[r] Hello, I am [name], I am a Venezuelan born in Ecuador, I have three brothers, two no longer live in Venezuela. One is in Paraguay with his family and the other in Ecuador, also with his family. My parents are also Ecuadorians, they lived in Venezuela for many years, but now they had to go back to Ecuador. I have built my life in Venezuela, I am married in Venezuela. I have three Venezuelan children.

[i] What did you do in Venezuela before you left?

[r] I was director of a kindergarten in Puerto Ordaz, Estado Bolivar, for more than 20 years I had my kindergarten class – I graduated in psycho-pedagogy with 2 specializations: children with mental retardation and learning difficulties, I am also a kindergarten teacher.

[i] You worked as a director…

[r] Yes, from a kindergarten.

[i] Until when did your life develop normally and when did you feel that there was a problem in the country that affected your life and that of your family? Was there any particular event that changed your life?

[r] Our life was quite normal, a family life, every weekend we were at home with someone from the family for a BBQ, to eat, Ecuadorian food, Colombian food. We had a big family. There was a time when everything started to change, demonstrations against the government started, the people didn’t agree anymore with what was happening in the country. At this moment Chavez was in power.  I remember the oil strike, we wanted to depose the president because we did not agree with his government.  Everything was paralysed, so….there was no oil, all the companies were down.

[i] What year was it?

[r] In what year was that? 2000?

[r] 2002

[i] Has civil society decided to strike?

[r] Yes, we were able to drop him off, they took him away. He was taken to the island of La Orchila. We were celebrating our return to normal, having pharmacists, food, hospitals, everything … Then we woke up with the news that Chavez had come back to power.   That was one of the first big steps to expel him from power, from that moment on there were marches, barricades, peaceful protests, they were calm protests, without violence …..with posters, shouts, songs ….we sang” Weg met Chavez”.

[i] Which government measures were most criticised by the population?

[r] I remember one measure concerning education, he changed a lot in education in Venezuela, which is where the motto came from: “Leave my children alone”.  He tried and managed to change the schoolbooks, the books no longer tell the story as it is but what they want to be known. You can’t use any book, you have to use the books that are allowed by the government, they make them themselves. The government wants to indoctrinate the people, books from other publishers are no longer allowed, it is indoctrination. Even the children had to wear red berets and march as military, five year old children.  We had to choose a chairman from that group of children, that made no sense. While I was there I tried not to let the Chavista doctrine get into my kindergarten class, all the representatives agreed because they knew what was going on.

[i] Representatives?

[r] The parents

[i] Ah, okay…

[r] The parents of the children agreed that we did not do this, although the Ministry of Education forced us to do so, we had to set up these groups and write down in official documents the function of each child, quite a procedure….in my school it was only on paper. We were under the supervision of the Ministry of Education and everything had to be as they wanted, I had the berets made, but they were never used.  That had a deep impact on me and we started to protest. “Leave our children alone” but in the end they did it anyway, there was no way to resist them…. But we took to the streets to protest.    I don’t know right now what other government measures led me to start protesting.

[i] Did they let you protest?

[r] At that moment, well. We also lived in a city far from the capital, which was the biggest oppression in the capital. We didn’t feel the influence as strong as in the capital, the influence was less strong with us.

[i] Were these protests continued?

[r] It continued throughout the period of Chavez and then came Maduro, at one point they began to irritate the government, which began to slaughter us. They started slaughtering the population just because they were protesting. Reality became a crime, when you go into a supermarket and take pictures and it shows that it is a crime, in the supermarkets there is nothing, everything is empty.  If you write something on Twitter and say that there is no food, you can go to prison. Just because you’ve published something like that on the social media. Facebook…twitter…that’s forbidden,

[i] And in Puerto Ordaz, what percentage of the population went to the protests? The majority of them?

[r] In the beginning….. because Puerto Ordaz is far from the capital… In the beginning it wasn’t the majority… I guess, but as the government’s influence increased each time, for example for the protest of “Leave my children alone”, the teachers, parents, the schools… we came out on the street to protest. It was clear that we did not agree. We didn’t want our children to be indoctrinated.

[i] How did the government respond to this protest?

