From the heart:

A family’s story in times of displacement

By Lise Josefsen Hermann & Victoria Stunt

©UNHCR/Andrés Yépez

“When I left Venezuela, I left half my heart there”

 

Daisy Ravelo

Daisy Ravelo pores over the cards sprawled out on her dining room table and begins to cry. They’re written with rounded letters and decorated with red hearts, stars and flowers, and as she reads one aloud, her voice breaks.

“I love you mom, even though we’re separated, because you’re so important to me. It doesn’t matter if we’re far apart. I love you.”

The cards are from her daughters Kamila and Daleski, 12 and 16, who live in Venezuela with their maternal grandmother. Daisy hasn’t lived with them since 2018, when she was forced to flee the country, six months pregnant, to give birth in Ecuador. She had an infection that was dangerous for the baby and couldn’t get the antibiotic in Venezuela to treat it.

As Daisy passes through the cards, her third daughter Isabella – who is now a healthy toddler – moves impatiently around her mother. Here in Ecuador, Daisy tries to live in the present. But the day she left Venezuela those years ago is still rooted in her memory.

Daisy Ravelo pores through cards her daughters have sent her from Venezuela, as she sits at her dining room table in Quito, Ecuador on June 24, 2021. ©UNHCR/Andrés Yépez

She recalls the last morning, when her eldest children stood together on the sidewalk outside their grandmother’s house, crying.

“When I left Venezuela, I left half my heart there, half my life,” said Daisy. “Seeing the faces of my daughters as I got in that car and knowing that I didn’t have a date I’d see them again, it wasn’t easy – at all.”

Her daughters are two of nearly 840,000 children who are left behind in Venezuela’s crisis, as their parents migrate to find work or healthcare abroad. More than 6 million Venezuelans have left the country because of violence or lack of food and medicine.

“The dynamics of family separation, especially for kids … is a massive problem in the country.”

With this forced displacement an estimated 15 per cent of migrants and refugees are separated from a child, according to the Caracas-based children’s rights organization Cecodap.

“The dynamics of family separation, especially for kids… is a massive problem in the country. We can almost speak of a public health problem,” said Abel Saraiba, a psychologist at Cecodap.

The emotional toll placed upon them – feelings of sadness, anger or anxiety – can affect their grades and put them at risk of dropping out, explained Saraiba. This in turn also makes it easier for some children to be recruited by criminal groups.

Daisy left Venezuela with her husband and cousin and travelled for nearly a week by bus – from Caracas to Quito, northeast to southwest across the top corner of the continent.

The first night of that ride, she sat in the aisle on top of bags and suitcases, pregnant and uncomfortable. But for the most part, she spent the journey sleeping, trying not to feel nauseous as the bus jolted back and forth and winded through the Andes.

When she finally arrived at the Ecuadorian border, she was exhausted. While waiting in line to cross into the country, she fell and hit her pregnant stomach on the sidewalk. She went into false labour. The Red Cross brought her to a clinic and eventually stopped the contractions – and it was then she found out she was having another baby girl.

Daisy Ravelo, husband Alejandro, daughter Isabella and dog Monse sit together in their home in Quito, Ecuador on June 24, 2021. ©UNHCR/Andrés Yépez

Today, Daisy and her family live north of Quito in a place called La mitad del mundo – the “middle of the world.” Their home is a second-floor converted warehouse with concrete walls and fluorescent lights, and bustles with activity as Isabella jumps around, waiting for her mom to finish cooking dinner.

Daisy worked as a social worker in Venezuela, but for now in Ecuador, she cleans houses or restaurants when she can.

And while her husband has his accounting title accredited in the country, it’s been hard to find a job. Instead, he learned how to make bricks here.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve told my husband, ‘I want to go. I want to see my family. I want to be with my mom. I want to be with my daughters,’” said Daisy. “There [in Venezuela] I had everything. In the sense that I had my house. The warmth of my family. Here, no. Here, we don’t have anything.”

