Seven-day bus rides, suitcases filled with candy and goodbyes to friends: Young women share what it’s like to flee the crisis in Venezuela

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Four million people have left the country as the economic and humanitarian crisis worsens. 

In 2017, 18-year-old Katiuska had expected to begin her degree at the Universidad de Carabobo in Venezuela. Instead, she found herself packing all her possessions in a suitcase and fleeing her home.  

Just like Katiuska, four million people have left Venezuela in the past five years because of the growing economic and humanitarian crisis. After the collapse of the economy in 2014, the country’s currency plummeted and became virtually worthless. This hyperinflation has caused high rates of unemployment, violent crime and hunger. 

Nine out of 10 households in Venezuela don’t have enough money to buy food. People have turned to stealing to support their families, others resort to kidnapping to buy supplies with the ransom they extort. Recent Gallup surveys named Venezuela the most dangerous country in the world

Four young women who have fled Venezuela for other parts of Latin America spoke about deciding to leave behind their homes, the challenges of rebuilding their lives and what they wish the rest of the world knew about the crisis in Venezuela. Read their responses below.

Katiuska, age 20, now living in Lima, Peru

(Courtesy of Katiuska)

(Courtesy of Katiuska)

Why did you decide to leave Venezuela? 

I decided to leave Venezuela because young people felt like we didn’t have another option. In my case, I wanted to work so I could pay for my education and that wasn’t possible. On top of that, the insecurity you live in doesn’t let you have the freedom to enjoy time with your loved ones in peace. On the streets, there’s only danger.

How did you feel when you were leaving? 

I think the best way to define how I felt in that moment was “broken.” I didn’t want to leave, especially not knowing if I would see my family, friends, neighbours and pets again. I was afraid because I didn’t know what was waiting for me in a country I didn’t know. I would have to learn about a new culture, add new words to my vocabulary, understand and respect that not everyone’s the same and that in a new country, being an immigrant, you’re not a special guest. In fact, you are someone who wasn’t invited and many people will make sure you know that. But despite all those feelings, I still had hope because I would be closer to reaching my goals.

Tell us about your trip. 

Emigrating is a complicated process because you realise that carrying your life in a suitcase is a bit impossible. It sounds easy, “Take the important things.” But when you think about how long you’ll be away from home, everything becomes important, from a book you received from a loved one to a letter that you’ve been saving for years. In my suitcase, I was able to bring photos of my family, lots of them, basic things and candy from Venezuela, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. 

To travel from Venezuela to Peru, we — my mom, my boyfriend and I — took buses because they were much cheaper than planes. The route we took was the following: Maracay to Cúcuta, Cúcuta to Bogotá, Bogotá to Cali, Cali to Ipiales, Ipiales to Ecuador, Ecuador to Tumbes, Tumbes to Lima. This process took seven days. We were only able to shower twice. It’s by far the hardest experience of my life.

What would you like people to know about the exodus of Venezuelan refugees? 

For all those people who judge us: I know not everyone knows the situation we’re going through, I know other countries have had crises, I know it’s hard when many foreigners arrive in your country and take jobs that supposedly are for you. I know Venezuelans can be loud and sometimes too cheerful… The point is that we are going through a hard time and we only want your support, a helping hand. This is temporary, and just like it happened to us, it can happen to anyone. In Peru, the rate of Venezuelans who committed suicide in the year 2018 was high, so high that I was afraid for my friends, acquaintances and family abroad. It’s a bad moment for us as a society. We need all the help we can get and a lot of love.

Sofía, age 25, now living in Buenos Aires, Argentina

(Courtesy of Sofía)

(Courtesy of Sofía)

Why did you decide to leave Venezuela? 

I was halfway through college when, in February 2014, I decided that I had to leave because around that time there were many protests, I couldn’t go out to the streets. Going to class and coming back home was very complicated. Taking public transportation was very scary. I used to be able to take the subway to and from school but then it got dangerous. You couldn’t even walk to the subway station because it was so dangerous. There were many kidnappings happening, many streets cut off by people. I didn’t have a car so I had to find a friend who could drive me to and from school. I was afraid of leaving my house at night. You would walk out to the street thinking, “I could die, I could be kidnapped, something could happen to me.” You’d be afraid of the cars passing by.

How did you feel when you were leaving?

It’s complicated. When I left, it was still possible to leave with money saved, even with dollars. I left with my boyfriend. My mom came to visit us around a month after we left and she helped us settle in and brought us money. We were able to rent an apartment, buy furniture. We were able to put everything together so we could stay here without it being so hard. I also had some extended family here. So I didn’t feel so alone. I think there are many people who came here alone, without knowing anyone, without knowing the place. They’re in a completely different situation than mine.

