When You Uproot Your Entire Family Tree

The forced migration that has affected millions of Venezuelans has been going on for long enough and it’s reached large enough proportions that one or two pioneers are followed by groups of three generations

árbol genealógico arrancado de raíz

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

That day in 2019, when Yosmary finally crossed the border between Brazil and Venezuela with her husband and three children, the dizziness and headaches became unbearable. It seemed to be because of the heat and stress, and they had plenty of added stress. They sold the few things they had to get out of Ciudad Bolívar, desperate because they couldn’t find medicine for their twins who suffer from asthma and because they’d lost their jobs. It was 2018 and a lot of people were leaving by land to the Andes, headed to Bogota or Santiago de Chile; they could only reach Brazil with what they had. They were so scared of leaving, of getting away from the world they’d always lived in, with their people on the southern bank of the Orinoco River, that they spent nine months in Santa Elena de Uairén, camping on Indigenous land first, and then renting a place in town. But they finally accepted that they had no choice, and crossed over to Paracaima, Brazil.

Yosmary is precise and articulate, but she has many holes in her recollection of what happened the day they left Venezuela and the next few months; part of what she can tell today had to be rebuilt by listening to her husband. She remembers the Brazilian military giving her medicine for her migraines, but they wouldn’t get better. In the shelter in Boa Vista where they were taken to, after having the medical exam all Venezuelan migrants have to go through, Yosmary’s pains worsened. “I was dizzy all the time,” she says, “and I was skinny and dehydrated from throwing up so much. I’d fall sideways. I couldn’t do anything by myself.” 

One day she fainted. Doctors suspected something serious and sent her in an ambulance to a hospital, where a CT scan showed a mass inside the posterior part of her head, between her brain and her spine. She was admitted immediately.

A few days after entering Brazil, 32-year-old Yosmary, mother to six-year-old twins and a thirteen-year-old boy, found out she had a brain tumor.

The story of Khristian and his family starts with a pact with his wife, in Guarenas, a commuter town half an hour from Caracas: whoever finds work abroad, leaves, and the other one joins them with the kids when they can. 

It was 2016 and it got harder each week for the couple to survive with their five and seven-year-old children, although they lived with Khristian’s parents. He had graduated as an oil production technician, but he still didn’t have his diploma; in the meantime, he worked at a fruit store. In December, an acquaintance helped her get an opportunity to work as a manicurist in Girón, a town in the Colombian Santander department, and she went by herself by bus.

She started sending money as soon as she got there and began to work, but it was far from being enough. Khristian would take the vegetables that were about to spoil to feed his parents and his children with lasagna noodles, the only kind available. If there was any left for him, he would eat, if not, he didn’t. “One day my kids were very hungry and I couldn’t give them anything but arepa and fried mango,” Khristian recalls, “I then understood that I also had to leave. I felt humiliated.” He saw that the only way to have an income to survive was to emigrate too. In 2017, he finally got his diploma and his passport, he left his kids with their grandparents and went on his way. He bought the bus ticket with help from the owners of the fruit store. Khristian lost half of his body weight; he weighed 65 kilos instead of 120. He witnessed on the trip, for example, how some cops would take all of the food another migrant had in her luggage, threatening to charge her with contraband.

Everything changed as soon as he entered Colombia. By then, his wife had managed to go from sleeping on a mattress on the floor to being able to rent a place with the woman she worked with. Khristian started selling empanadas like the ones everyone eats in Venezuela, but the santandereanos didn’t like them. He then tried selling cakes. One way or another, he ate every day now and he could send money for his kids and medicine for his parents. His wife made the trip to go back to look for the little ones. When they got to Girón, Khristian saw they were so skinny that their heads looked huge. “I fell down on my knees and asked for forgiveness.”

Alexandra did something similar to what Khristian’s wife had to do, also in 2018, but with her two-year-old daughter. Alexandra left her family in Caracas, her job as a bank teller, and her husband; she took several pedicure and hairstyling courses, which she had the good idea of taking when food and medicine shortages forced her to decide to emigrate. First, she got to Medellín, where an acquaintance had offered her a job at a hair salon; a bad housing experience then saw her move in with her brother in Bogotá where she found a job in waxing and hair removal. In 2019, her husband encouraged her to go to the Dominican Republic. There, the three of them were together again, with the bad fortune that her husband was mugged while working as an Uber driver, and was left wounded in a field.

