Border Diaries: Venezuelans Report Immigrant Life in Brazil

Venezuelan refugees write about the traumas, challenges, and achievements of their journey and how migration affects mental health

São Paulo

We walked for two hours in the sun, thirsty. We arrived at a house, the children were hungry, and I asked the lady to let me wash the dishes in exchange for her feeding my children, but she just told me to wait.

At 2 am we left for the trail. We were a group of a hundred people, and I had a child on my shoulder and another clutching my hand. There was a lot of climbing, I was tired, and my little son was crying asking to go back. The oldest one told me "Mom, keep going, you can do it". The ground was slippery, I fell down twice and, as a result, I lost the baby in my belly. He was only three months old.

Ediquier Barrera, 39

A group of men, women, and children gather under wet heat in the courtyard of the Coronel Monteiro Baena occupation, in Boa Vista (RR). The building, previously abandoned, became a home for 38 families, each with their own makeshift room. They do their best to keep the common areas clean, full of clotheslines with lots of clothes on them, and blue water tanks on the floor. The aridity of the place is softened by the walls painted with flowers by one of the residents.

They are all immigrants from Venezuela, the country with the second largest forced exodus in the world, after Ukraine during the war. More than 7 million Venezuelans have already left the country, fleeing a prolonged economic, social and political crisis that makes survival with dignity almost impossible. Most head to neighboring nations, including Brazil, where some 400,000 of these refugees live. Every day, dozens of families cross the border with Pacaraima, in Roraima, on foot.

Many of them head to other states, where they find more job opportunities. Among those who remain in Boa Vista, some find a place in the shelters from the Acolhida Operation, a task force created by the Brazilian government with civil society partners to respond to the unprecedented flow that began to arrive, notably from 2017.

Of those who live in the capital of Roraima, there are those who manage to pay rent; those who can't –which is not rare considering the low wages and the need to support the family in Venezuela– end up joining other immigrants in spontaneous occupations, such as Coronel Monteiro Baena.

On the day of Folha's visit, in August, the atmosphere was relaxed, with adults answering questions and children playing around. Until Ediquier Barrera, 39, began to tell her story. The seamstress couldn't contain her tears as she talked of her coming to Brazil. It was 2020, the border had been closed due to the pandemic, and the trip, which is not easy even under normal conditions, turned into hell.

Ediquier and her children, aged four and nine, came along the "trochas", trails used when the border is closed or to avoid paying bribes to Venezuelan guards when leaving the country. The journey from her city to Boa Vista took five days and included long periods without food and hours of walking over rough terrain or in overcrowded vehicles.

About 20 people got into the truck, and I fell to my knees to protect my children. I couldn't breathe. They hit me on the hip with a suitcase, and I screamed for them to stop. Going down meant walking longer, but I didn't care.

When they arrived, crying with joy and relief, Ediquier found her sister and managed to buy the first birthday cake of her son's life, who was turning five. On the same day, however, she went to the hospital in pain and discovered that she had suffered a miscarriage.

To make matters worse, her husband, who did not want to leave Venezuela, ended their marriage over the phone. Later the couple reconciled, and he decided to migrate. He worked on a farm from 4:30 am to 6:00 pm, without a contract or guarantees, while Ediquier sold cigarettes on the street.

We only had a bed and a fan. The little room was horrible, with rats, and no bathroom. With the first salary, we bought a gas cylinder and a used refrigerator. Little by little, we started remodeling the place.

Ediquier misses her other children, grandchildren, and the brick house she left behind in Venezuela. She wants to go back, but she restrains herself because in Brazil the children have started to enjoy studying again, and her mother, who suffered a stroke, gets treatment from the SUS ( Brazilian Unified Health System). She has never been to a psychologist and says she finds strength in her faith in God.

The excerpts highlighted so far in this text were taken from a diary written by Ediquier. Folha asked her and ten other Venezuelans to tell their life stories and routines over the course of a month in a notebook. They were also given an instant camera to record everyday scenes.

These "border diaries", which will be published throughout the report, are a glimpse of what life is like for those who make up the largest migratory flow in Brazil today, with their challenges, but also the achievements brought about by starting over.

