David Sosa (19) fled his home country Venezuela together with his parents and his younger brother. Leaving everything behind isn’t an easy thing, despite what some people think. Refugees don’t just leave their home because they want to, but because they have to. They’re pressured into it because of danger and politics. Now that they are safely living in Belgium, the Sosa family is ready to tell their story and let everyone know what is happening in Venezuela.
Right now, there is a big crisis going on in Venezuela. It’s a political crisis as well as an economic crisis as a humanitarian crisis. Since the oil prices took a big hit and dropped to an all-time low, a lot of Venezuelan citizens don’t have enough money to pay for their basic needs like health and food. There are big shortages in the food and medicine department and salaries that should last them a month, aren’t even enough to buy 5 simple coffees.
‘It’s a strange feeling when you leave your country. When I was sitting on the plane, and it was launching, I heard myself say: I did it, I left my country’.’ Father Horacio (48) talks about the day he and his son, David, left their home country Venezuela to find a better life. ‘My wife, Mathilde is a psychologist, and I’m a manager. We both worked with a foundation in Venezuela called Provida. I got in contact with children living on the streets, they were often drug addicts, and we tried to help them. My wife worked in the rehab centre. Eventually, the government took control of this foundation. So we tried to find a different way and got in contact with a Belgian foundation called Mobile School. They sent us a prototype of the school on wheels, and a little while later, Belgian volunteers came to Venezuela to help.’
‘One day, a volunteer asked me ‘Have you thought about coming to Belgium?’ And I immediately told her no, Belgium’s too far.’
Pressured and scared
‘I remember maybe two years ago, one of the volunteers contacted us again because she was so worried about the situation in Venezuela. She knew I’m diabetic, so living in Venezuela is really dangerous for me because there are no medicines. You can’t even find cotton or alcohol to take care of a wound. So insulin, the medicine that I need, is very hard to find and is also really expensive. When she asked about our food situation, I had to tell her that we couldn’t even buy food to support ourselves and our two kids, David and Andrés (14). And then one day, the volunteer asked me ‘Have you thought about coming to Belgium?’’ Horacio says with a smile, ‘And I immediately told her no, Belgium’s too far. It’s too expensive. A little while later, I was laying on the couch, unable to get up because of my disease and I decided that this was it, we had to do it. So the volunteers arranged some stuff, collected money and eventually bought plane tickets for David and me.’
But fleeing the country wasn’t easy, David explains: ‘When my dad and I were in the airport, and the whole military stood in front of us, I felt so pressured and scared. Someone from the military could easily say ‘Ah, you’re leaving the country, you’re coming to jail with us.’ That’s why we had to buy two plane tickets, one to come to Belgium and one to go back to Venezuela. This way, the military thinks we’re coming back, but we’re not. Hopefully.’ The other half of the family, Mathilde and Andrés, couldn’t join them because the tickets were so expensive. Eventually, they arranged help from an uncle in the United States. He bought tickets for the two of them and made sure that the family was reunited again.
‘We couldn’t tell anybody that we were leaving, only the people that we really trusted’, David starts. ‘If the government finds out, they can think we have a lot of money, which we don’t. The paramilitary groups that are controlled by the government could send us a message with the location of, for instance, my grandmother and the message to transfer them 2.000 euros or my grandma would be killed. That luckily hasn’t happened yet, but it can happen. That’s scary.’
5 euros a month
I asked them what would happen if they ever had to go back. ‘First of all, I’ll die in the first month because I don’t have any medicines in Venezuela’, Horacio starts. ‘My sons can’t continue to study because, as we’ve said before, we don’t have the money. A psychologist, university professor, manager, in Belgium these are good jobs. In Venezuela, we receive just enough money to get by for one week. The minimum salary is 5 euros a month.’
Mathilde starts talking in Spanish while Horacio and David translate: ‘The most complex and dangerous situation is the food situation. You can tolerate going without food for 1 or 2 days, but when it’s like that for 2 or 3 weeks, people become desperate. There was a time that we could only eat rice for three weeks straight. I’ve gained 8 kilo’s since I’m in Belgium, that’s 8 kilo’s in 6 months.’
Horacio adds: ‘Two months before I came to Belgium, I had two eye surgeries. How could I possibly afford an eye surgery if we couldn’t even buy food, you ask? Because our friends from Belgium send 50 euros. For us, 50 euros mean two surgeries in Venezuela.