After that event, he decided to go back to Venezuela, but Alexandra wanted to stay in the Dominican Republic with their little girl. Her husband went back to Caracas, with the idea of sending the money for their return, but he didn’t succeed, so he went to the mines in the Amazon. “We haven’t seen him again,” Alexandra says, “he talks to us when he gets cell reception.” Meanwhile, Alexandra enrolled her daughter in school, regularized her immigration status, and set up a podiatry startup. Now she’s pondering whether to stay in the Dominican Republic or move to Canada with her daughter.

In Boa Vista, Yosmary’s tumor was growing so fast, pressing on her cervical spine, that within a few weeks she couldn’t walk anymore, use her hands, or swallow. She was bedridden soon after, wearing a diaper and a catheter, with heavy sedation. She was going blind. “In the Boa Vista hospital they didn’t want to do surgery,” Yosmary says.“I’m not sure why, but I think they didn’t dare because of where the tumor was. Weeks went by and I felt like I was losing the battle. I just wanted to go back to Venezuela and die surrounded by my family.” 

But her husband, Alí, wouldn’t give up. He managed to bring Yosmary’s mother to Boa Vista to be with her daughter and help with the kids, while he focused on getting help from people they met, Brazilians and Venezuelans that worked for the Shelter Operation, the International Organization for Migration or the Venezuelan Embassy in Brazil. Asking, insisting, begging in a foreign language that he had to learn a bit more each day, Alí found a specialist who would have a go at the tumor, Dr. Marcos Quizones.

Dr. Quizones agreed to operate, but they had to go to Santa Catarina, to the south, a risky plane ride with medical assistance. They had to wait for 20 days until the airline doctor could check her and authorize the move. After the wait in Santa Elena de Uairén, traveling as refugees in Pacaraima, and the convalescence in Boa Vista, now Yosmary was traveling with a doctor, her three children, her mother, her husband, and an OIM assistant to the remote hospital that held her hope for survival. The trip meant a whole day without her medication which worsened her condition. From Friday, when the journey began, until Monday when her surgery was scheduled, she couldn’t even speak anymore. In Santa Catarina she was joined by her sisters, to be with her in what Yosmary recalls as “the most horrible week of my life.” 

One day, Khristian saw a man walking a bunch of dogs in Bucaramanga. That was a job there, and he later found out that they were looking for dog walkers. He had a dog in Venezuela and he loved dog trainer Cesar Millan’s TV show, but he didn’t know anything about that. He showed them his resume and they told him he was overqualified for the job, but he insisted he needed to work and they gave him the opportunity. He just had to stop the dogs from fighting and pick up what they left behind. He watched videos and he learned little by little. But his employer sold the company to another man and he was unemployed for a while; then he went to the new owner, with the experience he had, but now the problem was that because he was foreign few customers wanted to trust him with their pets, they were afraid he would steal them. Finally, he gained some peoples’ trust, and he met others.

After a year of doing that, Khristian decided to set up his own business. Thanks to the support from the government for migrants and the special permission to stay, he completed a startup course, asked for a micro-credit and founded Caninoamigos Colombia in February 2019. His wife took on the other expenses. In fifteen days, Khristian was walking two dogs. A year later he had almost eighty dogs and began hiring employees. His wife asked for another credit to open her own manicure shop. The kids were already in school, retaking their school life that migrating had interrupted. They rented a space, moved to an apartment in Bucaramanga, and went all in to grow. The new salon opened its doors on March 12th, 2020.

Then the pandemic arrived. Neither the salon could open nor could Khristian go out to walk dogs. Had the time come to go back to Venezuela? How? And go back to do what?

Yosmary’s surgery went on for an entire day. When she woke up, Dr. Quizones told her he had managed to remove the entire tumor. She was moved to a room the next day and spent a month in hospital. “I had to learn to walk and talk again, like a small child.” 