Migration and mental health

Research shows that the experience of migrating, especially in a forced manner, has an impact on mental health. Exposure to trauma, loss, and radical changes can trigger anxiety, anguish, hopelessness, and insomnia, among other scenarios. These reactions are generally fleeting, but if neglected they can make it difficult for newcomers to adapt and even evolve into more serious disorders.

"Migrants and refugees contribute positively to society, but they can only reach their full potential if they are in good physical and mental health", points out the WHO (World Health Organization), adding that difficulties in accessing psychologists and psychiatrists are barriers to many of them.

On August 25th, a part of me that I love passed away: my beloved grandfather, the pillar of the family. It was a pandemic, and I couldn't travel. I felt so angry and helpless. And now I'm still here in Boa Vista, missing my family more and more.

Angelis Navarro, 28

The adversities of migrating can increase the risk of developing psychiatric disorders or exacerbate pre-existing ones: some studies have found in refugees a higher prevalence of depression, generalized anxiety, suicide attempts, and post-traumatic stress disorder compared to host populations.

Much of this research, however, was done with Syrians who migrated to rich countries — with the majority of refugees living in developing countries. Studies on the mental health of the Venezuelan diaspora are scarce. One of the few available was published in 2020 by researchers from Peru and Harvard University and found a prevalence of anxiety, of 19%, and depression, of 23% — much higher than the global average, which is around 4%.

The study found that some factors that worsen mental health are walking during any point of the migration path and, in the case of women, being pregnant — pregnant women were four times more likely to receive a diagnosis of depression than non-pregnant women. The loss of employment status in the destination country was another risk factor, especially for men.

Being a mother is wonderful, but at that time everything was already very expensive in Venezuela. Imagine eating plain rice or arepa without anything and breastfeeding. After two months my husband arrived, and I asked him to take me with him to Brazil. The good thing is that here we have diapers, even if a little bit. With my first daughter, I used fabric diapers and had to wash them all the time.

When I arrived, four years ago, with R$50 you could buy a lot of things in the market. Now, with prices rising, things sometimes get tough.

Roselis Farias, 21

Although the impact of forced displacement on mental health is often negative, Harvard research points out that there may be positive consequences as well, depending on cultural, community, family, and individual factors.

Resilience to rebuild

The development of resilience during the migration process was one of the findings of a qualitative study carried out in Brazil with six Venezuelans. "Everyone spoke of how they overcame difficulties, of their plans for better conditions in the future. It was a very great hope that moved them to migrate", explains psychiatrist Fernando Henrique de Lima Sá, who studied the subject for his master's degree at UFRGS. "It's the ability to deal with difficult situations and get something out of them, to rebuild oneself."

Sá noticed some potentially traumatic situations that were recurrent in the interviews: the loss of social status, the experience of hunger, episodes of xenophobia, the concern for family members who stayed in Venezuela, the difficulties of adapting, and above all, finding a job in line with their professional background.

My husband owned a restaurant and was prosperous enough to support us, help the family, and travel on vacation. When the crisis got worse, I worked day and night at two clinics, but it wasn't enough. The price of food would go up in a matter of hours throughout the day and when you went to refill the pantry, there wasn't enough. My depression started to get worse.

Days would pass and nothing happened. Money was running out, my clothes started to look big on me. The little we had was no longer enough to buy basic things, such as detergent, soap, and meat. We only ate rice and beans. My husband would wear the same clothes repeatedly without washing them, and my daughter spent hours with the same diaper.

I sold pies, packed lunches, and disposable material, I looked for manicure work in beauty salons, but nothing came out of it. I looked for work in restaurants, and just after looking at me, they would send me away. Until we had only R$ 10 left in our pockets. I sent out resumes again. If they didn't call me, we'd be on the streets. One day when we were hungry, a visitor, seeing that we were picking mangoes from a tree, handed us a bag of bread. I closed my eyes and wept.

I saw myself in the mirror and cried. I realized how much I had changed physically. All my clothes looked borrowed, I was so thin. My hair was dry and had horrible roots. It was someone else. When I got home that same day, I was called to work, and it was the greatest joy I've had in a long time.

I started washing dishes and the first day I was so hungry I ate the leftovers of other people. I washed dishes like never before in my life, dedicated myself to learning everything, and being as useful as possible. Some people looked down on my willpower, but it was the need to provide for my family and the fear of losing my job.

