Venezuelan refugees find safe haven in Scotland, along with gray weather, weird food

This is an ancient city on the chilly North Sea coast of Scotland, known for its granite architecture, abundant pubs and parks, and friendly folk who speak in a lyrical, often inscrutable regional dialect.

So it’s not exactly the first place you’d expect to find a thriving Venezuelan outpost.

Yet, here they are. Aberdeen and other places in Scotland have quietly become a tiny oasis for refugees fleeing the social strife and economic collapse back home in Venezuela.

The influx started over a decade ago, the first refugees drawn by one thing the two very different countries have in common — the oil industry. Much of Aberdeen’s economy has been tied to oil and gas production in the nearby North Sea. So when Venezuela’s state-run oil industry began struggling, a number of workers took jobs here.

That was the seed of small but growing community. New refugees Carlos and Nathaly Hernandez, with their two young daughters and teenage son in tow, had hoped to escape the rising chaos and crime at home by moving to Miami, a city with a booming Venezuelan population. But fearing it would be hard to live legally long-term in the United States, they soon set their sights on Scotland instead.

The transition has not been easy — the food was bland, they didn’t speak English, let alone the local variant, and the weather was a shock after balmy Caracas.

“I saw it as too gray,” Nathaly Hernandez recalled of their arrival to Aberdeen. “At that moment, the girls cried. It’s a gray city. They didn’t like it.”

Venezuelans in Scotland
Members of Scotland’s growing Venezuelan ex-pat population gather in Edinburgh last year. Maxi Leone

For Venezuelan exiles, the family’s experience will sound painfully familiar.

He was a well-to-do veterinarian and farmer, she an accountant who helped run a telecommunications company. They lived in a gated mountainside community outside Caracas, put their two young daughters and teenage son in private school and took vacations to Miami and Orlando.

Now, Carlos pedals his rusty used bicycle to his night shift washing dishes at a restaurant. Nathaly spends her days cleaning hotel rooms. They live in a cramped apartment next to an ancient Scottish cemetery.

But the young girls, 9-year-old Ana and 6-year-old Sophia, can do something they could not in crime-wracked Venezuela: Play outside without fear.

“The parks. The beach ... There’s no danger here, not like Venezuela, where I couldn’t even go outside and jump around,” Ana said in a mixture of Spanish and broken English.

Since the late President Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, anywhere from two to four million Venezuelans have fled the country, according to estimates, most to neighboring South American countries. After nearly two decades of socialist rule, hyperinflation and economic mismanagement have led to crushing shortages of food, power and water, a dramatic rise in violent crime and continuing refugee crisis.

Most of the spotlight has been on the exodus to the United States and neighboring Colombia — the U.S. Agency for International Development recently announced it was giving $6 million to help feed and aid the tens of thousands crossing the border to Colombia.

But many Venezuelans also have fled to Europe, where those seeking international protection there has increased by over 3,500-percent. In February alone, nearly 1,400 Venezuelans sought asylum, nearly all of them in Spain.

The United Kingdom has also proven a growing option. There were an estimated 22,000 Venezuelan-born people living in legally in the United Kingdom last year, according to national statistics — nearly triple the number from just five years earlier. The population in Scotland remains small. About 2,000 people of Venezuelan birth were recorded living legally in Scotland last year — but that’s double the number from a decade ago, the stats show.

Aberdeen Scotland
Aberdeen, Scotland has quietly emerged as a destination for Venezuelans fleeing strife back home. David Ovalle Miami Herald

The Hernandez family managed to weather Venezuela’s decline for longer than many others.

They and their three dogs — Jesus Alberto, Fucho and Princesa — lived at the Los Anaucos Country Club in a mountainside house offering a stunning view over Caracas.

Carlos Hernandez ran a farm raising and buying and selling pigs, cattle and chickens, which meant they never lacked for provisions even when food stocks began vanishing in the past few years. Even as strife engulfed the capital, supermarkets went bare and robberies skyrocketed, the family lived “isolated from the world,” Nathaly Hernandez said.

“We weren’t seeing the reality of what was going on,” she said. “Our reality was different.”

The illusion was shattered in July 2017 when eight teenage gunmen seeking money burst into Carlos Hernandez’s farm, and held him and his employees hostage for four hours. He was released after convincing them he was just the vet, not the owner.

Venezuela line
People wait next to a wall with graffiti reading “Hunger” in Caracas on July 23, 2018. The financial and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has resulted in a mass exodus from the country. JUAN BARRETO AFP/Getty Images

“When I got home, I told my wife, ‘Pack our things. We’re leaving Venezuela,’” Carlos Hernandez said.

The family first flew to Miami. In years past, they would travel to South Florida with empty suitcases, planning to fill them with clothes and goods from the Sawgrass and Dolphin malls. This time, they stuffed their suitcases with as many of their belongings as possible.

“I’ve never cried the way I did on that flight,” Nathaly Hernandez said.