When she was released, with a draining tube coming out of her head, not only was she alive and recovering, but Yosmary’s world had changed completely. During her recovery, Caritas Diocesana found a house, food, and clothing for her family. Her two sisters went back to Venezuela, but her diabetic and hypertensive mother decided to stay in Brazil to get treatment and especially to take care of her grandkids. Many things have happened in the three years since the surgery that saved Yosmary’s life. “I have regular appointments with the doctor. My neural tissue is still recovering and it hurts a lot sometimes. He won’t leave my side until I make a full recovery,” she says. Her kids learned Portuguese and they’re studying without any problems. Her husband is working and while she has some facial paralysis, she works close to home as a re-stocker at a supermarket, quite different from her job as a technical electrician for real estate development in Venezuela, but she’s doing very well.

Things turned out different than what she thought they’d be on the day she asked Alí to take her back to Ciudad Bolívar to die. Her five siblings decided to follow in her footsteps with their spouses and children, via Pacaraima and Boa Vista, and now they all live within a few blocks in Santo André, an area of Capivari de Baixo. “We lived close to each other in the same neighborhood in Ciudad Bolívar, and now we’re neighbors here. We’re a very close family.” They had a welcome party in Santo André recently. “Some people have rejected us here, but more have been supportive. The good ones outnumber the bad.” 

There are thousands of stories like Yormary’s. Such as Jhoanna, from Barquisimeto, who in 2018, with lupus and a one-year-old baby, saw how she couldn’t get the things her son needed and much less the medicines and special products she needed for her skin and scalp. The food shortage was also overwhelming. Her husband left before her to Peru. So Jhoanna fell into depression and anxiety, her lupus symptoms worsened: “My hands would crack. The lesions on my scalp were horrible and that doesn’t go away with any shampoo. I felt the pull, that to join him I had to leave my mom and all my family. I had psychiatric help.” Jhoanna and the baby left the country in December that year. In Peru, where the husband was already working, they could eat well despite the limitations. She joined a church that helped her find aid for her disease that she had never had in Venezuela. An NGO paid for tests that she hadn’t been able to do in four years to measure the status of her lupus. Jhoanna doesn’t complain about xenophobia, what pains her is that she can’t help her family more; maybe ten or fifteen dollars per month that they send as remittance, and that she can’t see them. She’s had to learn to change her large family for a world where it’s just her, her husband, and the little boy. But she talks to her mother every day and wonders when she can see them.

When Khristian and his wife realized they were reaching a point where they could no longer feed their children in March and April 2020, they called Adriana Parra, “our Guardian Angel.” Khristian met her in 2019 by chance; they found a lost dog, got in touch with its owner, and it turned out to be Adriana, another Venezuelan in Bucaramanga. She and her daughter had found a small NGO, Tempus, which basically saved the walking travelers from hunger and cold. “I was lucky enough to come and go by bus, and it was painful to see all those people walking to run away from what they were living there. We’d make arepas with cheese in Girón or we’d give some money to those we found by chance. Adriana would do that from her car, getting women and children in her small car and giving them a ride to Bucaramanga. She didn’t rest,” says Khristian. 

Adriana recruited Khristian for the NGO and helped them have food in their home until both the salon and Caninoamigos could reopen by mid-year. The owner of the store, who lives in the USA, understood the situation and didn’t cancel the lease. Today, Caninoamigos is in charge of thirty-five dogs. But, Khristian also has an employee, his godson. Another six relatives of his have worked for him before. He has been bringing in his father-in-law, his parents, and all their clan, who’ve been legalizing their status and opening businesses or working in different things. “Some have struggled to find a job. Over there one would prepare for a university degree, not a skill, and when we emigrated we found that having a skill is more valuable than a degree, and the boys in our family were twenty-year-old students that didn’t know how to do anything.” 

In December 2016, Khristian’s wife led the way. Today there are twenty-seven of them. They all lived close by in Guarenas; now they all live in Bucaramanga. “The eldest of the group is seventy-two years old, the youngest is four. We all need to go back to Venezuela, see that everything is screwed up, and then come back. We know that what we miss isn’t there anymore. I’ve lost three family members since I came here and I’ve only been able to say goodbye to one of them. Things are tough here and we’re afraid that socialism will win here; many of us have thought about taking the leap up north, to the United States or Canada, because in Latin America, this can always happen,” says Khristian.


Our thanks to Factual, Adriana Parra, Martha Fernández, Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian and Gabriela Álvarez. 

Read the Spanish version of this story on Cinco8.