Finding shelter under a Hijab
Updated: Sep 13
A Venezuelan refugee's story
"The soul is hardly visible but that damage can be there for life."
Essam Daod, TED Talk "How we can bring mental health support for refugees", 2018)
The UN Refugee Agency's (UNHCR) office in T&T reported 20,300 refugees and asylum seekers registered (as of January 2021), with 85.9% persons of concern from Venezuela. Further, 95% of the Agency's cash assistance applicants are struggling to meet their accommodation and food costs. T&T's Government is facilitating the re-registration of Venezuelan refugees this month; which first took place in 2019 to capture data on this humanitarian crisis. A registration card grants permission to live and work in the country for up to one year. The COVID-19 pandemic may have provided a temporary amnesty, but with vaccinations on the horizon, these refugees' future remains in no man's land.
Dozens continue to risk their lives to make the treacherous journey to Trinidad. Capsized boats and floating bodies between both countries are gut-wrenching yet unsurprising news headlines.
Those are the basic stats. We have not begun assessing the psychological distress from one of South America's largest resettlement events. This trauma may linger for generations. To quote the experts, Hamdan-Mansour et al (2017) explored various stressors among 250 Syrian refugee children living in refugee camps and host communities in Central Jordan - 25% of respondents suffered from loneliness, 24% reported feeling depressed, with the majority of children (>60%) having low rates of somatic pain. The study also suggested that meeting these children's psychological needs were more complex and challenging than meeting their basic ones.
In Trinidad and Tobago mental health is largely stigmatized, coupled with inadequate resources and emphasis in the workplace and communities. For Venezuelans or any other refugee group, accessing these services presents another hurdle- linguistic and other socio-cultural differences.
So how does a refugee cope?
Louise (not her real name) is 22 and pretty much looks like a Trinidadian. Average frame with a medium brown complexion, her accent hints at her identity. She's been living in Trinidad for two years and despite her deep-seated pain, I sensed hope in her occasional smile as we spoke at her workplace.
"(Back in Venezuela) My family could buy things to eat, but we couldn't buy anything else. If something was broken, like the air conditioning, we couldn't fix it. Sometimes food was really hard to get. Everything was expensive. We used US dollars because the Bolivares was no good (the current conversion rate is a whopping 184,944,804,098.59 Venezuelan Bolívares to 1USD). I was living alone and it was really hard, so I made a decision to come to this country. I want to live better and help my mother."
Louise ventured to Trinidad and stayed with her cousin who's been living here for four years. Her father passed away three years ago, and her brother and ailing mother struggle to get by in Venezuela. The country's economic turmoil also snuffed her university dreams of a Marketing degree. With just one more year to graduate, she was forced to quit school since finding food became her sole purpose.
Louise is resilient. She is pushing against all opposing forces to carve her mark in Trinidad.
But for many of the world's refugees, earning a livable income in their host country is testing. The OECD/UNHCR's paper "Migration Policy Debates" outlines challenges in hiring refugees- legal status, language proficiency, skills and qualifications, attitudes and expectations, access to information, cost and business incentives, and matching skills.
Louise is all too familiar with these hurdles.
"My cousin got a job for me at a popular flower shop in Central Trinidad. I worked from 8 am to 3 pm and they paid me $TT50/USD 7.36 a day ( the minimum wage per hour in Trinidad is $15/USD 2.21 per hour. That's US 17.68 per day). That was in 2019. When I came, I didn't know any English. None."
Louise learnt English in three months by using a translator app on her phone and received some help along the way from Trinidadians. She moved on from working in the flower shop to a bar.
Personally, I avoid bars. There's one located near my home. It's attached to a mini-mart, the place I forcibly go to get the weekend's loaf of bread if ever I ran out of time or forgot. I cringe getting in and out of the car. Drunken, lustful eyes stare at every curve in my body with tongues hissing at me. I get the occasional "Vene! Vene!" (short, and perhaps derogatory term for 'Venezuelan'). I can't even relate to Louise's discomfort.