[r] The government got tired of it and started to attack us. The government used the National Guard, I don’t know who ordered it, they started to attack the population. We had no weapons, we only had posters, nothing more…those were our weapons…. a paper saying “we want freedom of speech”….no more…they went against us, they threw tear gas bombs at our bodies. A boy from the city sat on a bench with two friends, sat on a bench with two friends in his neighbourhood, then the soldiers arrived… there had been protests, but they weren’t protesting, they weren’t doing anything… and the soldiers shot at him and he lost one eye, why did they do it? We don’t know why … What happens in the heads of those people in uniform? They had to protect us and in the end it was they who attacked us. We had no one to defend us, we can only call, we called for freedom, that’s what we want, to give us back the life we had before. On the news you saw children die in clinics because there are no medicines, women give birth on the ground, there are no beds, there are no doctors.

[i] Why this generalized lack?

[r] The government does not give the population access to these things.

[i] They decide who gets what…

[r] They check everything… they give you boxes… the “folding boxes”. I think it contains rice and tuna but it is said that it is not tuna. I don’t know because I never got a box like that, I had already left before it started. They are boxes with three or four things to eat and with that they want to silence people. You have to buy that box, it’s not that you get it as a present. They have all the power, they have closed the companies, they have expropriated them, all these companies are in ruins. Chavez went to the companies and said “Expropriate them”.  They have broken them, none of them produces anything.

[i] For what purpose? Impoverish the people?

[r] And to have us in their hands. What can we do?

[i] How did you cover your basic needs for food, medicine?

[r] That was very difficult… we all had to split up, we gave news to each other on the phone. The Venezuelans pass information among themselves.  “There is sugar in this place”, “milk in the other”, “flour in the other”… someone from the family had to run to stand in a huge queue.  You had to know where the food was, when it was there.  We were hunters of things.

[i] The place where you got things was that a shop or a state office?

[r] At that time they were shops, we lived in Venezuela until 2014. Sometimes we could get it through friends, we had friends who worked in the supermarkets. I had a kindergarten and they helped me a lot because they knew I was giving breakfast and lunch to the children…they supported me a lot. …until I couldn’t…I told the parents that I couldn’t feed the children anymore because I couldn’t get any more food. My husband went everywhere in the city to look for food……………………. He stopped the things he was doing to find food because it was my responsibility, he was busy all day looking for food… it was very difficult.

[i] Did the same thing happen with medicine?

[r] With the medicines it was worse, if you don’t get flour you can replace it with rice, but if you don’t get medicine….for something as simple as stopping a diarrhea…people have a sick child, it’s dehydrated and you get nothing…you despair, you don’t know what to do. It is traumatic and very frustrating. There is no milk for babies, there were so many desperate mothers … there are children who are allergic to lactose and there were mothers who didn’t produce milk, it wasn’t because they didn’t want to breast milk but because they didn’t make it … babies were crying …….what do you do?

[i] Were the hospitals functioning?

[r] No, there were women who gave birth on the ground, sometimes outside…in the street, there are no beds, there are no medications… …. In the hospitals…everything has bacteria…the surgical beds.

[i] Medical instruments?

[r] Medical instruments.

[i] Everything is deserted?

[r] That’s right, it’s all deserted, but if you take pictures of it…. you go to prison. In the news you see Maduro saying that everything is fine, that the hospitals are a miracle, but it’s not true.  If you film it, they will come looking for you at home and you will go to prison.

[i] And the people of the regime? Do they have other hospitals?

[r] The people of the “high dome” as we say, they are treated outside the country, they do not use our hospitals, nor the health centers. The government had a motto: that was “free health for the people”. We had a friend who had an accident, they were in a village, and instead of braking with her car, she gave gas and she had an accident. In that town there was a government health centre and there they gave her a laxative and that was all.  When they arrived in the city, they took X-rays and saw that she had back problems, that was logical… she had flown with her car over a swimming pool.

[i] The technicians who were there did not know how to use the scanner to make an X-ray.  They just didn’t know …

[i] And were they people who hadn’t been trained, or were they technicians from the government’s training institutes?

[r] A little from everywhere. The doctors that the government trains in two or three years, we call “killers of healthy people,” they just give you pills, they don’t know how to do anything.

