Leaving Venezuela

At 15, I had to leave my country and start over. Soccer, music, and kind teachers helped me adjust.

by Laya Yagersys

I grew up in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. My house was surrounded by a garden full of orchids and a parrot who called out my name. I often sat there and thought, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

One of my favorite sights is Caracas at night; the city lights look like they sit upon the mountains in the horizon, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Some mornings, a sunrise of yellow and orange reflects off the green mountains; it looks like a painting in a museum.

But seven years ago, longtime president Hugo Chavez died. That’s when my country began to change and darken, and the sunrises and mountaintops did not seem so bright.

A Different Venezuela

Over the next few years, protests flamed up as politicians battled for control of the country. In April 2017, millions marched through Caracas to voice their anger over the erosion of democracy in Venezuela.

At the same time, medicine became inaccessible for many Venezuelans and there were severe shortages of food. Sometimes we had to stand in line for more than six hours for rice, meat, or cheese. There were also blackouts, violence, and unemployment. I didn’t feel safe. Diseases like malaria became a threat. Many Venezuelans began to leave.

A lot of my teachers left. When I went to school, I often sat in classes where we didn’t do anything. There were even hospitals without doctors—or if there were doctors, the hospitals were missing necessities like medication.

My father was in the construction business and although my mother didn’t work, we made ends meet. But my father didn’t like that my brother and I were no longer getting a proper education and that we couldn’t get proper medical care in case of emergency. He wanted my little brother and me to have a better future and not live in fear of crime, or pain and suffering.

Change Is Coming

One night, I was doing my homework when I heard my parents talking about a trip. They called my brother and me into the living room, and they looked worried, which scared me.

“The situation is worsening, and we are moving to the U.S. where it is safer,” my father said.

“I don’t know English. How will I go to school? I’m about to finish high school,” I said. I knew he was right but I didn’t want to leave. I felt many emotions—anger, fear, confusion, and sadness.

“You’re young! Just 15 years old and you don’t have to worry about that,” he told me.

But of course I was worried. A giant change was coming.

After that, I cried every day, trying to convince my parents to change their minds. Of course it didn’t work. My little brother took the news better, but he wasn’t a teenager about to leave everything for a new life. I felt lonely and empty inside.

Saying Goodbye

A week before my trip, my friends threw me a farewell party. They let me know that I could count on their friendship despite the distance.

That same night I said goodbye to my older brother, who lives with his partner and his son. We talked and played our favorite soccer video game FIFA. When he had to go, I went to my room to cry. He came in, hugged me, and whispered: “We will see each other again.” Then I heard him leave.

Soccer Becomes My Best Friend

Before heading to the U.S., we spent three months in the Dominican Republic so we could visit my grandmother. This detour was a good distraction, as I didn’t think so much about the changes in my life.

What helped me relax the most was soccer. Ever since I watched the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the game has been a part of me. In the Dominican Republic, soccer was like my best friend. It was an escape, a distraction from everything that happened and the uncertain future ahead. It was just me and the ball in my grandmother’s backyard.

When it was time to leave for the U.S., it hit me that I would not return to Venezuela. That made me feel sad, like a vacuum inside of me was sucking away my joy.

A New Home

I arrived in the summer and my first months living in New York were difficult. I didn’t know much English, so I couldn’t do simple things like go to the market and buy milk. The few words I knew, I forgot when I had to talk out loud.

So I was mostly upset and sad. “Why did we have to come?” I asked my parents daily, and I got the same answer: “It was for the best.”

But for me it was not, and for a while I lost my spirit. I spent far less time with my dad because he had to work more than he did in Venezuela. And now my mom worked as a hairdresser. This took away the family time I cherished. I only saw them at night, when they were both tired.

Luckily, my friends in Venezuela were still part of my life and we occasionally made video calls. But it was still hard not to have physical connections with friends here.

Starting an International High School

In September 2018, my first day of 9th grade at Brooklyn International High School was intimidating. The only two questions I understood were, “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” I thought I would get bad grades, which stressed me, because in Caracas I was a good student. I wanted to study journalism. I love writing, taking pictures, and researching, and I felt that journalism was perfect for me, but now I wasn’t sure.

I felt strange because everything was so different. I was alone, and my friends were over 2,000 miles away. After my first day of school, I cried all the way home. I didn’t want to go back.
I thought soccer could be an escape, but I learned too late in the season that you needed a doctor’s note to play for the school team.

Over the first few months, the teachers were attentive toward me, which saved me. Many spoke Spanish, and they often translated lessons for me. I am still grateful to each of them.

My worries at the beginning of the year eventually went away and I got high grades in all my subjects. Some of the math I had already learned, but no matter what subject it was I gave my best effort and my teachers noticed.

I even achieved an advanced knowledge of English, thanks to my teachers and extra studying at home. After a year, I no longer needed a translator or classmate to help, which was a breakthrough for me—not only in school, but in acclimating to America. The school even bumped me up to 10th grade during my first year, which was where I would have been in Venezuela. I hadn’t made any friends yet but I felt more comfortable and independent.

Making New Friends

When the spring semester started and I was in 10th grade, I started meeting new people I had things in common with like soccer, and our love of pop, rap, and even classical music. I was not alone anymore. It made me not miss Venezuela as much.

Then without me realizing it, the year was over and I felt so different than I had in the beginning. Beginning 11th grade, I was able to play on the soccer team. Once again, I was doing what I liked the most. Our team did not make the playoffs, but I am confident we will get there next year. I was able to score goals and give assists in several games, which gave me an awesome feeling I hadn’t had for a long time. Happiness slowly returned to my body.

Over time, the pain I once felt for leaving my country diminished. Sometimes there are days, especially in the summer, when I go out to the street and I can feel a wind similar to Caracas. At that moment if I close my eyes, I can feel like I am there.

The political conditions have not improved much in Venezuela and during the pandemic. I am concerned for relatives there. Leaving my country brought great change, but as time goes by, I know that it was the right decision to come here. I don’t know if one day I will feel for New York the same love I have for Venezuela, but I will try.

Sometimes there are days, especially in the summer, when I go out to the street and I can feel a wind similar to Caracas.
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