They fled Venezuela for a better life. Now their children aren’t allowed in school.

Venezuelans cross Colombian border in search of food and medicine

Venezuelans are fleeing their country to find food and medicines no longer available to them at home, as seen in this footage released by the World Food Programme on September 24. The UN said nearly half a million people fled to Ecuador in 2018.
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Venezuelans are fleeing their country to find food and medicines no longer available to them at home, as seen in this footage released by the World Food Programme on September 24. The UN said nearly half a million people fled to Ecuador in 2018.

When Ruth Navarro set her sights on the picturesque and wealthy islands of Trinidad and Tobago, just a few miles off Venezuela’s coast, she imagined a place where she could escape the grinding hunger of home and, most importantly, build a life for her 8-year-old daughter, Stephani. Instead she says she feels caught in a beautiful trap — a place surrounded by mountains and sweeping beaches — but where she cannot legally work and her daughter cannot go to school.

The right to education is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaties. But Trinidad and Tobago, like some other Caribbean islands, is making the case that those who are not legally in the country should not have access to public services. And that’s left hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Venezuelan children adrift.

Stephani, who wants to be a veterinarian because “panda bears are the cutest things in the world,” said her initial months in Trinidad — without contact with other children — were some of the worst of her young life.

“I told my mother that I felt like I was in a jail,” she said in a barely audible whisper, “and I used to tell her ‘I want to get out, I want to get out.’”

Nonprofit groups and the Catholic Church are scrambling to come up with solutions, but some Venezuelan children have been unable to go to school for two to three years, said Karla Henriquez, a human rights lawyer and Venezuelan refugee in Trinidad.

“We’re losing two generations of Venezuelans,” she said. “There are those who came here and can’t legally work and the second generation that doesn’t have the right to study.”

Amid Venezuela’s economic collapse, more than 3 million people have left the country in recent years — one of the largest mass migrations in the hemisphere’s recent history. While those who go to places like Colombia, Perú and Chile have been given access to temporary work permits and, in principle, schools and healthcare, other countries have been less welcoming.

Small nations throughout the Caribbean, in particular, are worried of being capsized by the influx. The government of Trinidad and Tobago believes that about 40,000 Venezuelans are currently on the islands, many of whom entered illegally – often smuggled in by boat – or have overstayed their tourist permits. Even those lucky enough to be recognized as refugees or asylum seekers, however, are not necessarily considered legal migrants, and that means their children cannot study.

Living Water Community, a non-profit that works with the United Nations to provide services to refugees and asylum seekers, opened up a “child friendly space” last year where about 180 children, whose legal status keeps them from attending public school, can spend the day in a classroom-like setting. While the program does have an academic component, the organization refuses to call it a “school” for fear the government might move to shut it down, since it’s not certified by the Ministry of Education.

“We wanted to create a space where kids would feel safe and feel like they were going to school because many have been out of school for a long, long time,” said Rochelle Nakhid with Living Water Community, before interrupting herself to underscore that the site “is not a school.”

That something as universally embraced and seemingly benign as education could be a contentious issue underscores just how polarized the issue of immigration is. Prime Minister Keith Rowley has said Venezuelans are welcome to stay on the twin islands for short periods of time and buy food, medicine and other supplies but it’s not a safe haven for them. Trinidad and Tobago is clawing its way out of a recession and the government needs to tend to struggling islanders before it opens its arms to foreigners, he’s argued.

“Bear in mind, we are not China, we are not Russia, we are not America,” he said at a press conference in April, as his government was under fire for deporting 82 Venezuelans. “We are a little island [with] limited space of 1.3 million people and therefore we cannot and will not allow the UN…to convert us into a refugee camp.”

But the reality is that the island is already home to tens of thousands of Venezuelans who fear their lives may be at risk if they go home. And their children are caught in the educational limbo.

Alejandra Larez and Hector Asturillo fled Venezuela after they received death threats for denouncing government corruption. While they were granted refugee status in Trinidad, they’ve discovered that recognition didn’t give them a right to a livelihood — or, for their 10-year-old daughter, Maria Victoria, a right to an education.

Across Venezuela hunger, looting and protests are becoming part of daily life.

Back in Venezuela, Maria Victoria had been a star student and they refused to let her fall behind. Ultimately they found a private school that would accept her. They pay about $1,200 a year, a small fortune for the couple who are working illegally for less than $25 a day.

Maria Victoria, always the quick learner, speaks English with a Trinidadian lilt and is making a solid B+ in school. But, strictly speaking, she’s studying illegally and it’s unclear if her hard work will ever be recognized. In order to move on to secondary education she must take a national exam, the Secondary Entrance Assessment, which she is not eligible for, due to her immigration status,

“The very least we wanted for our daughter was an education so she can get ahead on her own,” said her father, fighting back tears. “But she doesn’t even have the right to take the entrance exams because she’s a refugee. What kind of life can we give her here?”

Living Water Community and others are exploring the idea of offering online courses from accredited schools in Mexico and elsewhere. But the real solution, they argue, is to have the children included in Trinidad’s public school system.

About three weeks ago, Stephani was finally enrolled in a “child friendly space” run by Living Water Community, where she’s learning math, playing tennis and making new friends.

Her mother is thankful that her daughter has somewhere to spend the day as she searches for work, but she’s also anxious about Stephani’s future, since the learning center isn’t a school or accredited by the Ministry of Education.

“I’m grateful for the help,” she said, “but this isn’t a solution.”