Venezuelans flee home only to end up homeless in Brazil

Eugenia LOGIURATTO
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A Venezuelan man and his daughter eat a meal on the roadside in Boa Vista, Roraima state, a Brazilian town where 25,000 Venezuelans have gathered, part of an exodus from the imploding economy back home

The homeless Venezuelan woman in the Brazilian town of Boa Vista was once an operating theater assistant. And she once had dreams.

But her dreams didn't travel well. Three months after abandoning her profession to escape chaotic, collapsing Venezuela for a new life in neighboring Brazil, she finds herself destitute.

"We came seeking refuge, not to be beggars," said the 42-year-old woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals back in her hometown of El Tigre.

She and her husband lay together in a hammock strung up between two trees in a quiet street near the center of Boa Vista, capital of the Brazilian frontier state of Roraima, which has seen a big influx of fleeing Venezuelans.

According to city hall, there are about 25,000 Venezuelans living in the city of just 300,000.

They all come to escape misery. Many don't succeed: 2,500 are homeless, the city says.

The couple looked exhausted. To get here took them five days of walking from the border and they'd hoped to work enough to be able to send money back to their family in a country where basic goods have disappeared from shelves and medical services have collapsed.

But after three months, they have no work and not even a spot in one of the crowded refugee centers.

And while Brazilians have been welcoming in general, the stress on the modest communities in the region is mounting. This month in the town of Pacaraima, a mob chased out hundreds of Venezuelans and destroyed their meager belongings.

In addition to poverty and fear, the couple increasingly face exactly what they thought they'd left behind in Venezuela -- hunger.

"(At home), we can work, but a salary of 15 days would pay for one or two days' food," the woman said. "I'd go to work without having eaten for three days. I'd get to the operating theater weak from hunger."

Since arriving in Boa Vista she said she'd gained weight thanks to a daily plate of rice and beans donated by a church around the corner. At times, her husband said, he'd got desperate enough to start searching for food in the garbage.

"We're not doing anything here, just living in the street and getting sick," he said, also refusing to be identified.

The ultimate irony?

The forlorn couple would like to go back home, but don't have enough money to make the journey.

"I think we have a future," the woman said. "I just don't see it here."

- 'Adopted' -

Across the street, a family was camped along with a pile of clothes, children's toys and kitchen utensils.

"The situation is hard for the kids. We have to make it, to search for work so that they can eat, so that we can eat," said Johan Rodriguez, a builder back in Venezuela who has yet to get a job here. His wife is pregnant and they already have a young daughter.

Rodriguez and his family arrived a month ago and have been helped by another fugitive, Rafael Godoy, who used to be a waiter on the Caribbean island of Margarita, off Venezuela's coast.

His idea was also to make money to send home, where his wife and nine-month-old daughter remain.

Godoy lucked out. After spending six weeks in the streets, he was taken in by a local policeman, who is already sheltering two Venezuelan families.

He has also managed to find small jobs. "I looked after someone in hospital and they paid for the day, then I sent all of it to Venezuela," he said.

With that money, he reckons his wife will be able to eat for two days.

Godoy points proudly to a sticker on the donated bicycle he rides around Boa Vista: "Jesus," it says.

"With God's grace, if I get the opportunity I'll go wherever I can go," he said with an optimistic smile.

He's even hoping for a work permit that will let him go and try his luck in the capital Brasilia.

"There are times when I almost give up, when I feel like returning, but I'm here for my daughter. Let's go for it," he said.