Where finding ‘Happiness’ is just the start
Venezuelan children have become separated from family and dreams. With help, they can reconnect with both
TUMBES, Peru – Cristopher, 16, has always wanted to travel the world and learn about new countries – especially their food. He wants to be a chef one day. But like thousands of Venezuelan children, his dreams are on hold as he makes the journey to Peru to start a new life.
“I didn’t even get to say goodbye to many of my friends,” Cristopher says as he waits with his mother at the Ecuadorian border with Peru for the vaccinations they’ll need to enter the country.
They are planning to meet up with his dad and sister, who moved to Peru months ago. But Cristopher’s excitement over being reunited with his family is mixed with apprehension about how he’ll be treated in his new home, especially after some of the stories he’s heard about the response to migrants.
His concerns are not unfounded. In a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration and UNICEF, 46 per cent of Venezuelan migrants who had entered Peru through the border city of Tumbes and had stayed at least 30 days in cities in Colombia and Ecuador on their way, reported experiencing discrimination.
“I hope they treat me well, with the respect I always give to others. At one time, my country welcomed people from around the world. Now that we are migrants, I hope we are also welcomed,” he says.
Cristopher is one of hundreds of Venezuelan children who has also passed through the “Happiness Plan” tent, a child friendly space set up by UNICEF and implementing partner Plan International that is filled with board games, crayons and books, and staffed with professionals who specialize in providing psychosocial support.
Another child who has benefited from the tent as she waits to enter Peru is 12-year-old Ariana, who is with her younger brother. Ariana says that one day she’d like to be a singer and dancer – and maybe as famous as Ariana Grande.
“I registered at a famous dance school in Venezuela. The dancers from there go on TV,” she says. “I used to dream of dancing with them on one of those shows but I had to come here and won’t be able to do it now.”
Ariana says she has mixed feelings about coming to Peru. She says she is sad to be so far away from her dad, but she knows how happy her little brother and mother will be to be reunited with her stepfather in Peru. They are heading to Cañete, a province near Lima by the Pacific Ocean.
Ariana says she is nervous about starting at a new school. “I’m always the tallest in my class,” she says. “Everyone thinks I’m in university. If they drop me down a grade, I’ll be with kids even smaller than me.”
According to Peru’s Ministry of Education, as of 23 October 2018, there were more than 31,000 Venezuelan students formally registered in schools, mostly in Lima. With UNICEF’s support, education authorities in Lima are preparing for an expected increase in enrolment of Venezuelan students when the new school year starts in March.
In the meantime, she says she still loves singing and dancing, but isn’t sure yet about the music of her new home.
Jesús, who has walked along muddy paths and was carried over a river on the shoulders of a stranger on his way to Peru, also feels conflicting emotions about his journey.
“I’m happy because I’m going to see my mom and my older sister,” he says, “but I’m a little sad because my grandfather, uncle, cousins and friends are still in Venezuela.”
But while Jesús’s eight-day journey might have been a tortuous one, one person who couldn’t be much happier that he made it is his mother, Angie, who was waiting for him in Peru.
“It was hard to leave him, but I didn’t have any other option. There were days when I couldn’t send my son to school because he didn’t have any breakfast. There was only enough food for lunch,” Angie says.
“I thought to myself: I’m with my son, but can’t meet either of our needs. Better to go look for other opportunities so that he doesn’t have to go without. That’s what I did and finally I have him here with me.”
It’s a familiar story for many Venezuelans. According to a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration and UNICEF in Tumbes, of those who said they had left a child family member behind in Venezuela, 73 per cent said they had left at least one of their own children.
Jesús says that while many of his friends are leaving Venezuela to come to Peru, he isn’t sure where they will end up. If he is lucky, he might bump into one of them on a street in Lima, where 65 per cent of Venezuelans entering through Tumbes say they plan to settle.
But the reality for Jesús and the many other children like him is that their days of playing soccer together, or sitting in front of the TV and cheering when Venezuela score a goal, are over. Those kinds of afternoons, shared with friends, are now just memories of a childhood turned upside down.