I decided to save money to fulfill my dreams, because I left my country with the hope of growing, working, and paying my taxes. I lost my friends, my possessions, and the company of my family, and that is priceless, it has to be worth it for my daughter's future. Every time I fall down I only think of her. She is my engine.

Laudimar Noriega, 34

"Entering another culture is a challenge, it brings a destabilization that we call acculturation stress", says psychoanalyst Sylvia Dantas, professor at Unifesp and coordinator of the Intercultural Psychosocial Welcoming project. "A person has to make an internal negotiation of the two modes of culture, of a different repertoire of norms and meanings. The things one did in their country can be seen as deviant now. It is a break from their references."

Dantas warns, however, that the psychopathologization of the migrant must be avoided since each person gets to deal with displacement using the tools they have, and that depends on their cultural references. "We cannot stigmatize the other, reduce them to a poor thing. This is a western reading. The way in which traumatic situations and disorders are dealt with varies according to the culture. Each one has a story and can give a different meaning to mobility ."

To deal with this plurality, approaches such as intercultural psychology, or ethnopsychiatry, have emerged, which adapts diagnostic and clinical tools to the migrant population, based on the principle that two cultures meet in the caring process.

When I'm sad, I put my makeup on or sleep and think about my family and that I'm here with one goal, which is to be a successful person.

I really like Portuguese. My favorite words are ‘Saudade’ and 'cadê' (‘where is it’). And a strange word is 'bochechas' ( 'cheeks').

Lianyelis Gómez, 15

Most psychological care initiatives for immigrants are located in São Paulo. Some are located inside shelters, such as Casa do Migrante, and others are independent and open to the public. In Rio Grande do Sul, Associação Educadora São Carlos created Legame, a teleservice in mental health that serves not only immigrants from the state, but also from São Paulo, Rondônia, and even from outside Brazil (Argentina and South Africa).

"Migrating to survive is very different from migrating to take a course or learn about another culture", points out psychologist Eduardo Althaus, supervisor of Legame. "It's a very stressful saga. The challenge [of therapy] is for them to move from a place of scarcity, of victims, to that of protagonists."

[Crossing the border is] an adventure in which your nerves block your hunger and you have to make quick decisions, not knowing who to trust. I went through a swamp and a jungle trail, dangerous in every way.

It is very sad every end of the year not to be with my family. This tear envelops us completely. I only see my mother and my brothers through the screen of a phone and, well, with the bitter feeling of not being able to hug them.

The loss of a brother to Covid-19 was the most painful blow I received while here. It's nostalgia every time I remember him.

I was once attacked by a policeman while riding my bike, but I didn't want to give too much importance to it. I want to avoid any kind of trouble.

Robert Rivas, 28

Althaus also points out that the differences between the various Brazilian regions may come as a surprise to many, even more so in the case of migration that is widely spread across the national territory as is the case with Venezuela. "Many times migrants travel to the south without knowing what the climate, the culture, the relationship between people is like."

The way they are welcomed also counts a lot to overcome the initial difficulties. And in cases in which they are subjected to xenophobia or racism, an unexpected factor may come up: guilt. "The background to xenophobia is that the foreigner would be stealing the place of a Brazilian person. When they are mistreated, anger can come, but also guilt for feeling that they occupy a place that should belong to someone else."

Psychologists for Newcomers

Despite their psychological distress, new arrivals usually face, in the first weeks, urgent demands that are imposed as a priority. In addition, the fact that they are on the move makes it difficult to continue therapy. Still, qualified listening can help, and there are techniques created for contexts of a humanitarian crisis, such as the so-called psychological first aid.

In Pacaraima and Boa Vista, one of the few initiatives specifically aimed at psychological care for immigrants is offered by Doctors without Borders (MSF). The issue of mental health is considered so central by the organization that it was the first front implemented when it started serving Venezuelans in Roraima in 2018.

There are six psychologists, all Spanish and Portuguese speakers, who work in tents set up at high-traffic points. The most serious cases are referred to SUS.

