Venezuelan community find success and solace in Chicago

Remnants of the country they once are descending among them. Broken cities, empty grocery stores, lawless streets — a collapsed dream. This is current day Venezuela.

“I don’t want to be in a prison. I don’t want to live in a place where I cannot be free, I can’t get whatever,” said Rosbelis Quiñonez a first year journalism student at DePaul University. “I don’t want to see my family die without doing nothing…  I don’t think I am going back.”

Quiñonez is from Venezuela and now lives in Chicago. An authoritative, suppressive government has drawn tens of thousands out of her country and into US cities, Chicago among them. But it was a direct threat to her own life that forced her to leave.

“Those people who tried to take me they knew who I am, they were looking for me … specifically, they were waiting for me, armed three guys when I came to my car. They said, ‘This is her, this is the woman!’”

As a journalist, Quiñonez knew she was a walking target. But reality sunk in when she was almost kidnapped one evening after completing her daily newscast. “… that changed everything, I don’t want to die because death I’m useless. I wanna be somewhere that I can actually speak for my country.”

The 2014 incident haunted Quiñonez to her core. And though she was at the height of her career, she began taking the necessary steps to move to the U.S. with her partner.

It’s been four years since Quiñonez made the move. Last year, she enrolled at DePaul University in pursuit of her master’s degree in journalism, where she is learning about the free press within the American democracy, a right Venezuelan journalists do not have.

“…Then I knew what censorship was about,” she said. “In 2013 there were other protests and more people died, sometimes shots of soldiers killing civilians… and those videos never went on air.”

While a current day picture of Venezuela may be grim, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was once the richest country in Latin America and home to the largest oil reserve in the world. But poor financial decisions destroyed the economy, a devastating outcome that many historians blame former president Hugo Chavez for. When Chavez died in 2013, Nicolas Maduro took over. Since, protests and chaos regarding the outages and the corrupt administration have consumed everyday life.

Hyperinflation plagues the country, making the basics  — like food, water, medicine —unattainable. One bag of rice cost a quarter of what Venezuelans make in a month. Now, 82 percent of the country is living in poverty.

“It didn’t matter how much money you had at the moment … we couldn’t find nothing we couldn’t find the food we wanted or the products we wanted and that started to get me very worried,” she said.

Quiñonez recalls sleeping on the streets for days outside of a store to buy a car battery. And that’s not uncommon. Most grocery stores have seemingly never-ending lines that hug street corners and spill across pavements. Despite the wait, many still leave empty-handed. Stores are missing the fundamentals, forcing others to choose another way — looting stores and delivery food trucks out of desperation and extreme hunger.

“At the moment I look healthy, I gained weight being here, I’m looking healthy and good and when I go there and see my family skinny .. and stressed it was shocking,” she said.

Finding success after destruction

Jessica Klein can also relate to this haunting reality. She, too, left Venezuela in pursuit of a better life. Now, she is the owner of Kleins Café in Buena Park and does what she can to help her friends and family back home.

“I cannot afford to help everyone but whenever I have the time, for example, here 10 dollars is nothing but back home seven dollars is the monthly minimum salary so if you send 10 dollars it’s a month of minimum salary,” Klein said.

Klein originally moved to Chicago thinking she would pursue dentistry, something that she studied in Venezuela. However, once she got here with her sister, the idea of opening a bakery inspired by their grandmother’s cooking back home came to life. 

“Every little detail makes a difference… I feel good when everyone working in harmony and a line and tables are full… and I think now that now we got it.”

Success came with sacrifice. But Klein was able to conquer the odds and open a vibrant business. She is now empowering other immigrants to do the same and follow their hearts.

“At the end there is a door that is gonna be open through hard work and determination.”

Andres Weig is another ally for Venezuelans. He moved to Chicago more than two years ago and is now the executive director of Panas En Chicago, a local nonprofit that is helping the growing Venezuelan community. 

“We do this because we want to help the people we don’t want to make money for that,” Weig said.

In just eight months, the nonprofit has made its mark in the Chicagoland area. They’ve led fundraisers, mobilized with communities here, and helped Venezuelans adjust to life in the windy city.

“A lot of people are coming here so they can find a better chance for themselves and their lives and also for their family.”

President Trump’s immigration policies have sparked fear and anger – especially in Chicago, a town immigrants from around the world call home. Most recently, his efforts to end DACA and Temporary Status Protection for El Salvadorans have many fearing their future in the Windy City.

“I love this country but we came here to look for peace, we came here to look for progress, we came here for a future … we are professionals, as many immigrants are, we want a future because we are gonna help build a future, we are gonna help and form and take this country to the future if we have the space to do it. If we don’t have the space to do it, we will have to go to another place where they need us to look for the future and to work for it,” Quiñonez said.

Bonded by a shared plight, immigrants are among the city’s backbone. Their presence is felt within local businesses, classrooms, and nonprofits throughout Chicago’s corridors. And though their future may be unknown in the wavering political blueprint, their impact is among us every day.

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