Things That Matter

How Working In Ecuador During The Venezuelan Crisis Helps Me Understand The Central American Asylum Seekers

“Señorita! Puedo preguntarle sobre—”

“Ah, lo siento, no hablo español!” (“Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish!”)

Conversations during my first few months in Ecuador often took this tune: brown-skinned and dark curly-haired, I certainly looked the part. But I didn’t yet speak it.

Once my Spanish grew conversational, I could answer the confusion — somewhat. Always in a cab, the taxista would begin his string of rapid-fire questions, beginning with, “Where are you from?”

“Canada,” I’d respond with a knowing smirk, expecting the next comment.

“But I was born in Pakistan,” would be my eventual answer and the driver’s quizzical expression would shortly dissolve out of sight.

I spent two years living and working in Quito, Ecuador, never had my identities challenge me, or take on new meaning, as they did during my time living in South America.

There were, of course, strange — and comedic — blips in this journey. My first friend there, who I met through work, was Indian, and we took on the label of desi gringas together. Desi, the general grouping of South Asians, and gringa, women foreigners in Latin America. Or so we thought.

“You don’t want to call yourself gringa,” my friend from Costa Rica told me one day, stifling back laughter. Gringo and gringa, she explained, were “annoying white people from the U.S.” We dropped that label quick.

A foreigner, but not white, brown but not Latina.

CREDIT: Courtest of Urooba Jamal

I was slowly falling in love with Latin America but I craved something familiar. So, I took refuge in Quito’s desi restaurants. Surprisingly, there were several.

There was Sher-E-Punjab, the biggest one that always came up first on Tripadvisor searches, with its fancy decor, cloth napkins, and smiling waiters. I’d have to reassure several times that I did indeed want my food “extra, extra, extra picante” (spicy) because I was Pakistani and could certainly more than handle it. It was important to add “extra” many times because Ecuadoreans add tomate de arbol — or the tamarillo fruit — to their aji, or hot sauce.

Then there was the one owned by Pakistanis, where the chefs added literal sugar to their mild curries, I assume to make them more palatable to both Ecuadorean and gringo palates.

Finally, there was the one by my workplace, which was, in all honesty, quite average, with most patrons rarely ordering Indian food, opting instead to sip on cervezas and eat a fast-food staple, papi pollo (fried chicken and fries).

I returned often because of the woman who owned the place. She had fled her abusive husband in India almost a decade ago, working as a cook and chef in many different countries before eventually settling in Ecuador.

She lived above the place she owned and had learned Spanish simply by getting to know her customers. She was so happy to speak to me in Urdu-slash-Hindi every time I came in.

On one of my early visits, I asked the restaurant owner why she had chosen to stay in Ecuador. She smiled, then replied with a laugh, “Because they don’t think we’re terrorists here.”

CREDIT: Courtesy of Urooba Jamal

A decade ago, under the former government of Rafael Correa, Ecuador ended visa requirements for foreigners, earning the credit of having one of the most lenient visa policies in the world. Many South Asians, including many Indians and Pakistanis, as well as people from the rest of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, began migrating to the equatorial country for the first time.

According to Ecuador’s National Immigration Office, while only 92 Pakistani citizens had entered Ecuador in 2006, shortly after the policy came into effect in 2008, 178 had entered. By 2010, 518 — an increase of 550 percent in just four years.

Just last year, the UNHCR applauded Ecuador for its then-new Human Mobility Law — which regularized status for all refugees, asylum-seekers and trafficking victims — but it now appears that the new government of Lenin Moreno is set on reversing many of these policies. Blaming an influx of Venezuelans migrating to the country, it still stands to be seen what this means for migrants to Ecuador from other parts of the world.

While I met many migrants from many places in the region, such as Cuba and Colombia, it wasn’t till more Venezuelans started arriving in 2017, that I became aware of a changing tone in the country.

I was taking Spanish classes at a local university in Quito, one of them a conversational class with a fiery, expressive professor who was half-Colombian and half-Ecuadorean. Always impeccably dressed, she led our class — often just me and another young woman from Norway — with no structure. Instead, she would incite class discussions on hot-button topics from abortion to the death penalty. It was hard to place where her own opinions lay, as she wove in tales of everything from family members kidnapped by guerillas in Colombia, to the first time she snuck out from under her Catholic mother’s eyes to go party at a discoteca.

On one particular day, she started off class sharing news of a taxi driver murdered in the country by a passenger. The man who had stabbed him, she explained, was Venezuelan.

“Since Venezuelans have started arriving here,” my professor started off slowly. “Crime has gone up.”

CREDIT: Courtesy of Urooba Jamal

I sat there stunned, unable to string a sentence together in Spanish — or any language for that matter. This story would be the topic of discussion in my grammar class the next morning, where my other professor implied the same. I began noticing headlines from local papers, eyeing newspaper vendors as they snaked through Quito’s traffic, and their use of the same alarmist tone about Venezuelan migrants.

For the restaurant owner from India, along with many other migrants from around the world, Ecuador was a chance to start over. The country that is Latin America’s largest refugee-hosting country became their refuge.

