Enrique and Ana abandoned Venezuela seven months ago, fleeing political persecution and seeking “a better future” for their 4-year-old son.
Desperate, they left everything they owned and flew to Miami with empty pockets and just a credit card with a $700 maximum.
The family used airplane tickets donated to them by a former supervisor. They knew no one in Miami, but luckily a friend had a relative in the city, Enrique recalled. It was that complete stranger who met them at the airport and took them to his Homestead house for two months.
“Every day has been a miracle,” said Enrique, who spoke on condition of not being fully identified for fear of reprisals against relatives left behind in Venezuela. His family now lives in makeshift quarters in a warehouse that belongs to the South Florida company where he works.
All three sleep on an inflatable mattress and bathe with a plastic cup and water from a sink. The floor has no drain, so after each bath they have to mop up the water on the floor.
Ana was pregnant but recently had a miscarriage.
The family is one of the 100 families that has received assistance since January from Raíces Venezolanas (Venezuelan Roots) — an initiative launched by the Venezuela Awareness organization in Miami to donate basic goods to fellow countrymen in need.
“Right now there’s a new wave of Venezuelan migrants who arrive with many needs,” said Patricia Andrade, founder of Venezuela Awareness, who launched the assistance initiative after seeing the growing number of Venezuelans who arrive in Miami in precarious circumstances.
“What we’re seeing is Venezuelans who live in one room or a warehouse, because they have nowhere else to live, whole families who sleep on the floor of a single room,” she said.
ON THE RISE
Although there is no official data on the most recent wave of Venezuelan migrants, those who work with the new arrivals say they’ve seen a significant increase over the past six months.
Of the 100 families helped by Raices Venezolanas so far, most arrived within the past two months.
With living conditions continuing to deteriorate in Venezuela — and an already established and growing Venezuelan community in the United States — it is likely that more will seek refuge here, experts say.
A recent report by the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends showed 248,000 persons of Venezuelan descent living in the U.S., with 69 percent born in the South American country.
At least half live in Florida, according to the same report, with a large concentration in South Florida.
According to another study by sociologists at the Universidad Central in Venezuela, an estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans, most of them professionals, had left the country as of 2015, with 260,000 going to the United States and 200,000 to Spain.
A poll by the Datanalisis firm in 2015 showed 10 percent of those surveyed in the South American country were in the process of completing paperwork to emigrate.
The reasons for leaving Venezuela reflect the country’s critical situation: Some migrants point to the high levels of crime and an economic crunch that has driven up unemployment and sparked shortages of food and medicines. Others say they are being persecuted or intimidated by supporters of President Nicolás Maduro’s government for favoring the opposition.
Like Enrique and Ana, the latest migrants also arrive with little or nothing in their pockets because of the growing inflation and currency controls in their country. The $700 maximum on credit cards was set by the Maduro government in an attempt to control the massive outflow of U.S. dollars.
RELY ON DONATIONS
Every Friday, families in need arrive at the warehouse that Raíces Venezolanas rents in Doral, looking for donated items such as flatware, dishes, bedsheets and pillows. The items most needed are mattresses and coffee makers, Andrade said.
Luis Marcano, with his two small children, and Alfredo Cañizares and his wife, María Concepción, were among those looking for mattresses.
After he was kidnapped for three days, Marcano decided to leave Venezuela and arrived in Miami in March with his wife and children, with no friends or family here. He had sold everything he owned to buy the plane tickets, and with the $2,000 left over bought a car and rented an efficency. He sleeps on the floor, while his wife and two children share an inflatable mattress.
Alfredo Cañizares and his wife said they fled the country because of political persecution. They lived in Mérida and participated in anti-government protests with a neighbor and well-known activist, Franklin Hernández. Hernández was arrested by intelligence agents in early 2015 after Maduro singled him out in a televised address as the “violent ringleader” of protests in Mérida, the capital city of Caracas and the states of Táchira and Trujillo.
After arriving in Miami, the Cañizares family initially stayed with a relative but recently rented a small apartment. Their 14-year-old daughter had been sleeping on an inflatable mattress, and the parents were at the Raíces Venezolanas warehouse to find a real mattress.
Despite all the hardships they have encountered in Miami, none of the new arrivals interviewed said they had plans to return to Venezuela soon. They said that the struggles they face in exile are short-term issues and that their hard work will provide a better future for their children.
Enrique said that when the government changes, he might like to return home to help rebuild Venezuela. But for now he’s focusing on how to pay for his son’s day care.
“If anyone is thinking of going back [now], listen to my story and don’t throw in the towel, don’t give up,” he said. “Don’t go back yet.”
Follow Johanna Álvarez on Twitter: @jalvarez8
HOW TO HELP
Patricia Andrade, founder of Venezuela Awareness, is asking other Venezuelans and South Florida residents to help the new arrivals. They can donate bedsheets, pillows, blankets, kitchen utensils, dishes, toys and some furniture. Her group also accepts cash donations.
To help, call 305-559-6244 or email email@example.com. Those who need assistance can use those same contacts, but Andrade added that the program is designed to help Venezuelans who are in “extreme need.”