[i] There is no content, just the name?

[r] Exactly, it’s just advertising.   And if there are no drugs or food, it’s because the opposition doesn’t allow them to circulate.  That’s what they say and the poor people believe that, why? …..because all the news that can be seen in Venezuela follows the doctrine, there is no channel where you can speak freely, where the real news can be seen, there are no international channels.  The television channels have an agreement with the government, according to the news everything is a miracle and if something is missing it is America’s fault. The poor people, with no education, believe all of this.

[i] At what point has the situation become more problematic for you?

[r] For the whole country the situation became more problematic when our leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was put in jail.  There was a general uprising of the Venezuelan people, everyone wanted to protest, he was the one who could get us out of all this….a trained person…who had studied, and suddenly they took away the leader of the opposition. The people started to take to the streets more often, the army became more violent against us. We didn’t miss a single demonstration in Puerto Ordaz, we went in a group with the mothers of our children’s friends, my husband, who is big, they called him “the bodyguard”, he protected us all, we went out to the streets to call, that was our weapon and my husband our “bodyguard”. One day we left with the cars in a caravan, to honk with the horns……there were government war tanks…..that was the day they broke that young man’s eye. The population of Puerto was furious ….why are they attacking our young people? That boy wasn’t protesting, he was just talking somewhere. ….We were going to protest in a car and we were grouped in a district, “district Los Mangos” where there was a tank in front. We all shouted “away with the government”, “away with the killers”.  When it gets very violent, I don’t like it, I’m a nervous person and I don’t like it… husband told me to stay in the car, he went outside with the whole group to protest. Not me, when the violence starts I keep calm because you never know what the reaction of the soldiers can be.  That scares me. I stayed in the car with the windows closed and the air conditioning on because Puerto Ordaz is a very warm city.  I looked at the tank and the people who were protesting, I was in the car … quiet… I can’t drive… then suddenly I saw lights, I looked and another tank came up to me, luckily there were a lot of people and when they saw the tank coming, they started calling. The tank stopped in front of me and they threw a tear gas bomb under the car so that the tear gas could enter the car through the air conditioning.  What harm can a woman do to them when she is in the car? I didn’t do anything, I didn’t go outside. That was evil of them, I stayed inside.  I felt the gases, and I… I have a little sister who died and I started praying to her so she would protect me. I began to feel the gases and I realized that they were bombing everyone, they were surrounding us and the bombs were falling on everyone, I was suffocating in the car but I knew that if I got out of the car my husband wouldn’t find me, I knew he would come looking with me, even without eyes, so I stayed there….and so it happened… he arrived and couldn’t see anything more, I told him how to steer, he had tear gas in his eyes. Luckily the tank didn’t drive over the car because that’s what they did. It was barbaric! Why so much anger against the people? You have to protect the people and then you attack them.  I remember that’s what happened to us.

I also remember the protests of the students, everyone was tired of the government, the students were also on the streets. The schools were forced to open their doors, they couldn’t stop teaching, even though the city seemed to be at war.  Barricades were set up so that the country would come to a standstill and the gentleman left. We wanted him to know that we didn’t want him… Everyone had to go to work, because if you didn’t go to work you were fired. The children had to go to school. The inspectors sent e-mails, every day you had to report the presence of students and teachers, give percentages and send them.  Whether a child had a justified absence or not, if you were absent you could not finish your year. You had to send the children to school to study, even if there were tanks on the doorstep of the school.  That’s how we brought my children to school, there was no peace of mind. We took our children with us, they also went to protest. My husband was always looking for food and was always near our son to protect him…. We lived in turmoil. My daughter was at the university in Puerto Ordaz, the boys at the university are the ones who protested the most. It was hell, I couldn’t work quietly, I always had to call them to find out where they were. We had to lock up our children at home, there was nothing they could do.

[i] What was your daughter studying?

[r] Law, she had done all her classes and exams, she had finished studying but she couldn’t graduate, she had to leave early.  She always wanted to leave the country to continue her studies abroad, but she wanted to get her diploma before she left. She is a very good girl but she could not get her diploma.

[i] Why not?

