On a Wednesday night late last year, 13 Venezuelans gathered in a small room inside Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Bernard’s church in lower Manhattan. The group included a human rights worker who fled the country after receiving threats for his transgender advocacy, a young couple with children still in Venezuela, a university student, and a doctor passing by on vacation; he planned to leave the country himself soon.
A record number of Venezuelans – mostly educated professionals – have been seeking asylum in the United States during the last few years in an attempt to escape a country where citizens have to wait for hours to receive food rations and newborns die from medicine shortages and blackouts in hospitals.
Sitting in a circle, members of the group voiced anxieties about living in New York City, from the congested subway to their pending asylum cases to the stress of hearing their families struggle daily with the humanitarian crisis back home. Gert Wolf, who arrived in the city decades ago, teared up as she described feeling helpless as her relatives suffer from lack of access to basic medicine in Venezuela.
“It has destroyed me,” she said. “Thank god I’m pretty stable here, but what happens to the rest?”
Leading the discussion was Robert Gonzalez, a Venezuelan immigrant who founded Diálogo Por Amor a Venezuela (Dialogue for Love of Venezuela) in April 2014 as a support group for recent immigrants. He offered advice to the room: “Therapy is basic. Eggs, milk, therapy. If not, this city is very tough.”
About 215,000 Venezuelan immigrants live in the U.S. – approximately half residing in Florida and 9,600 in New York City, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Many arrive fleeing government repression. Mass protests in 2014 marked a surge in the government’s crackdown on the opposition to President Nicolás Maduro. The Venezuelan Penal Forum has documented over 100 current political prisoners, compared to the 11 prisoners at the start of Maduro’s presidency in 2013. An August 2016 Pew survey reported that U.S. asylum applications from Venezuela in 2016 have more than doubled.
“We really don’t see an end in sight right now,” says Daniel Wilkinson, the managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. “So far, the government hasn’t shown really any interest in taking steps to show they want to engage in serious negotiations [with the opposition]. They’ve kept people locked up in prison, they continue to control the judiciary and oppressive policies against protestors. It’s not an encouraging situation.”
Recent Venezuelan immigrants in New York City have found a small community to lean on. A handful of organizations like Diálogo Por Amor a Venezuela try to create a support network, offering resources through social media, word of mouth, and a WhatsApp group.
Rosa Bramble Weed, a Venezuelan clinical social worker who attended the meeting in the church, explained in a phone interview that unlike other Latino immigrants, Venezuelans are dispersed throughout the city.
“They’re starting from scratch,” said Weed. “These [Venezuelan] groups are attempting to create a space of mutual support and information, networking – most importantly for people that come here and feel very desperate.”
Like many Venezuelan immigrants, Sari Renjifo, 33, lived a middle class life that was disrupted when she fled the country. She spends her days in her small, one-bedroom apartment in Woodhaven with her four-year-old special-needs son, Richard. A divider separates his bed from the living room. While her husband, who formerly worked in Venezuela’s Finance Ministry, washes dishes in a restaurant nearby, Renjifo, who used to work in business administration, distracts herself on her phone.
“It has nothing to do with his profession, but this is our luck,” she says of her husband’s current job.
They moved to the United States in August after her husband started receiving threats from pro-government groups. He had worked offering computer services to the wife of Leamsy Salazar, an ex-bodyguard of a former speaker of the Venezuelan parliament who defected to the U.S. in Jan. 2015. The family began to receive threatening phone calls, sometimes up to 30 times a day, demanding information about Salazar and his wife, until they decided to flee to Nevada.
When they returned a few months later, they discovered threatening letters under their door, some with drawings of black crosses. Soon after, Renjifo’s husband was kidnapped and beaten on his way home. They decided it was time to leave permanently.
“We were always frightened,” says Renjifo, recalling that she had been too scared to even go grocery shopping.
Renjifo didn’t realize that her family could be eligible for asylum until they met Guillermo Nolivos, an attorney in Manhattan who currently has about 40 Venezuelan asylum cases. Nolivos says that he sees viable cases in about half of Venezuelans who approach him for asylum.
“Some clients are coming because they are being discriminated against, they lost their jobs because they’re working in government-owned corporations and once the government knows that they do not support the government they are fired, or these people are forced to leave their jobs,” he says.
Some Venezuelan community leaders worry about the high number of immigrants requesting political asylum, since many who have fled due to the economic crisis back home will most likely not meet the criteria, which require proof that the applicant has a well-founded fear of persecution back home, not just a desire to flee a collapsing economy. Julio Henríquez founded the Boston-based Refugee Freedom Program in 2015 to provide legal advice to asylum seekers and explains that immigrants often take advantage of long asylum backlogs to work in the U.S. while their application is pending.
“It appears that many people have applied for asylum very lightly,” he says. “We believe there will be a big number of people that won’t qualify for asylum that will end up in deportation proceedings. And our biggest fear is that a lot of people are completely unaware of that.”
But Nolivos says that many of his clients “have truly suffered persecutions.”
“These are people who are trying to seek a change in Venezuela and because of that they are being attacked,” he says. “They are being attacked by the government, by the violent groups supporting the government and they don’t have anywhere to seek refuge because all the agencies of the government, all the intelligence forces, all the authorities are pro-government.”
