“To buy food, you had to wait and wake up at maybe 4-5am, and go to a supermarket that might have food that will arrive, and wait for 6 hours maybe to buy a packet of sugar, or only a packet of flour, or maybe oil, or maybe soup. It was not a life.”
Marianela was another distinguished speaker that featured in the “Refugee Voices Series,” hosted by Washington & Jefferson College in Spring 2021. Unlike many of the other guest speakers, Marianela was in her 60’s, and hence had not spent her entire life living in hardship conditions. She had a life before the economy collapsed and memories of when Venezuela was “a good country” that she loved and thrived in.
Marianela currently resides in Costa Rica with refugee status, but it took her several years to reach where she is now. She described to us that “all of my family is completely divided. I have a daughter and she has been living in Hong Kong for 10 years.” She described that her family was additionally scattered throughout Latin America and the United States, with several members still remaining in Venezuela.
Before the collapse of the economy, Marianela had a job in Venezuela for many years. She described that, “I had 2 travel agencies and a guest house. If you some day find a South American handbook, I am talking about more than 20 years ago, my name and my guest house, and my travel agencies will be in this book with highly recommendations. But, the situation made me close [the business].”
Marianela elaborated upon the Venezuelan societal situation, particularly focusing on the financial hardship. “All the prices are in dollars, but you don’t have dollars. You have Bolivars, and nobody wants to take your bolivars. You can buy maybe a packet of flour or a thing of tuna for $3. Some people are eating from garbage in Venezuela. They go behind the garbage truck, looking to take the food before it goes in a truck.”
She explained that although she was too old to participate in protests, she was a part of an organization that provided money, shelter, and food to the students engaged in civic activities. However, whenever several of her colleagues were put in jail, she decided that she needed the country because she did not want to spend the last 10-20 years of her life behind bars.
“When I decided to come here, I had my own car, my own apartment, I had all the things that old people have. I had to sell a lot of that to have the money to come here, because in Venezuela, now, the minimum salary is $3 per month. Don’t think per hour. Per day or Per week. Per month.” She continued by saying, “I sold two TV’s, some furniture, just to pay for the ticket.”
Marianela left behind everything when she left for Costa Rica. Although her life wasn’t comfortable in Venezuela, she did have a family. However, her choice to leave the country, to leave behind everything that she knew and had, should further illuminate how dire the situation in Venezuela is for its people. Marianela made the decision that she would rather build herself a new life in Costa Rica than continue living without a steady source of income and continuous food supply and potentially risk imprisonment for supporting activism.
When Marianela arrived, she had no friends, no family, no home, and no job. However, “when I came here, I came with expectations. I can work again, and do this.” However, she explained that the job search for her was hard. Although she could secure interviews and deliver companies her CV, “When they met me in person, they didn’t call me again. I didn’t realize why, but after I understood that it was my age. First, my age and also because this is a very ‘machista’ country, and I am a woman, and an immigrant. Three things that they maybe don’t like. And this was a really hard time, for 6 months without money, without anything here.”
Happily, after waiting 3-4 months to obtain refugee status, Marianela was put in contact with NaTakallam, a non-profit organization through which she now receives income as a Spanish teacher. However, most refugees aren’t as lucky.
Despite receiving a source of income, Marianela is still isolated from her family and friends, and because of her status, cannot visit Venezuela anymore. In fact, “I don’t know when I am going to see my brothers again. I don’t know if I will see them again in my life or not, maybe they will die or I’ll die. It’s really sad.”
Despite all of the incredible barriers she still has to overcome, Marianela was confident. She stated that, “I am a really strong woman. I have feelings, I miss my family, but the only thing I need to say is that I am a woman. I have to fight for my future. I don’t want to be in Venezuela waiting for food. I don’t deserve that. I worked a lot all of my life. I had 3 apartments, 2 cars, and I traveled to Germany, to Austria, France. Not because I was rich, no. Normally, you work all year, you save your money, and you travel.”
Marianela concluded the conversation with these words, “I only hope that when all of you meet people from other countries, an immigrant or refugee, that you will be a good person to them. You don’t have to help, but you don’t have to be mean or bad to this person.”
Refugees do not fit a common mold. They have different backgrounds, stories, and battles. To most people, Marianela represents an “unconventional” refugee. She is a woman who had a family, a successful career, and a satisfying life for many years before Venezuelan life declined. In her 60’s, she uprooted her life, forged a new career, and fought to achieve the life she knows she deserves. Whenever we think about refugees, we must remember the amount of bravery and independence that Marianela possesses, and the everlasting fact that refugees leave their home countries out of necessity, to survive.