[r] Because during one demonstration the students had taken over part of the city, they were the students of the Catholic University, they had occupied an area called “Alta Vista”, they had blocked an entire street, it was like a youth camp and the cars couldn’t pass. We wanted to cripple the land, cripple the land so that the man would leave. The young people who are the strength of a country were doing actions… one morning the mayor José Ramon Lopez, who of course was a supporter of Chavez, ordered the removal of all students, the army went outside to eliminate them. A friend called to say they needed help.  My husband was always helping those young people, he was always taking care of them, not just our children, for everyone…..My daughter went outside, asked by car, to help her friends and when she arrived at the square those mayor’s men were already there and the mayor was attacking the students. My daughter succeeds in filming the mayor, as I said it is forbidden, you can’t have proof of what they are doing. The mayor saw that my daughter was filming him, that she had filmed what had happened. The mayor orders his bodyguards to take her cell phone, my daughter sees those monsters coming to her – because they are huge men – and throws the cell phone at a friend, the friend picks up the phone and they attack him and he throws it at an older man. They pass the phone on to each other because the evidence was on the phone. They beat the older man and take the cell phone off. My daughter called her father, crying, she had been attacked and they had taken her phone.  What powerlessness, there is nothing you can do. They wanted to trample us as if we were cockroaches. We knew a member of the mayor’s family, my daughter was transporting the mayor’s nieces and because we had the kindergarten we knew a lot of people in the city, my husband called him up and asked him to ask the mayor to send her mobile phone back. The girl they attacked is my daughter and indeed, that person called his cousin and asked him to return the phone. My daughter got her phone back but she was threatened. They were going to take her passport and she was in their sights from now on. My daughter had not gotten into any trouble, but next time she would get in trouble.  Some of them were unable to complete their studies. This was not the life we wanted for our other two children, I didn’t want to see them captured, neither my children nor my husband, every boy who was captured, everyone knew him because he was very active, because he was a lawyer and they always asked him for help.  If we had stayed in Venezuela, our lives would have been different… I am sure of that.

[i] Do you remember the day you left?

[r] September 11, 2014

[i] Do you remember what that day was like? What happened that day at your home?

[r] I don’t like to say goodbye, I have asked my family not to come.  My family is very close, my brothers love my husband as a brother. He is not a brother-in-law to them, he is a brother, “el pana”. I got along very well with all my brothers and sisters. I love my cousins.  I am the meter of almost all my cousins…

[i] Are they still in Venezuela?

[r] There is only my niece left with my sister, because the girl’s father won’t let her leave.  The rest has left.

[i] On the day you know you’re leaving, how do you choose what you’re going to take with you from home?

[r] That’s very difficult…..

[i] How did you do that?

[r] On the day we decided to leave, the situation was very dangerous, there were even bullet holes in the wall, we talked to our youngsters…it was very difficult to tell them, to your adolescent children, that they had to leave their lives behind, their friends, his standard of living, it was done, we had to leave, we left because of them, when we left it was for them because they were most important to us.

My children are very mature, they said “okay mom”, they understood very well, we didn’t even know what to put in our suitcases, all your things are there, at home, what are you taking with you? There’s your life, and you can’t put your life in two suitcases…so… What we did take with us was our little dog. We gave him all his injections, we asked him for a passport and we took him with us. That’s what we took with us.

[i] Is there anything in your house that you still have?

[r] Like what? I don’t understand you…

[i] Something like….

[r] For example, my Christmas decorations, on toilet, I really liked to decorate my house at Christmas. My daughter determined the colors and we decorated the whole house.  Blue…. Then all the decorations were blue.  Red, then all the decorations were red. Because she was the only woman, she was the handmaiden.  We hung a lot of decorations, very beautiful. In one bathroom we put a Santa Claus … and in the other we put the wife of Santa Claus etc. … I had bought them at a number of fairs. I loved it, I took some of those Christmas decorations, I brought them here …..until they were broken, but I didn’t want to throw them away, eventually I threw them away, because it’s not right that I cling to material things, it’s done, it was something material that travelled with me.

[i] And they stayed here

[r] Yes,  ah! my son’s medals, Pierre’s medals, his trophies. We brought that too.