José Diaz is one of these asylum seekers. In Venezuela, he says, he had learned to live with the threatening phone calls, where a voice on the other end would warn him that the country’s crime rate was very high and that he could easily become part of the statistic. Diaz, now 29, organized anti-government protests as a youth coordinator for Copei, one of two opposition parties that had dominated politics until Hugo Chávez’s election. He says that he had dodged several assassination attempts, but despite the danger, he remained motivated by the plight of figures like Leopoldo López, a charismatic opposition leader who was thrown into prison, as well as his sense that most Venezuelans opposed the government.
In April 2014, the activist says he was pulling off a highway around 7 p.m. in the Caracas neighborhood of Quinta Crespo, his 10-year-old stepson sitting in the backseat, when two motorcycles drove up alongside him and their passengers began to shoot at the car. A bullet entered through the right side, filling the car up with smoke, and flying glass prickled Diaz’s face. Unexpectedly, the motorcyclists then sped away.
Two days later, Diaz arrived in New York City with his pregnant wife and stepson. Back in Venezuela, he left behind an unfinished master’s degree in finance, the rest of his family, and his position at Copei.
“In Venezuela, we who oppose the regime have three options: jail, death or exile,” says Diaz, sitting in a conference room at an air conditioning company in Jamaica, Queens where he works as a project coordinator. “I said that my life is no longer here… If it’s not today, it’ll be tomorrow. If it’s not tomorrow, it’ll be the day after. I simply decided to live.”
Diaz is the New York coordinator for VEPPEX (Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile), an organization with roots in Miami that protests the Venezuelan government abroad. He grew up in Caracas where his father’s work for Acción Democrática, an opposition party, exposed him to politics early on. At age 15, Diaz entered the Universidad Central de Venezuela where he participated in the school’s student congress.
As university students, Diaz and his brother, Andrés, who is a year older, directed the youth movement for Copei. They knocked on doors, visited universities, and traveled to cities around Caracas to organize protests and encourage people to participate in elections.
“I simply did it because I believed that we needed to push for democratic change in the country – because the youth hadn’t had a real opportunity to see another system other than the one implanted by Chávez and now directed by Maduro,” says José. “I tried to organize in the party to teach people that what the country was going through wasn’t normal.”
The brothers would try to secure permits for protests, but even then, pro-government armed men on motorcycles would ride up and incite violence. The fear of being injured, kidnapped, or losing access to government-provided food or medicine, made it difficult to convince people to participate.
“You’re often tired, not physically but mentally exhausted,” says Andrés. “You say, how much more can I put up with this – how they detain people, how people didn’t come out because of the fear. But if as an activist you become tired, then what about the others?”
However, Andrés also found his limit. He said pro-government gangs kidnapped him one day in July 2014 as he left Copei’s headquarters, beat him up and left him in Maracay, a city an hour-and-a-half away from Caracas. Before releasing him, his captors shot a warning bullet into the air. Soon after, Andrés boarded a plane to Miami, and nine months later, he joined José in New York.
While the Diaz brothers are wary of the repercussions that protesting the Venezuelan government abroad might have on their families, they do participate in rallies organized by Venezuelan organizations in New York. In solidarity with protests in Venezuela calling for a recall referendum against the president, approximately 500 Venezuelans rallied in front of the Venezuelan Consulate in New York City last September.
Eduardo Lugo, a 22-year-old Venezuelan student studying communications at CUNY, co-founded SOS Venezuela New York in early 2014. It has coordinated events with VEPPEX and has held masses at local churches for political prisoners in Venezuela.
“You hear the testimony of your family on how the country is worse each day – it’s impossible not to want to express yourself,” says Lugo. “Given that this is a global city and a very important center, any activity that creates awareness about the Venezuelan cause will have an important impact.”
Some recent Venezuelan immigrants in New York City hope that their move is temporary. Niurka Melendez, an asylum seeker, lives in Harlem with her husband and eight-year-old son. Sitting on a couch in her living room, she explains how she suffered the consequences of actively supporting the opposition in Venezuela. She was repeatedly turned down for work in the petroleum industry when asked by government officials if she had signed the “Tascón List” that millions of Venezuelans signed in support of a 2004 referendum to recall Chavez.
“Yes, and I would sign again!” she says she would frequently reply.
Melendez lived in a neighborhood that largely supported the government and recalls neighborhood meetings where the municipal representative refused to attend to her building if she didn’t ally herself with the government. But that only made her more active and she commonly hosted meetings for opposition protestors.
“You couldn’t trust your neighbors,” she says. “We banged on pots [during rallies] or we shouted ‘down with Chávez,’ but with the lights turned off so people couldn’t see which apartment it came from.”
The turning point came when her son’s school began to stock textbooks that celebrated Chávez. Melendez applied for him to attend a charter school in New York City, where her sister lives, and moved to the United States in March 2015. She took English classes until receiving her work permit and now works at a clothing store in Brooklyn. Melendez is currently the sole supporter of the family and collects food from a church pantry once a month.
“It’s like being born again at 44 years old,” she says. “I won’t say that I had a perfect life in Venezuela, but I was comfortable in my home. I was even comfortable enough to protest…”
Melendez and the Diaz brothers hope to return to Venezuela to help rebuild the country, but have difficulty foreseeing when that time will come. As former activists there, they worry they might be targeted again.
“I want to wake up and go to Venezuela and say, let’s fight,” says Melendez, suddenly animated. “It’s the conviction that I owe my son his country, and I owe it to myself as well.”
“I cry a lot because I feel I don’t give him [my son] his family, his cousins, his friendships, everything… [But] you realize that we are capable human beings that can move forward, become creative and show him we are a family, and that here family is an essential value. That makes us rich.”