When he was ten years old, Erick was so stressed and anxious that he didn’t dare peek out of his window in Fila de Mariches, Caracas. The sights were usually crude and violent. “It hasn’t been easy, because you learn to live without them, but you don’t ever really get over it,” he says about the violent death of a beloved cousin because of crime. Since then, Erick and his family have moved to what feels like a safer neighborhood for them. He’s 15 years old and he lives in Petare now.
One of the most prominent slums of Caracas, Petare is renowned for its street violence. In fact, Wuileisys (AKA Wilexys) seemed to be the name in everybody’s mouths in late April and early May, when state security forces occupied the neighborhood searching for the gang leader and master of the turf. For days, shots echoed through the eastern part of the valley of an otherwise quiet city as residents remained on lockdown due to a coronavirus-plus-no-gas combo.
The shootings between young people from Petare and security forces went on for days and left palpable marks on the place. The psychosocial scars run deeper: young children grow anxious and depressed, parents become worried and fearful. Some might be able to move away, but others refuse to leave their home, even with this horrific scenario.
“I can’t really talk about this over the phone,” was the usual response from parents when mental health specialists and social workers from the National Institute of Children’s Development (INVEDIN) reached out to them, to check how they were doing. “I’m afraid they’ll know I said something, you have to promise me you won’t repeat a single word I say.” Residents live under the shadow of the infamous gang, isolated and threatened by their power and violence. They’re careful not to write or say anything too specific that could provide information of the gang’s whereabouts or movements, although they can see the comings and goings from their windows as if it were taking place in their own backyards.
Though it isn’t called a war, residents endure armed conflicts and violence similar to those in warring countries. Families have been threatened out of their homes, just as the many displaced victims of war. Confinement due to a pandemic is one thing, but neighbors in José Félix Rivas, an affected sector in Petare, are more afraid of leaving their homes and participating in community life due to violence than due to COVID-19.
From mourning beloved relatives who have been killed, to protecting daughters who are desired by gang leaders, to being displaced, these families have much to bear.
As a response to this, the organizations INVEDIN and Caracas Mi Convive focused on violence prevention, designed a four-week intervention via WhatsApp to build some tools to deal with the aftermath of violence, with people from José Felix Rivas. Parents, caregivers, teachers, specialists, and even teenagers joined the group, all of them sharing their concern for their community.
People who have been working there already know some of the families’ stories and grievances. From mourning beloved relatives who have been killed, to protecting daughters who are desired by gang leaders, to being displaced, these families have much to bear. As we hoped for the WhatsApp group to become a support network for people sharing the same experiences and concerns, we found that many remained afraid to participate, that they preferred their anonymity, or even that they were unable to cope with more violent stories as they were already hypervigilant and anxious.
Erick joined in, expressing his concern for the increasing tension during the pandemic. “I’d like to show (those who are involved in acts of violence in the community) that this is our second home and that whatever bad things we do there harm us all.” He’s brave enough to share his experience, and reach out to other group members to comfort and encourage them. Previous interventions with Caracas Mi Convive have identified parents’ difficulty to talk about the matter and convey their fears to the younger ones. This time, we devoted a session to discussing how grown ups and caregivers talk about or explain topics of violence to their kids. The participation of teenage Erick kept parents grounded on how familiar violence is to young ones, even if it isn’t openly addressed at home: “It’s difficult to hide the reality we live everyday. I think what’s important is to explain to the children the negative effects of violence.”
When we asked group members to draw their communities with their children, they systematically drew their own houses as their favorite place. Despite the long-held conflict and its rising intensity, residents remain naturally attached to their homes. It’s their one property, the place they have built, the seat of their families’ memories. Many refuse to abandon the space they love, but others are forced to leave. One family was displaced and for a while lost contact with neighbors. The school had no knowledge of their whereabouts and had to make an extraordinary effort to continue providing them with education with the school closed and no internet access.
It’s clear how much effort parents put into protecting children, fearful they might turn to a life of crime, or that they may be caught or mistaken by the police, robbed or harmed in any other way, maybe even killed. They notice how that translates to a more isolated life, as they ask their children to remain at home and avoid the streets most of the time. One caregiver explained how she used to ask her teenager to go out and look for water, but as water became scarcer and the scene more dramatic, she had him stop, scared something bad might happen.
Putting an end to violence and building sustainable peace needs to put young people in front of the process.
We provided some advice on how to incorporate this topic in family conversations, how to address children’s emotions and concerns, and make sure kids know what to do in dangerous situations. A short story on the matter created by INVEDIN for the community was shared with participants.
The impact of violence in the lives of children isn’t properly reported or known in current Venezuela, and there are generations growing surrounded by potentially traumatic events in their communities. Erick, on the other hand, a young man between 15 and 29 living in a vulnerable community, belongs to the most affected group by street violence. According to NGO Monitor de Víctimas’ 2019 report, he’s significantly more likely to become a victim of homicide than his female peers, or his male counterparts living in more privileged neighborhoods. Nearly 7 out 10 deaths match Erick’s age, place of residence and gender.
Erick also belongs to the same demographic group that runs gangs in the city, but he dreams of a safer place, and a tight-knit community. Putting an end to violence and building sustainable peace needs to put young people in front of the process. There’s a powerful human capital potential in the coexistence of astray gangsters with young dreamers like Erick within the same neighborhood.
Even with the evident complications of an intervention of this nature via WhatsApp, participants rescued the importance of togetherness. The conversations provided them with an opportunity to know they’re not alone in their pain or in their common goal of building peace in their communities.
In the words of Erick, “The great gift [I take from this experience] is knowing there are organizations concerned with helping and providing support to those who need it and reminding us that the important things in life are values and that our lives don’t revolve solely around us, but rather that we’re better people when we stand together, as a collective and not as individuals.”
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