They crashed with Venezuelan friends in Miami, who implored them to stay and try to seek asylum in the United States. But the family knew their chances were unlikely. Not wanting to live in Miami illegally, Carlos and Nathaly initially moved to Spain, but the job prospects were dim. After speaking to a friend living in Scotland, the family decided to settle in Aberdeen.

The city of just under 200,000 people is situated on the Northeast coast of Scotland, often an afterthought to more prominent metro areas such as Edinburgh and Glasgow. But Aberdeen has been an important industrial hub since the 1970s, when world oil companies arrived to exploit the oil riches of the North Sea.

The city’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the oil market, but one of its booms coincided with unrest thousands of miles away.

In late 2002 and 2003, Venezuela was paralyzed by a workers strike and labor slowdown at the national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela. Opponents of Chávez hoped to force a new election, but he strengthened his grip on power by firing as many as 12,000 of the company’s 38,000 employees.

Oil-industry companies in Scotland, then hurting for qualified employees, began scooping up workers. That’s what brought Jocsiris Delida Nava to Aberdeen in 2004.

Shrimp fisherman showing their support for the oil tankers participation in a national civic strike in Venezuela in December 2002. Peter Andrew Bosch. Miami Herald

She and her husband, both engineers, lost their jobs in Venezuela during the purge. They wound up working as consultants in Aberdeen, where they have raised their children. “In the beginning, it was difficult — mostly because of the weather,” Nava said.

Their numbers were small in Scotland, but enough that the ties attracted other Venezuelans as President Nicolás Maduro’s economic blunders plunged the country into turmoil during the past couple of years. “Everyone coming here has a relative or someone they know in Scotland,” said Gilberto Martinez, an Edinburgh commercial photographer who emigrated in 2003 and now runs a group Facebook page for ex-pats.

For Venezuelans seeking refuge in the United Kingdom, Scotland has also proven more affordable than larger cities such as London and Liverpool, he said.

“They contact me four or five times a week. How is Edinburgh? How much does an apartment cost? How do I get a visa?” Martinez said.

In Edinburgh, new immigrants estimate there are now between 100 and 150 Venezuelans, most of them lucky enough to have European citizenship through parents who were born in Spain or Italy. They’ve created a small informal network, helping new arrivals find jobs, make down payments for apartment rentals, even understand the Scottish accent — most speak passing English, but honed the language on American-influenced lessons and Hollywood blockbusters.

“Now, in the summer, we have barbecues. The kids go to the beach. The beaches are cold, but they’re beaches,” said Maxi Leone, 44, an accountant who left his his practice in Venezuela and now works with Sky TV.

Every Sunday, Leone and his Venezuelan friends get together for a game of soccer against employees from a Scottish supermarket. Later, they might also get together for arepas, the traditional Venezuelan cornmeal-and-cheese delicacy. A company called Orinoco Latin Food now sells them at open-air markets on weekends.

They say Scottish food leaves much to be desired, especially haggis, the traditional pudding made from the innards of sheep.

“I’ll eat it,” said Leone, pausing. “It’s not my favorite.”

Over 100 miles north in Aberdeen, families such as the Hernandezes are still trying to find their footing.

Nathaly Hernandez quickly landed a job cleaning rooms at the Park Inn Radisson, which last month buzzed with visitors in town for the British Open golf tournament.

Her English is limited to words like “shampoo,” “pillowcases” and “towels.” Mostly, she smiles broadly, laughs incessantly and nods during staff meetings. Even after three months, the back-breaking labor feels surreal but vital — they regularly send money to relatives in Venezuela.

“Back home, I didn’t even wash dishes in my own home,” Nathaly said. “I never thought I’d be doing such hard work.”

Their 18-year-old son, Gustavo Hernandez, secured a job as a waiter. Carlos Hernandez got a job too, although at the interview, he was puzzled by the title of someone who washes dishes. “I had no idea what a kitchen ‘porter’ was,” he said, laughing.

They’ve adjusted, little by little. Nearby, they discovered a Catholic church, St. Mary’s. The pastor is from Trinidad and Tobago and holds a Spanish-language mass once a month, followed by coffee and cookies. Parishioners hail from Venezuela, Spain and Argentina, among others.

But daily inconveniences seem trivial when the girls come home smiling.

On a recent evening, the family welcomed a visitor with a platter of cheese and grapes. The girls watched videos on tablets., the tiny flat strewn with toys, DVDs and video games. Ana, who is 9, excitedly explained how there were no bullies at her Scottish school. “I’ve advanced a lot. I’ve made friends,” Ana said. “I’m learning more of the language.”

Sophia is more introverted. She sat on her dad’s lap, fidgeting with a tiny purse. “Entiendo un poquito,” she said, shyly. I understand a little English.

“What do you understand in English?” Carlos Hernandez said.

Sophia turned to him, blinked repeatedly and smiled sheepishly with no answer. Her mother roared with laughter.

“Your favorite food?” he asked.

That got an answer in English. She said with a firm nod: “Pizza!”