Working in a bar was hard for her. She worked from 9 am until the closing time between 2-3 am. They paid her TT $200 a day, but there was a lot of work involved. Dealing with drunken men inevitably became part of her duties. "Sometimes they push you and want you to sit with them. I felt disrespected."
She moved on to work at another bar, then to a household wares store. This will be the place where she began to find true solace. She found Islam. "The family I worked for is Muslim, and I started to learn from them. They taught me a lot. Now, I take Islamic classes."
Religion is particularly important for refugee communities. If we examine major groups around the world, most (if not all) originate from strong, faith-based communities. The International Association for Religion Journalists says that "It is faith that helps sustain the mental and physical health of refugees on their harrowing journey and faith-based humanitarian groups that are a major source of aid and comfort." It is no secret that the Muslim community in Trinidad and Tobago is close-knit. Their outreach work is renowned. Perhaps this is why Louise gravitated toward Islam ...
Louise moved on to working with a courier service company, but that job too was short-lived. Often she didn't receive her full pay, but her refugee status immediately silenced any feeling of injustice. She then encountered problems with her cousin and moved out of the place she lived. Louise then moved in with friends, and eventually found a Trinidadian family who grew fond of her and took her in. She experienced both love and that burning desire for independence at the same time. She moved out.
The most challenging part of being a writer is managing your emotional response to your subject's stories. I'm somewhat of an empath, and people like us need to constantly remind ourselves that we cannot rid the world of all its pains.
I listened and empathised, knowing that I don't see life through her lens.
In April of 2020, she seemed to have found a lucky break. She was hired to work at a grocery chain. Louise likes working there, and her employer even gives her the time needed to attend Islamic classes or go to the mosque. She's had a mix of pleasant customer interactions and a fair share of insults. "I remember one time someone called me a 'ho', even while I was in a hijab. That was in December (2020). I was cashing. He asked me "how much is it?" I told him the amount. He paid and was expecting his change." T&T's recent removal of the 1 cent coin from legal tender meant this customer had no change to receive, and his bill was rounded to the nearest dollar figure.
"He told me that I robbed him, I said "no, I didn't." He said "I don't understand, you have to talk English." I told, him, "I am speaking in English." He started quarreling with me and told me that I robbed him. I told him that I didn't steal (anything). He called me a 'ho' and told me that I have to go back to my country."
I asked Louise how she feels about life in Trinidad, especially in the context of gender-based violence. She admits fearing for her safety, having been verbally harassed even whilst wearing a hijab- "I cover my body and wear normal clothing, but men still call me sexy." She's never really sure about a man's intentions and errs on the side of caution. She often finishes work at 9 pm, and walking to her nearby apartment is a frightful experience. Thankfully, her colleagues accompany her home. Louise also shared that Venezuelan men, like Trinidadian men, can be violent too. " There is a couple living in my building. One night, the man beat the woman real bad. I hear her screaming from my apartment. It was bad."
We talked openly about the stereotypes Venezuelan refugees bear. "Men think that sometimes all we (women) want is money. That's not true. Sometimes I do feel angry because I know that some Venezuelan women are not good. But in every country, you'd find good men and women, as well as bad ones. It's 50-50." She also alluded to a growing problem here - Trinidadian men preying on Venezuelan refugee women. "I have a friend who told me she met a guy at a party and he said he wanted to take her on a date. He took her to a guest house. And she said, "No, I don't want to go (inside), why you do this!" He grabbed her hands, and she started to run outside the car. She left all of her things there."
I've heard many similar stories ...
Louise is hoping to one day secure her residency. She cannot complete her Marketing studies here since her sole possessions are her Refugee registration card and Venezuelan ID. She looks up to fellow Venezuelans working in the Immigration Division as translators- they give her hope. She has also expressed a keen interest in Arabic studies.
Whatever the future holds, failure is not an option for Louise. With family back home dependent on monthly remittances, she must remain focused.
With her circle of Muslim friends, visits to the mosque, Islamic classes, and, a new boyfriend who also practices Islam, she's finding a way to cope. She defended critics who feel that a Venezuelan woman should not wear a hijab -
"When people tell me that I shouldn't wear it because I am not Arabic, I tell them that Islam is a religion, and this is what I want."