Elsewhere in Latin America, thousands from mostly Honduras and Guatemala are currently fleeing their homes, hoping to escape poverty and violence by seeking asylum in the United States. Their own governments have long been allied with the country they hope to reach, with the United States having backed military dictatorships and coups there. These coups are as recent as 2009 in Honduras, and as early as 1954 in Guatemala. The migrants stay stranded, having been met with tear gas by U.S. border patrol agents, amidst threats of deportation.

Before the migrants had even reached towns bordering the U.S. in Mexico, where thousands are still awaiting their destiny, U.S. President Donald Trump made inflamed remarks against them, chastising the caravan as one “full of criminals.” Residents of Tijuana, Mexico have also marched against the migrants’ arrival — with even Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum echoing Trump’s comments.

As I follow their journey, I often flick through my Canadian passport, stamped with visas from Latin America and the world: my own family immigrated to Canada when I was two years old, leaving Pakistan forever.

Getting my Ecuadorean visa with my Canadian passport my first year was as simple as gathering my forms and picking it up four days later. By my second year, it required several more trips, many more forms, and a couple hundred dollars more; I got it four months later. The lines and wait times had multiplied: many were Venezuelans who may not receive visas at all, in not four days or even four months.

I think about these Venezuelan migrants, fleeing Central Americans, the Indian woman, about my own experiences.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Urooba Jamal

I’m finally reading Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America,” the classic 1971 literary indictment of five centuries of pillage and plunder on the continent. Galeano once said: “We must not confuse globalization with ‘internationalism’…We know that the human condition is universal, that we share similar passions, fears, needs and dreams, but this has nothing to do with the ‘rubbing out’ of national borders as a result of unrestricted capital movements. One thing is the free movement of peoples, the other of money.”

Despite the despair in his writings, Galeano remained hopeful all throughout his life. On this (open) vein, I probe: What if we never had to escape to find refuge?

Colombians Are Starting To Turn On Venezuelan Refugees In Their Country And Here’s Why

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Colombians Are Starting To Turn On Venezuelan Refugees In Their Country And Here’s Why

A Cubillo / Photo Alliance

Colombia and Venezuela have long had a close relationship in terms of culture, financial cooperation and migratory patterns. The recent years of economic struggle in Venezuela, product of the Chavista policies instituted by both the late Hugo Chavez and incumbent president Nicolas Maduro, added to US economic sanctions, have triggered a mass migration towards Colombia and other neighboring countries. Added to escalating prices for even the most basic commodities, shortage in basic services such as water, gas and electricity, and what international bodies have deemed as State repression, Venezuelans, particularly in the capital city of Caracas, have had to survive on criminal activity that does not only target the rich, but also those most vulnerable. 

It is estimated that as many as a million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years. This is a massive number if we consider that the overall population of the country is roughly 31 million. While some of the richest Venezuelans have migrated to cities such as Miami and Tampa in the United States, or countries like Australia and Canada, economic migrants and refugees have looked at the neighboring Colombia as a new home. While most Colombians have been accommodating, understanding that forced exile is born out of need and not wickedness, there is an increasing number who is feeling frustrated with the current situation and are blaming Venezuelan migrants for it. Remember, when things go wrong human beings tend to blame those who are different. 

The protests in Colombia highlighted the social and economic problems being faced by the country.

Credit: Al Jazeera Latin America

The recent wave of protests in Colombia, particularly in the capital city of Bogota, have put the spotlight on the socioeconomic differences that have made society increasingly polarized. The crackdown on unions, students and activists has also brought attention to the increasingly repressive methods of the Ivan Duque presidency.

Added to this, violence against vulnerable groups is increasing, as reported by Al Jazeera: “Tension has been simmering for months amid discontent over inequality, education and Duque’s slow implementation of a 2016 peace deal, which was signed between the previous government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and brought an end to 50 years of fighting. More than 750 indigenous leaders and human rights activists have been killed in Colombia over the past two years, according to local think-tank INDEPAZ.”

The current climate is ripe for a conflict that could last for years if all the involved parties fail to reach even the most basic of agreements. Frustration is running high. And we know that frustration is usually a trigger for discrimination.

So some people are blaming the increased influx of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

In a recent article published by Reuters, a side effect of the conflicted political climate in Colombia was brought to attention: the growing discrimination against Venezuelan migrants.

In the article, a young Venezuelan called Daniels Herrera told journalist Steven Grattan how he and other migrants have heard people blame Venezuelans for the Colombia’s troubles, claiming that it is Venezuelans who run the country. This has made Herrera and others like him feel unsafe even if coming from Caracas, by all accounts one of the most dangerous cities in the world. They have decided to remain silent, speak as little as possible so their accent won’t give them away.

This basically leads to situations such as the one that African and Middle Eastern refugees are living in Europe, where xenophobia is high and a cruel reminder of the division that led unspeakable atrocities during the Second World War.  

Discrimination is a quick slippery slope.