Fernando Pena, the psychologist on call on the day of Folha's visit to Pacaraima, says that the demand is great. "In Venezuela, mental health is very restricted to those who can afford it. When they find out that they can have access to a professional here, they want it."

"We are there to provide initial support at a critical time," explains Suzy Shingaki, Doctors without borders' mental health activities manager. "Many times the person is unable to share with the family everything that is happening internally, and in those 50 minutes they can give new meaning to these issues."

According to Shingaki, her team encourages patients to strengthen mechanisms for coping with adversity. "We reinforce the importance of the support network, self-care, resuming hobbies and activities they had before migrating and which are often put aside."

When I am sad I take refuge in my God and this gives me strength. I read the Bible every day, it's better than going to the psychologist.

When I left I felt sad because I was leaving my homeland where I was born, raised, and lived. I left without saying goodbye, because I'm very sentimental, so they wouldn't see me cry.

We got accommodation at the shelter, and things changed. What a joy, we had arrived in Brazil. Without food, without money, but with hope and faith.

Juan Caicaguare, 68

Shingaki points out, however, that individual care is just one of the available resources and that the organization operates in a network to seek basic rights for immigrants – without which it is difficult to promote mental health.

"It's no use talking about breathing techniques or qualified listening if the person doesn't have a place to sleep. Often what they bring to the treatment are questions related to employment, housing, and food. Ensuring this, psychological suffering can decrease. If we get restricted to individual listening becomes only a momentary restraint that does not strengthen autonomy."

In sickness and in health

With their rows of white UN tents, one of those that are part of the landscape of so many refugee camps around the world, the Rondon 1 and Rondon 2 shelters, located side by side in Boa Vista, can accommodate around 2,000 people.

The family of Annerys Ojeda, 32, slept in one of these tents —or "carps" —. She was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 26 and came to Brazil in search of treatment, something very common given the precariousness of the Venezuelan health system. She ended up discovering that she has metastasis, something she tells with a choked voice and a mixture of resignation and frustration.

Her sister, Idercy, 34, came to help her and went out every day to cook something for Annerys, who cannot eat the meals from the shelter due to dietary restrictions brought on by her illness. Initially, she improvised a wood stove on the sidewalk. Afterward, a resident of the neighborhood took pity on her and let her use her stove.

My sister hadn't done many exams because they were charged in dollars, a kind of money we didn't have. She has three princesses to live for, her 15, 13, and 6-year-old daughters. We came here to ask for help, with the dream of getting her back to health.

In the shelter, we have a roof to protect us from the rain and the night. Here you sleep on mattresses. Breakfast finishes at 7 am and it is a cup of coffee with milk and some bread. Lunch is at 12:00 and it's a packed lunch. Dinner, too, is at 6:30 pm. To get the food, you have to wait in line and also to shower and do laundry. Once a month they give us a cleaning and personal hygiene kit. We can leave from 5 am until 10 pm.

Here we learn to be patient and tolerant. Here I had to learn to shut up and cry alone.

Idercy Urbano, 34

There are no psychologists working at the Acolhida Operation shelters, except for a project aimed at children and teenagers, Super Panas. In this case, the main approach is preventive —the so-called community-based work—, with games, drawings, and podcast projects, among others.

"We offer a safe space," says psychologist Tomás Tancredi, a UNICEF protection officer who runs the program. "The simple fact of taking the children out of that stressful situation of many days, after so many changes, and giving them a place to play and express themselves already has an impact."

I was scared when we crossed the border because I had heard that tigers ate people. We brought little food and we were a little hungry, but in the end, everything turned out well. When we arrived, I was very happy. Brazilians like children.

When my mother gave me the news [that we were going to migrate] I was sad because we were going to leave my grandmother alone and I would have to make friends with children who don't understand my language.

When I'm sad I sleep or play with my brother. What I miss the most are the arepas that my grandmother used to make.

I'm already a little adapted to school. The only sadness I have in my heart is that my mother sold our little house for us to come to Brazil, to seek a better future for us.

Valeria Caicaguare, 12

Unaccompanied children and teenagers receive special assistance. "Many of them come with the great responsibility of sending money back to their family in Venezuela," says Tancredi, adding that this leaves them vulnerable to child labor, human trafficking, and recruitment by criminal organizations.

Translated by Cassy Dias

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