Refugees living through a pandemic
More than nine months ago on a hot Sunday afternoon, I went to visit Juan (real name concealed). I pulled up outside of his apartment building, and he came to escort me in. Through windows I saw curious faces fixating their eyes on me. Laser beams surveying an object; a stranger had entered their sanctuary. As Juan made it through the main gate, a medium-built man possibly in his late 20s appeared from his room and there was a brief exchange in Spanish. He glanced at me with mistrust, then walked back inside. That moment, coupled with the afternoon's blistering heat, made we wonder whether this was a mistake.
Juan then entered a tiny room, and inside were four adults living in a confined space trying to recreate some semblance of home. Juan's wife and mother-in-law were frying plantains and fish on the stove. Juan's wife politely smiled at me, but my presence rattled her nerves.
I felt it.
This is Juan's refugee story.
““Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.”
— Khaled Hosseini
Three months prior, Juan along with an estimated 28,000 persons were registered under the Government's scheme to identify Venezuelan refugees living in Trinidad and Tobago. They were granted consent to work in the country for one year. The 2017 Venezuelan Constitutional Crisis sparked one of South America's biggest political showdowns, with millions flooding the streets of Caracas boisterously denouncing Nicholas Maduro's usurpation. With many western nations recognizing Opposition Leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader, and more recently US President Donald Trump's proposed 'intervention' in a country with envious oil reserves, more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled their home in search of a new life in foreign lands. Trinidad's north-west peninsula, "Dragon's Mouth," is about 73 km away from Venezuela's northeast town of Guiria. Juan explains the harrowing account of his passage to Trinidad. A dark underworld. I won't get into that.
He tells me of his thriving life back at home. His successful car business. A home. Family. Love. Freedom. But his aspirations we gutted in a never-ending inferno. The political and socioeconomic crisis made basics like Panadol a highly prized commodity on the black market. The hyperinflation meant that your paycheck was good enough for a bag of rice. Maybe.
I asked about his life in Trinidad. The only thing he did not do was cry.
Juan went from being an entrepreneur to a minimum wage worker, flogging his ego. His primary focus is now survival. He shared many accounts of mistreatment by Trinidadian employers: unpaid wages, deplorable work conditions, and bullying. He is cautious about being in public- his attractive wife receives unsolicited, vile attention from lusting men waiting to pounce on him. Juan also shared with me stories of female friends being raped prior to the Government's registration of refugees. They were undocumented and thus here illegally; reporting their misfortunes meant deportation. He thinks about leaving Trinidad to seek refuge elsewhere; here, his kind is rejected. Going back home is not an option though. Once you have left your home, there is a high likelihood that the Venezuelan authorities will seize your property. Where will he go....
I have kept in touch with Juan, sharing social media notices of charity drives if ever he, his family, or network needed a lifeline. Many of these are not always translated in Spanish.
Fast forward to April 2020; the height of Covid-19.
I called Juan to check in on him and those in his circle.
"Ah yes, Amrita. I remember."
"I'm good. I just finish work."
"Things good. We (him and his wife) are working."
"Everybody in my building have ah job. Some are in grocery. Other still working in places that open."
"Some people can't send money back home. Their families badly off. It's terrible there. But I'm OK for now."
Juan's update was a stark contrast from the horrid stories other refugees were facing. A food manufacturing business had employed both Juan and his wife. They were earning decent wages with an empathetic boss. And ironically, this particular business was thriving from the extra snacking by Trinbagonian quarantiners.
Juan wasn't particularly ecstatic over the phone. His tone was one of gratitude. He was simply contented that his family had food, at least until the crisis subsides.
Here were two human beings fighting against the odds. They, along with many other Venezuelan refugees were now part of T&T's frontline heroes. They are part of the workforce helping to keep food on tables across homes. Cars fueled. Garbage disposed of.
I was happy. Perhaps proud of Juan. I always cheer for the 'underdogs' and quietly rejoice in their success. Juan's wasn't the fairy tale saga, but noteworthy, nonetheless.
Two weeks later when I found the time to conclude this piece, it coincided with Journalist Radhica De Silva's piece on Venezuelan migrants and their threadbare life along Trinidad's south-west fishing village of Icacos. A squatter settlement was forming; the group of migrants surviving on handouts. No running water, no proper sanitation. Ply board shacks. Open-air rooms. The tiny feet of children covered in black dirt. Finding odd jobs to survive.
Juan was obviously one of the more fortunate ones. There have been that many tragic stories about the lives of Venezuelan refugees in Trinidad over the past year, so much so that many of us no longer feel the magnitude of shock and pain that we ought to. The grief is perhaps overbearing for a tiny twin-island nation to cope with. Here, our own miseries have exhausted our tear glands. Crime. Corruption. Failed institutions. Plunging oil prices. Food insecurity. Climate Change.
Perhaps that's why refugees all over the world are received in this way...
I'm gradually coming to terms with the fact that I cannot help everyone during this pandemic. Empathize, yes. Spare a prayerful thought, yes. Help whenever possible... their stories test the limits of the human spirit.