ATLANTA - Three years ago, María Gabriela Suárez was a project manager at a bank in Venezuela. Upon moving to the United States, however, she had to wipe her slate clean and start completely over, leaving her professional life in the past. This, despite years of preparation and 16 years of experience.
“I cleaned houses, took care of children, worked in a store, and then I found work cleaning offices at a dream company for me, because it has a lot to do with the work I did in Venezuela,” explained Suárez.
The political and social unrest that has unfolded in Venezuela over the last few years has led many to seek refuge in the U.S., Georgia being one of the states where Venezuelans are seeking an escape from the prevalent food shortages and lack of opportunities in their country. Like other immigrants, these individuals come here in the hope of securing a better future for their families, as well as to financially support their loved ones back home.
According to the latest Census data, some 366,000 Venezuelans lived in the U.S. in 2016. In Georgia, that number reached approximately 10,000, although it is probable that the figure is higher today.
One leading characteristic of this community is that it is made up of young adults and professionals. According to the Census, the average age of this population is 34 years old.
It is estimated that 34 percent of Venezuelans living in the U.S. have their bachelor’s degree, while 20 percent have master’s degrees or doctorates.
Despite having professional experience in their own land, for many Venezuelans, moving to a country where they can feel safe comes at a price: having to start over.
This is the reality of María Eugenia Urdaneta. In her home country, she attended medical school and found work in her field. Shortly thereafter, Urdaneta became frustrated with the lack of options she could offer her patients.
“I started my residency in internal medicine, and I was tired of telling patients who arrived with heart attacks that we didn’t have EKG’s, that was really difficult for me. That led me to leave the residency program and concentrate my efforts in getting us out of there, however we could,” said Urdaneta.
Urdaneta, her husband Isilio, and their daughter arrived in the U.S. two years ago. Here, though, Urdaneta is unable to practice her profession. She is currently in school to revalidate her degree but knows the process will take time. One of Urdaneta’s biggest obstacles is the language.
“I have a group of doctors who are working in restaurants, doing a little bit of everything. In fact, there are doctors in residency, cardiologists, dermatologists. But the problem is, you get here, and you need to have a level of English to begin your studies,” explained Urdaneta, who is 28 years old.
Urdaneta has made it a priority to study the language, and she has even been certified to work as a medical interpreter.
A community with challenges
Local organizations, such as the Latin American Association (LAA), have noticed an increase in the number of Venezuelans who seek assistance. It has come as something of a surprise to Cynthia Román, Managing Director of Family Well-Being for the LAA.
“LAA has helped them with rent, utility bills, food, transportation passes, and we connect them with community resources. We also refer them to our immigration services,” said Román.
“Of the individuals that I have met, many had professional careers in their country, such as lawyers, business owners, reporters, engineers, accountants. They say that it’s been difficult to adjust to a life that is very limited, where they can’t practice their professions, having to work in low-paying jobs or under difficult conditions, such as construction, restaurants, car washes, and cleaning,” she added.
Genny Ospino had to leave behind her medical equipment business and start over in Georgia, after she found herself living in fear upon expressing her discontent with the Venezuelan government.
“In 2014 I was involved with a lot of protest activities in my area, and at one of them I was ambushed by several government cars and beaten. After that, I couldn’t go back to my normal life,” said Ospino.
The 43-year-old came to the U.S. two years ago and requested asylum. Like Ospino, many Venezuelans request asylum for reasons of political persecution. Ultimately, the number of requests has risen.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of asylum requests by Venezuelans in 2016 increased 168 percent compared with the previous year.
While Ospino awaits the results of her request, she said she has found safety, despite how challenging the adjustment has been.
“The attitude, the willingness to keep going, is what keeps you from throwing in the towel,” she said.
There are moments, however, when the memory of who Ospino used to be destroys her.
“You come here with that mentality and say: ‘if that’s what I have to do, fine.’ But in the day to day, you say: ‘oh my God, what am I doing, if I didn’t have to do this in my country, why am I doing it here?’ But it’s a question of attitude. If I need to give my children and my family a future, I have to do it,” she said.
For Ospino, who works in sales, her job here is essential for her family in Venezuela. It helps pay for her sister’s seizure medication, for instance.
“We haven’t been able to get her medicine there for over a year. From here, I deposit money into the account of a friend who lives in Spain, and she buys it for me. We’ve always had someone going between Spain and Venezuela, because my sister could die without that medicine,” lamented Ospino.
“Do it well”
For Anabel Navarro, who studied communications in Venezuela, having a job as a dishwasher has not been easy.
“You do it with humbleness, giving the best of yourself and understanding that above all, we are representatives of our county,” said Navarro.
Suárez has applied the same work ethic in her own life, whether in her job as a manager or as a house cleaner.
“It doesn’t matter what you have to do, so long as you do it well and feel good about yourself, and so that when they ask you where you’re from, they can say: ‘Venezuelans are good people,” said Suárez.
From tourists to immigrants
While Urdaneta completes her studies to have her medical degree revalidated, she recognizes that, no matter the outcome, her happiness is not dependent upon it.
“Maybe I’ll do it, maybe not, but either way I have to be happy. Even if I have to work as a medical assistant, I don’t need to get frustrated. You have to keep going and believe you can do it,” said Urdaneta.
Suárez, for her part, found work at a company where, little by little, she is nearing her goal.
Navarro, meanwhile, began working at a media communications company several months ago.
These women form part of a larger community of Venezuelans who are still adjusting to life as immigrants.
“We weren’t used to emigrating. You would come here or go to any other country in the world, to enjoy as a tourist. Maybe Venezuelans are learning to emigrate, and that’s part of the process,” said Ospino.
It is a process toward which some organizations and groups are focusing their efforts, to offer information and resources so that this community can find success in their new identities as immigrants. In reflecting upon her own experiences, Suárez defined being an immigrant as the following: “It’s starting from nothing and seeing how things change for the better.”
The wife and mother to two children, ages 10 and 5 years old, remarked how difficult the process is and how much patience is required in the path to progress.
“Every time I cleaned a bathroom, I would say: ‘thank you Lord for this bathroom you are allowing me to clean, because with it I can provide and I am safe,” assured Suárez.
“There are times where you get nostalgic, but then I think of my children, I think of my family, and that’s the end of that,” she added.
© 2018 Cox Media Group.