Guns, kidnappings and smoke bombs
‘People know that they can’t find food, so they become dangerous’, Mathilde says, ‘When you wake up, the first thought that goes through your mind is what you’re going to eat that day. People do stuff that they’d normally never do to find food or money.’
‘He made everybody give him their cellphone. If you didn’t, you’d be killed’
David starts talking about the time his family was held at gunpoint: ‘My brother, mother and dad were in a Subway, you know, from the sandwiches, and a man with a big gun came in. He made everybody give him their cellphone. If you didn’t, you’d be killed. So the better scenario is to have your cellphone stolen. Because every day, people are fighting in the streets to survive.’ David lifts the leg of his trousers and shows his socks. ‘I used to put my cellphone in my sock so that nobody could see I had one when I was on my way to school. You have to imagine that my university is one of the best universities in Venezuela, but even there, the bad guys came with guns and stole everything we had. They know that students who go to that university have a phone.’
‘The worst thing is that it’s normal in Venezuela’, Horacio adds, ‘We once had a situation where some chiefs came to the company I was the manager of, and they kidnapped all my employees and me. They took all the money we had, stole our products and sold them. It scared me so much.’
‘Of course, it’s more dangerous when you engage in political activities’, Mathilde starts talking, ‘In our country, we go to the streets with a white flag, and maybe a little banner and the government comes with tanks and weapons. Every day, there’s more fear amongst the citizens. In one manifestation, the military threw smoke bombs at us. But you get used to living with it. You get used to your car being stolen or guns being pointed at you.’
No agenda for your friends
Especially for Andrés, the youngest son, things have been really hard. ‘I think that all four of us have been affected, but Andrés is the one who has suffered most in this situation’, Mathilde starts explaining. ‘He’s 14 years old, and he had to leave all of his friends behind. You know how much your friends affect you when you’re 14. It’s not only that, but the culture of teenagers in Belgium and Venezuela is different. In Venezuela, there is no agenda for your friends. Here you make an appointment to see each other, while in our country your friend announces he’s coming over by knocking on your door.’
‘As a refugee, you can feel alone. We think he feels alone now, but he never says anything because he’s a man. He’s trying to be big and strong, and a strong man doesn’t say everything’, Horacio sighs. ‘We’ve moved a lot since we arrived in Belgium, from Aalter to De Haan to Kapellen to Wetteren, because we had to change from refugee centres to different social houses. In each of those places, Andrés made some connections with some people. But each time, he had to leave them behind. To start a connection and then leave, it’s not easy. We’re the new kids on the block here in Wetteren, so we don’t know many people yet.’
Start all over again
‘I don’t know if we can be as happy as we were in Venezuela, because it’s our home. The people that we love are still there’, Mathilde starts getting emotionally. ‘They stay in Venezuela, and we know that when everything is finished, we can go back and we can live in our country again. This doesn’t mean we’re not grateful for Belgium and everything that the people have done to help us. But we miss almost everything from Venezuela.’
‘We can find everything we need here in Belgium. Everything. And maybe we can find an easy way to live here, but it’s hard to know that you must start all over again when you’re 48 years old. We have to learn a new language, learn a new job, all our experience isn’t valid’, Horacio falls in for his wife.
‘When you have to migrate to another country because of pressure and danger, it’s heart pain’
‘You finally buy a house in Venezuela after 18 years, you finally have a car and a good life and then suddenly, you have to leave’, David says. ‘My parents aren’t the only people who left the country with a lot of knowledge. My mom probably has to start cleaning while she studied for ten years and you can find so many other people, like doctors, with 20 years of experience and ten years of studies who are now cleaning houses or washing the dishes. The worst thing is that you earn more money as a cleaning lady here in Belgium than you do as a surgeon in Venezuela.’
‘When you have to migrate to another country because of pressure and danger, it’s heart pain. It’s not healthy for anybody to have to leave your country out of fear, out of danger. But we’re managing’, Mathilde adds.
‘Every day is a new day. That’s what we keep telling ourselves. And right now, I feel free’, Horacio smiles. ‘There’s always the possibility that we’ll be sent back to Venezuela, but we can’t think about it too much. The basic standards of life that we now have a guarantee of makes us happier. We can eat without having to worry about the next day, and we don’t have to hide our phones. But it’s not the same as in Venezuela. Something we will never lose is our culture. We’ll always be Venezuelan people, and we’ll try to spread our true happiness and positivity, and no one can take it away from us.’
Text and featured image: © Janne Schellingen