[i] From what?

[r] Basketball, He played for the national team of Estado Bolivar since he was little. The trophies stayed behind, but I brought the medals, it’s a source of pride for us.

[i] What did you think when you went to the airport?

[r] To my family that was left behind, at that moment they were all still there, 2014……I thought to return…that everything would soon pass … that it was a dream …that we went on a trip and that we would see them again soon. I thought there was still hope for Venezuela that I would return to my home in one or two years and that everything would be fine, like for Chavez. I felt that, not like now that I feel that there is no solution and…..I believe that I am not going to return to my house, I probably will not have a house because everything will be expropriated. Everything is a problem.

[i] What about your house? Who is in your house?

[r] All my family, except a sister and my niece, has already left Venezuala.

[i] And your house?

[r] First I gave it to a friend because you can’t rent it out…..if you rent it out you’ll lose it anyway… if you rent it out and the tenant stops paying, they’ll take away your house….they’ll expropriate your house. That’s the law there, and you can’t take them out because the law is going to defend them. My girlfriend moved, there was a friend of my husband’s, but then he left and now there’s a friend of my sister’s… I don’t know the person who’s in my house now.  We designed that house according to our wishes, as we wanted. We had to make a lot of effort to buy it…. “I want such a floor”, “I want such windows”… We designed the house the way we wanted it.

[i] How many years did you live there?

[r] 5 years, I don’t remember much… the children were still small, I don’t remember, it took us a lot of effort, we bought it with our work.

[i] You could only enjoy it for five years.

[r] 5 years…But we made it beautiful, my garden is beautiful, thanks to my husband who loves plants, it’s very beautiful, very beautiful!!  The house was full of plants, he liked to ride down the grass, we had a beautiful garden. The house had a garage from the door to the back. There we had a small house and there lived my daughter Natasha. She had a room and a kitchen, she ate at home but did what she wanted. Because she was older she said “This is mine”. My house had a long corridor and there we did the barbecues on the weekends. We barbecued every weekend, friends and family always came by. It started on Friday and the Venezuelans start: “What are we going to do?”, “Where are we going to meet?”, “Where are you?” It’s more, you didn’t even have to invite anyone and everyone was already in your house… We sang karaoke…..although I can’t sing and the rest also sang badly. …my husband made divine cocktails…we had such a good time…I never thought this would happen to us.

[i] What do you feel when you remember your life in Venezuela?

[r] Beautiful feelings….we were very happy and didn’t know…sadness about everything that was left behind…I don’t think we’ll ever be able to go back….

[i] Do you remember the day you arrived in Belgium.

[r] We arrived in Belgium in February 2017….

[i] Winter

[r] Yes, winter, my daughter had already prepared everything for us.  She had bought coats, for her father, for me …. everything was ready. We had to worry about nothing.

[i] What were your first impressions?

[r] My first impressions… so far… they haven’t changed… I love this country. I don’t know exactly why … I compare it with the current situation in Venezuela, not the Venezuela of the past but how it is now and I feel very safe in this country.  In Venezuela I did not go out alone, my husband, my daughter or my brothers went with me because of the insecurity. My husband didn’t like it when I went out alone.  One day I went to work alone, my house is three blocks away from the school where I worked, my husband was waiting for me so I went alone, I had to walk 3 streets and I saw that someone was coming to rob me. I saw that the man had those intentions.  I jumped away and escaped. I always have my keys at hand… I walked home very quickly, went inside quickly and the boy stayed outside… I had barely saved myself. There was a lot of insecurity. Here I study alone, only to the supermarket, simple things I couldn’t do in my country.  My husband and children used to protect me, here I go out alone and feel at ease.

In Puerto Ordaz, the garbage truck doesn’t come around very often, but it’s not like it only comes once a week, sometimes it doesn’t come around for a month or more. The streets are full of garbage, rats, everything smells bad……I’m happy here, sometimes people here complain that the truck only comes once a week. But it happens! Why do they complain? Sometimes people don’t realize they have everything, and they always have to complain about something. I don’t accept, I don’t even accept the cold, I don’t like the cold but I prefer it here, I like it here, and I also tell my husband… I love Belgium, I love the people, I’ve never had a problem. I like going to IVCA, it’s a group of people who welcome you, who give you … relaxation, sitting here disturbs you in a way.

