While many Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Colombia have enrolled in school, without the right papers, they cannot be issued diplomas and may not sit the national college entrance exam, putting their future at risk
All her life Daniela Puente dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Four years into medical school, it was almost within her grasp. Then came Venezuela’s crisis.
Her life was thrown into turmoil and like 4.2 million of her compatriots she had to leave. Uncertainty now clouds her future.
Her dreams began to fade the penultimate year of medical school in Merida, Daniela’s hometown in western Venezuela.
Suddenly the university cafeteria stopped serving its usual copious breakfast of eggs, arepas, pancakes, and fruit. Instead, students got a glass of warm milk.
“My family is the most precious thing in my life, so I knew I had to walk away from all my dreams to make sure they survived”
It was a symbol of the crisis that had turned her university into a shadow of its former self, deserted by faculty and students alike, and reduced her middle-class family to penury. Meals were becoming so scarce her younger brother was wasting away. Daniela knew she had no choice but to flee.
“My family is the most precious thing in my life, so I knew I had to walk away from all my dreams to make sure they survived,” said Daniela, now 22.
That also meant dropping out of medical school even though she had worked so hard to get there, juggling a demanding class load with a part-time job as a waitress. If she managed to get to Colombia, she reasoned, perhaps she could register at a Colombian university to finish the few classes she still needed to get her degree.
In February 2018, Daniela slipped across the border, using nearly all her savings to buy a one-way bus ticket to the Colombian capital, Bogotá. She arrived with just 10,000 Colombian pesos, about US$3, to her name.
Her plans hit problems immediately. Public universities required a student visa and notarized copies of her high-school diploma and her medical school transcripts – official documents that are all but impossible to obtain in Venezuela. The private universities were more flexible on documentation but the fees put them out of reach.
Daniela’s problems are faced by many of the four million Venezuelans estimated to have left their country amid the ongoing crisis, which has taken a heavy toll on economic stability, public security and basic healthcare.
A recent UNHCR report, based on interviews with nearly 8,000 Venezuelans, revealed that less than half of the children were attending school. The report cited the reasons as being “lack of documentation to enroll, limited space in (host country) public schools and lack of financial resources to cover the fees.”
In Colombia, which hosts the highest number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants, the authorities have made some progress towards removing these barriers. Some primary and secondary schools are enrolling Venezuelan children regardless of their documents or legal status. The Bogotá region recently reported an increase of more than 600 per cent in the number of Venezuelans enrolled in its public primary and secondary schools – from around 3,800 in August 2018 to 23,000 the following May.
But this decision does not solve everything. Without the right papers, students cannot be issued diplomas and may not sit the national college entrance exam, for example.
That’s the issue facing Andrea González, 17, who fled Venezuela in late 2017 with her family in the first term of her final year of high school. After settling in Cúcuta, a Colombian city near the border and a major point of entry for Venezuelans seeking safety, Andrea and her mother started lobbying the director of the nearby public school to allow her to attend classes. Like Daniela, she lacked proper documents.
Eventually the director relented, although she was then placed in the ninth grade, two years behind where she should have been.
Undaunted, Andrea said she saw this not as a demotion but as “a chance to learn more and hone my skills”. Now in tenth grade, she’s top of her class and has set her eyes on university.
“I think things will change by the time I get there and that I’ll be given a chance to make the most out of my life by going to college.”
But unless the law changes in time, Andrea’s legal status in Colombia will prevent her from sitting the entrance exam that is a prerequisite to get into any Colombian university. She is staying optimistic, saying: “I think things will change by the time I get there and that I’ll be given a chance to make the most out of my life by going to college.”
Daniela is similarly hopeful. At present, she is a waitress in a Bogotá restaurant, earning slightly more than the monthly minimum wage of around US$250 – the lion’s share of which she sends home to her family.
“There are so many of us young people who have been forced to abandon our dreams,” she says. “But I know that one day, I’m going to finally become a doctor. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when. But I know it’s going to happen.”