She says that they got locked inside an apartment, and the door would open only when food was brought in, “food that you wouldn’t give to a dog.” She says that the apartment had no running water (rationed for one hour a day) and the place was shared with people. She also says that Cuban doctors would go by every day to check on people and would recommend medicine to those with any disease.

Today, they’re waiting for the quarantine to be over to start a life, again, from scratch.

After officers from the National Guard allowed them to leave, she was able to see her mother after three months, a moment she says she’ll never forget.

Although her love for her family can be a big reason to stay, she says that she can’t. Ever since she came back, she’s been working as a private tutor, because the pandemic also forced schools to close. What each parent pays for their child is barely enough for her to live, and this encourages her to flee again.

The girl is now waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to be over, or for a vaccine to come out. Her first goal is to hand in her thesis and graduate; she’ll then leave, this time for Spain. “It’s a more stable country and with less xenophobia,” she says.

Also Expelled by South America

Ángel, a 27-year-old from Táchira State, is on the same side of the curb. In 2017, he left for Lima, Peru, with his girlfriend. After working at a cake factory where he was forced to handle hot batter without the proper tools, he decided to return in December 2019.

When he left, Ángel had to quit his 7th semester in Animal Production Engineering at the Universidad Nacional Experimental del Táchira. When he returned to San Cristóbal, capital of the state, he told himself that he’d finish it, not counting on a short circuit that would burn down the area where the university holds the entire student body database. The staff couldn’t reinstate him because they didn’t know which subjects he had passed.

The area where Ángel lives has power cuts for six to eight hours each day, and in January and February he experienced (once again) what it’s like to spend two days in line to fill up a tank of gas. 

So, in March, he decided to leave again, hoping for the pandemic to be over soon so that he can go and get a job in the United States. Latin America, to him, is the same as Venezuela: bad wages, work exploitation and xenophobia, a trade of old problems for new ones. “In America, you break your back working, but you get paid well. In Peru and those countries, you work hard, and your salary is just enough for food and rent.”

Daisy Galaviz

Journalist for El Pitazo and Monitor de Víctimas (Runrunes). Writes for Cosecha Roja, El Espectador, Revista Semana and Historias que laten.