What do you miss about Venezuela?

This is going to sound strange, but I miss the beach. Obviously I miss my family a lot but I was able to see my mom recently. I haven’t seen my dad and my brother in two years, because that’s the last time I went there. But other than my family, what I miss the most is the beach because it’s something so ours and so characteristic. Every time you had a long weekend or it was a Sunday and you just felt like it you’d go to the beach. 

At the beginning, I missed the food a lot because I wanted to eat things I liked and reminded me of home. But very soon other immigrants from Venezuela started to arrive and they opened Venezuelan restaurants and cafes that sold everything — empanadas, arepas, cachapas, everything. Now that I have my food available near me I don’t miss it as much. 

Will you stay here or do you have another destination in mind?

I don’t want to stay. My plan is to finish university and then move somewhere else. When you already had the experience of moving to a new country, once you’re already settled in that new place, you eventually want to move again. You want to see more of the world. I don’t know where, or when, or how but I’ll definitely be living somewhere else around the end of next year.

Camila, age 14, now living in Cúcuta, Colombia

(Courtesy of Camila)

(Courtesy of Camila)

Tell me about your family’s decision to leave Venezuela. 

That was very hard for everyone because none of us wanted to leave but the situation forced us to leave. The day they told me we were leaving was very difficult because I had spent my entire life in the same place. But I wanted to handle it well, take it as a good thing, like a good chance to meet new people, see new places, have new experiences that can teach me something new. Something to get out of my usual life. So, I tried to look at the bright side, not so much at the fact that I was going away.

How did you get to Cúcuta?

We drove in our car because we wanted to bring everything. We brought the whole house with us! It was a two-day trip but preparing the move took a long time. 

I like being in Cúcuta because it was the closest thing to Venezuela. Not just geographically, but here there are many people from Venezuela so that made the move less shocking. I’ll be walking down the street wearing a Venezuela cap and run into people from Venezuela and we start talking. It’s very nice to run into people from your country when you’re abroad.

What was the most challenging part of moving to another country?  

I think it was the different people. The different way they talk, the way they treat each other. There are things you do in Venezuela that are considered normal, but here, maybe they see it as weird or it’s not something you normally see. 

I also think that people my age already have their friend groups set. They already have people they feel close to so that makes it difficult for outsiders to make friends. They received me very well. My first day at school, they were great.

What do you miss the most from home? 

My friends. Because no matter how well I get along with the girls and boys here, I always have that feeling of wanting to be with my friends and family in Venezuela, of wanting to be in Venezuela. It’s an extremely beautiful place. You walk down the street and smile to anyone and they smile back. Here, people are more serious. If you smile at them they give you a strange look. But truly, Venezuela is a really beautiful country with very sweet people. 

How do you think people could help Venezuelans? 

Being more understanding when talking about the situation in Venezuela. For some people, it’s a very delicate subject and they get upset talking about it. I feel like people sometimes don’t realise that one simple question can hurt because of the memories it brings up and because it reminds you that you’re not there. So raising awareness so people know that comments hurt more than you think.

María Fernanda, age 20, now living in Buenos Aires, Argentina

(Courtesy of María Fernanda)

(Courtesy of María Fernanda)

Why did you decide to leave Venezuela? 

The uncertainty of living in a country where the economy collapses every second, where you ask about a price and if you don’t buy in that instant, the same thing can cost you two or three times more than when you asked. The insecurity of knowing you are in danger in every corner, where people will hurt you to take your cell phone. Public transportation was unbearable.

How did you feel when you were leaving?

I felt empty, like I was leaving my entire life behind, like it was a very drastic and harsh decision. I came to Buenos Aires with my mom. Really I brought her here. She didn’t want me to leave Venezuela alone and I didn’t want to stay. 

What did you bring with you?

A suitcase full of memories, good times, very few clothes. I was only allowed one suitcase, which came filled with tears and goodbyes.

What were the biggest challenges of the trip?

The biggest challenge during the trip was supporting my mom, who isn’t used to getting out of her comfort zone. It had been a really long time since she last got on a plane, she saw everything differently than I did. The language barrier when we stopped in Brazil too. But when you are young, you want to communicate no matter what. So far, the biggest challenge in this new place is taking care of my mom’s mental health while being in a new place.

These interviews were conducted in Spanish and have been edited for clarity.

This article is also available in Spanish and Portuguese.

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About the author

María Rendo is the communications assistant at Malala Fund. She is from Buenos Aires, Argentina and loves reading, cats and coffee.