Back in Venezuela, Daisy’s two daughters live in a neighbourhood on the west side of Caracas, in a house perched on a steep mountainside.

 

Haydee Ravelo

The house belongs to their grandparents, who’ve raised them these past years. The girls’ grandmother, Haydee Ravelo – who is Daisy’s mother – is a compact woman in her late 50s, with short brown hair and a round face. And for her, it’s normal the girls are here. She’s already raised three daughters of her own.

“In fact, I’m not their grandmother,” she said. “I’m their mom and their mom is their mami.”

And just as her daughter in Ecuador tries to live in the moment, Haydee also works to keep her mind busy, caring for her granddaughters every day, as well as for her own mother who lives downstairs.

But she also feels nostalgic for a time when the family was together. She recalled Daleski’s quinceañera in February 2021. Daleski was excited as she celebrated her 15th birthday, but with her mom kilometres away on the video call, she also had a difficult time.

“[Daisy] cried there. She cried here,” said the grandmother. “Between excitement, celebration, and depression. That’s how she spent it.”

Venezuelan migrant Sleiker Urbano, 21, peers out of the window of a metro train on his way home from work in Medellin, Colombia on May 29, 2021. ©UNHCR/Megan Janketsy

Sleiker Urbano

Sleiker Urbano is Haydee’s grandson and Daisy’s nephew. He’s in his early 20s now, and when he was 17, he was also forced to leave Venezuela because of the crisis. After graduating high school, he wanted to study systems engineering at university. But with limited public transportation and funds, he said, it was too complicated.

Today, Sleiker lives on the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city. The neighbourhood is dense. A handful of songs echo from various apartments and mix with the sound of cars and construction, creating a sort of chaotic urban symphony that makes up the backbeat of Sleiker’s life here.

He lives with his girlfriend and her family, and when we met him, he worked at a small motorcycle shop in the centre of the city, 48 hours each week, Monday to Saturday – the typical work week here.

Sleiker said that yes, he feels at home in Colombia. But at the same time, he doesn’t. There’s always a sort of void that makes him miss his family at home.

“Time passes so fast,” he said. “It feels like I left my country yesterday, because you look at the time and nothing’s changed.”

And for someone in his early 20s, what Sleiker wants in the future is pretty simple: he wants to be with his family, have stability, continue studying, and maybe one day have his own shop.

 

Fragmented families

In Ecuador, Daisy wants the same thing. She’s started taking entrepreneurship classes through a foundation and making gluten-free desserts to sell – an effort to find some stability for her daughters after a long four years abroad.

 Daisy Ravelo’s daughters, Daleski and Kamila, are shown posing for a photo on Daisy’s cellphone in Quito, Ecuador on June 24, 2021. The phone is placed on one of the cards the children sent her from Venezuela. ©UNHCR/Andrés Yépez

“I know there’s people who make them feel bad. ‘Oh no, your mom left you!’… because there are always people like that. But they know that their mother did not leave them. Their mother did not abandon them. Their mother is present even though she is absent,” said Daisy.

The family almost got that chance to be together before the pandemic, when the girls were going to live in Ecuador. But while Daleski said she wants to be with her mom, leaving Venezuela would still be a tough choice: it would mean leaving her family there, too.

For now, Daisy is living with her heart stretched across two countries – wanting to be in two places at once – raising her baby daughter in Ecuador, but longing to be with her other daughters who’ve grown up in Venezuela without her.

Every time she gets closer to the goal of bringing her family together, she talks about it with her mother Haydee.

“We’re women who like to fight. We like to get ahead in life. We like to work. And I think that’s where we came from. It hasn’t been easy for us.” said Daisy. “But… [my mom] says, keep going, daughter. That’s how it goes.  It’s not easy, daughter… but little by little, you’ll get there.”

Mariana Zuñiga contributed to the reporting for this piece from Caracas, Venezuela.

 

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