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The children left behind: the family trauma of Venezuela's forced migration due to the crisis

Since 2015, many parents have decided to leave Venezuela without their children. By 2020, an estimated 800,000 children were left with their mothers or grandparents. The exodus is likely to continue while the economic crisis escalates.
5 Feb 2021 – 09:00 AM EST
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Paola Osorio, a 7-year-old Venezuelan girl, whose parents emigrated in 2019. She was left in the care of her grandparents in a neighborhood in the west of Caracas. Crédito: Federico Parra / AFP via Getty Images

Exactly two years ago, Oswaldo left his home in Venezuela, without hugging his two sleeping children. He did not want to wake them and leave them with the sad memory of a good by. He kissed his wife and launched alone on his migration toward the United States.

“I am desperate,” said Oswaldo, who applied for asylum and lives in Dallas, Texas, in an apartment he shares with two other Venezuelans who also left their families behind. “My youngest son, five years old, always tells me he wants me to play baseball with him. The last time I saw him, when I left, he was three.”

Cecodap, a Venezuelan non-profit that defends the rights of children and young adults, has been studying the phenomenon of the “left behind children” for at least five years. Their problems have gotten worse in the past three, the group says. It estimates that 15.4 percent of Venezuelan emigrants left behind children. That means about 800,000 children and adolescents left without one or both parents by the forced emigration.

In Oswaldo's case, the children were left with their mother, like an estimated 50 percent of the children left behind in 2020. The couple believed the father would find the money in the United States to get them all out of Venezuela. Plan A was to gather in Mexico. Oswaldo worked in a car wash, saved and arranged the trip. But when his wife and children flew to Cancun, immigration authorities sent them back to Venezuela.

Next came Plan B, which was not the United States because she did not have a U.S. Tourist visa. Oswaldo started to save again and a few months later the exit plan was set for Argentina, where the wife has a brother. But the family remains apart.

The WhatsApp calls are now scheduled with the three-hour time difference in mind, so the father can chat, do magic tricks, watch videos and help his oldest sons with his Legos.

“The youngest one always tells me, 'Papi, I am tired of seeing you this way,” Oswaldo said. “Stay calm, and we'll play when I get there,” the father replies. “Yeah sure, in 100 years,” the child shoots back, leaving the father without words. “When he said that, it hit me hard. You say, God, please don't change the plans.”

"I begged God"

For Oswaldo, the decision to leave his family behind was not easy. The family tried everything to leave together, but the economic crisis in Venezuela forced them into bankruptcy. They had been able to feed the family, rent an apartment and buy a car and a motorcycle. But starting in 2015 they went into a slide, Oswaldo recalled, when shortages of basic goods sent prices spiraling up until the family could no longer afford them.

The country was emptying and Oswaldo, who was an insurance salesman, had fewer and fewer clients. They had to sell almost everything they owned to pay their bills, and even then it was not enough.

“One Tuesday I didn't even have money to buy food. I had never lived through that,” Oswaldo recalled. He went to a bank that day to ask for a cash advance, but was denied because his credit cards were maxed out. “I cried from the frustration, and I begged God.”

Amid the crisis, the family could not pay the rent and had to leave the apartment. They moved in with his wife's mother. And when their youngest child was born, they were forced to borrow money to pay for the clinic because they had not been paying their health insurance bills.

The final straw was an armed robbery, witnessed by the children. “My wife was in crisis. My kids were in crisis,” Oswaldo said. A friend loaned him $9,000 to justify his trip to the United States as a tourist coming to shop. “When I got in, I tore up the check. I had only $150 in cash … I went to my brother's house and I started to work.”

Univision Noticias interviewed three other fathers who left Venezuela without their children. In two of the cases, their departures were escapes forced by political repression. They managed to reunite with their families in Peru, but said they were threatened there by Chavistas and had to move on alone.

Now they are staying along the Mexican border with the United States, waiting for the pandemic to come under control so that U.S. immigration courts can reopen and resume consideration of their asylum applications. They came under the Migrant Protection Protocols during the Trump administration.

"A great suffering"

Abel Saraiba, Cecodap's coordinator of psychological services and lead author of the report on the “left behind children,” said the forced emigration of Venezuelans generated “a great suffering” that links entire families. “The father is sad because he leaves the child, the child because he loses his parents and the grandfather because it's his son who leaves. It is a complete family trauma,” Saraiba said.

He estimates that less than 3 percent of the children receive any sort of psycho-social support to deal with the damage, which would be worse depending on the process followed by the family as the parents prepare to leave. “It's not the same when a family plans for the emigration and there's a process for digesting this … When the child's opinion is not taken into consideration, there's more discomfort and suffering,” he added.

The results, Saraiba said, are children who cry easily, who are irritable, who don't do well in school, are disobedient, confrontational or depressed and return to old habits like bed wetting.

He estimates that emigration from Venezuela will remain constant as long as the economic crisis continues. Cecodap expects another 1.2 million people will leave the country despite the travel restrictions imposed because of the Corona virus pandemic.

Oswaldo has eight months left in his apartment lease. He has been saving money while working as an electrician, a job he had never done in his country. And after the eight months he will see what the Biden administration has done about Venezuelan immigration.

Without his wife and children, emigrating has brought him a lot of pain, tears and loneliness. “I need my pillars,” he said. Without them, he has been unable to put down roots in the United States, start his own business or sell insurance in Dallas.”This immigrant will be somewhere else this year, because my family comes first.”

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