Seeking asylum … there are people who can give you a helping hand. Even just putting your hand on your shoulder, that feels good, that’s the truth.

[i] What are you doing in IVCA?

[r] I started as a volunteer in childcare and I’m also trained to work there, although they know I already have experience, but that’s the norm here and I follow it.  And they invite me to different activities. Recently I was invited to a wedding, I wanted to go. I couldn’t go because of a family problem. I don’t like going out alone, I always go out with my husband, but I wanted to go out anyway, but in the end I couldn’t go and I was sorry about that. …..There are many activities for women, it is a place where I feel very comfortable.

[i] Do you see other Venezuelans, do you have Venezuelan friends?

[r] Yes, they are friends of my daughter, my daughter has arrived for us, she arrived in 2014. She made a group “Venezuelan women in Antwerp”. She organized a group on Facebook and she got the administration of another group that already existed. She always organizes meetings, where typical dishes are eaten, for Venezuelans to meet each other.  There were elections here in 2014, elections in Venezuela, I think to see if we agreed with the “Asamblea Constituyente”. I am not sure but it was in 2014. My daughter organised them together with my husband, she is part of a group of Venezuelans who send medicines to Venezuela, she has contacts and sends them.

[i] Is it something they often do?

[r] Yes, they do it on Facebook, the group calls “volunteers for Venezuela”. There are also Maria Andreina, Cheilililu.   The people I have met, I have met through my daughter. That was the first group of Venezuelans I met … through my daughter.  The day after our arrival there was a “arepada”, a meeting with our daughter to welcome us.  And so, little by little, we got to know more Venezuelans and the group has grown a lot.

[i] Will there be more to come?

[r] Yes

[i] Do you know when someone’s coming? How do you get in touch with newcomers?

[r] The group has grown considerably, there is always a Venezuelan waiting in the asylum centres, via Whatsapp this information is distributed and we are all aware of it. My husband also has a Whatsapp group. …We are all united by the internet.  A few weeks ago there was a boy who had been arrested at the airport. He contacted my husband via Whatsapp because my husband made the group and therefore he knew his phone. The boy contacted my husband and said “I’m here and they won’t let me go, what do I do?” My husband contacts the Venezuelans in the group and then a chain reaction starts. My husband spoke to all the Venezuelans about the situation of this boy, someone says “I’m in Brussels, I know a lawyer”, everyone reacted and together they tried to solve the problem.  We try to help each other, with information, we try to make a team of “ants”: “Everyone, go on! Yes, we can!

[i] Is there a Belgian organization that has approached you or supports you in a special way?

[r] As far as I know; no….It is only among ourselves that we try to move forward. What is, Venezuelans are married to Belgians, Belgian people who know what is happening now, many of them have lived in Venezuela before, know the beautiful Venezuela we had and understand the situation, many of them support us……they know the language which is our main barrier. But no organization.

[i] How is the language?

[r] Ooh! What a question!  “I don’t speak Dutch very well but I try”. Well…I’m staying and until there I’ve been touched, haha! studying the language, it’s not easy…learning a language when you’re 50 is something else…it’s hard for me…I think it’s not so much the language because my son already speaks it, but our neurons aren’t like those of someone of 20 or 30 years old. I think that’s the big barrier, I’m studying grammar, of course! My brain needs time to organize my ideas. When I write I’m fine … but when you ask me to speak …. I understand a lot but when you ask me to speak it well … then I block but when others can do it I can do it too.

[i] In addition to safety, have you found something else in Antwerp that you like? Somewhere? A routine? Something special in the city?

[r] I really like it when I ride on my bike on the bike path or through parks, through green spaces, I live near Park Spoor Noord … in the spring, the flowers in the spring I see ….I love that. I really like to feel how the sky touches my face, everything looks so beautiful….and people are happy at that moment….I like that…I like that…I like that….

[i] How will you see yourself in a few years?

[r] I see myself with a child care in Belgium, speaking Dutch and happy with my family.

[i] With your grandchildren?

[i] Thank you very much, [name]

[r] Thank you.