The Reuters article explains that the looting and vandalism that has been triggered by the protests is now being blamed on Venezuelan migrants, which of course has gotten the most conservative members of Colombian society all riled up. They have been quick to point fingers, as Reuters argues: “Non-governmental organizations and researchers say rumors blaming Venezuelan migrants for isolated looting and vandalism connected to the protests have caused a sharp rise in xenophobia over the last 10 days. Posts on social media and messages forwarded on messaging application WhatsApp – many mentioning Venezuelans – stoked panic among Bogota residents on the night of the curfew, as the city’s emergency line was inundated with calls reporting residential break-ins that police say never happened.”

Discrimination and panic are fires that are hard to put out once they start burning. Now Venezuelans are fearful that they will become the scapegoats for whatever goes wrong in Colombia. Discrimination starts on the street level, as part of everyday talk, but can very rapidly become instituted in policies that result in unfair judicial processes and policing that singles out individuals due to their accent or physical appearance. Does this sound familiar to those Latinos living in the United States, where Brown and Black folk are often targeted by the authorities? 

This Guatemalan Mom Was Separated From Her Son At The Border After Enduring A Gunshot To The Face

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This Guatemalan Mom Was Separated From Her Son At The Border After Enduring A Gunshot To The Face

@ajplus / Twitter

In an exclusive interview with People Magazine, a 32-year-old Guatemalan woman recounts her experience fleeing her home country in August 2017 after being shot in the face at a demonstration. Not only does the woman—who goes by the false name Daniella—describe the event that catalyzed her desire to leave Guatemala, but she tells of the many months spent traveling north, and the many months spent in a detention center after reaching the border, separated from her young son.

On August 9, 2017, Daniella and her son, Carlos, were leaving their family’s house when they encountered a large protest against a new measure that would require people to pay for water. At first the protest was peaceful—but then bullets started flying through the air. Daniella and Carlos were just passing through, but a bullet had caught Daniella in two parts of her body: the left arm, and right below the eye.

“I threw my arm around Carlos to protect him—he was covered in blood, and I started to panic,” she told People. “Little did I know that the one bleeding was me.”

Because of rampant corruption in that part of Guatemala, Daniella knew that the police wouldn’t come—they were told not to interfere. So vigilant were certain members of the demonstration that Daniella’s father received a threatening call before she even made it to a hospital. The caller told her father that if they filed a report, he would kill the whole family. Later she learned that the man who had shot her lived just three blocks away from her mother. Fortunately, when she made it to the hospital, her husband—who had moved the the U.S. five years earlier to find work, sent money for the expenses.

After more than a week in the hospital, both bullets remain in Daniella’s body to this day.

“The doctor said that if they were taken out, I could be left in a vegetative state, or I could die,” she said. “To this day I still feel pain.”

After this harrowing experience, Daniella decided that it was time to follow in her husband’s footsteps and flee to the U.S. She knew that the journey would be anything but easy, but she could have never guessed how nightmarish a month lay ahead. Traveling by truck and by bus, there were many nights spent on the side of the road. When they finally made it to the Arizona border, they were not dropped off at an immigration center, as she had expected. Instead, she and Carlos were told to climb a tree, then jump from the tree to the border wall. From there, they could reach the other side.

“I told Carlos, ‘Mijo, you have to jump.’ He was so afraid that he wouldn’t move,” she said. “I looked into my son’s eyes, and I said, ‘Son, please trust me. Everything’s going to be all right.’

After they had both made it safely to the other side, they took just a few steps before the Border Patrol arrived. They were taken into custody and dropped off at “La Hielera”—The Icebox. There, Daniella was forced to sign papers she didn’t understand, and the officer who was present told her that the children would be taken to a shelter, then given up for adoption. Naturally, all the mothers were desperately frightened by this news.

Before leaving for court that same day, Daniella said goodbye to Carlos, unsure if they would ever see each other again. She told People Magazine that she held her son and said: “You’re a champion, Papa, and you’re always going to be in my heart.”

The mothers were not immediately told the whereabouts of their children. But five months after being moved to Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, Daniella learned that Carlos was in a New Jersey foster home.

A few months later, Daniella had her official court hearing. Her bail was posted at $30,000, and after filing an appeal to extend the bail deadline, Daniella was released from custody. She had been detained for 11 months.

The organization Immigrant Families Together had gathered the money for Daniella’s bail, and they helped her get back on her feet by providing her with food and clean clothes. They also took her to the airport to fly to Virginia, where Carlos had relocated to live with his uncle, her brother.

Daniella’s story isn’t unique—roughly 30,000 people are detained in the U.S. on a given day, and these numbers have seen major upticks throughout 2019. What makes Daniella’s story remarkable is her reunion with Carlos. Many families who have been separated at the border are not nearly as lucky.

While she and Carlos continue to deal with the psychological trauma of this experience, Daniella is grateful and focused on the future.

“Without the assistance from all the people that helped me, I wouldn’t be free,” said Daniella. “Now my only focus is my family, my son, starting a new life here in California . . . I don’t have to worry about being shot again or putting my son’s life in danger.”