Students from countries in crisis
'Is my family still alive?'
Andrea Fernandez is not having a good time in Groningen right now. ‘It’s so difficult’, the game design student says. ‘Here I am, living in complete freedom, while my parents and sister are over there with no hope for the future. I can’t handle it. And I’ve recently been diagnosed with a disease as well, but I have no family here to support me. All the support we can give each other is over computers.’
Andrea is from Venezuela, as is Andres Conti, student of industrial engineering and management, and Alejandra Corona, who studies economics and business economics.
Venezuela has been unsafe for some time. But when incumbent president Nicolás Maduro began using the army to assert his power as opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president, the situation escalated dramatically. There are riots, enormous food shortages, and severe medication shortages. According to Stichting Vluchteling, 3.4 million people have fled the country.
‘Imagine having to go to ten different supermarkets to find the groceries you need’, says Andres. ‘That’s what’s happening in Venezuela right now.’
‘The country is being increasingly cut off from the rest of the world’, says Andres. ‘Foreign channels such as CNN are no longer broadcast there.’ He misses the analysis he can get from outsiders. ‘Then again, you only know what it’s really like when you’re actually in it’, says Andrea.
She’s talking about her sister, who can’t safely leave her house. ‘She’s basically living in a prison, but she doesn’t know any better. It makes me so sad.’
The three Venezuelans have a hard time getting used to Groningen. They’ve never known freedom like this. ‘I’m used to being locked inside my room, always being alone’, says Andrea. ‘For the longest time I was afraid of the sound of engines in the city. In Venezuela that means you’re being mugged or murdered.’
They are amazed by the fact that they don’t have to ration water and that television and internet signals work constantly. ‘I can call the emergency number and trust that someone will actually send help’, Andrea jokes.
In Venezuela, being mugged is commonplace. ‘A friend of mine was mugged by a motorcyclist because he was eating a sandwich’, says Andrea.
Morhaf Alnawaqeel and Rita Shrikjian are from Syria. They fled their country to avoid being drafted.
Morhaf studies business economics. His brothers and sisters live in the Netherlands as well, but his parents are still in Syria. ‘My cousin might be able to get them a residency permit in Switzerland. I hope they’ll be able to come to Europe.’
The Syrian police still come by to hassle his parents about his whereabouts. ‘They simply tell them that I’m in the Netherlands. Fortunately, I’m safe here.’
He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to return to Syria. ‘Even if peace comes to the country, I’ll still have to appear in court.’
Dental technology student Rita lived in northern Syria, which was affected the most by the war. Fights between rebels and the government would often break out at her university. She knows people who died in car bombings.
Fortunately, her entire family lives in the Netherlands. ‘I’d rather not think of Syria ever again.’
Once, her parents were surprised by several strange men at the door who threatened to kidnap her and her sister. The men knew which school they attended and what time they got out of class. Fortunately, her father knew an important government official who made sure the girls got home safely. ‘But a friend of mine was actually kidnapped. It happens all the time. My neighbours were murdered’, says Andrea. ‘I call my family every day to ask how they are and to make sure they’re still alive.’
Healthcare in the country is an absolute nightmare. ‘People simply die’, says Andrea. ‘They’re subjected to, like, eighteenth-century practices: no anaesthetic, surgery being done on the floor in candlelight’, says Andres.
Streamer: Surgery is done on the floor in candlelight
They all hate Maduro’s government; the president has been in charge for six years and they hope that Guaidó is able to get rid of him. ‘So many families have been torn apart’, says Andres. ‘My father left for Germany years ago, my sister left, and here I am.’
Andres managed to get a ticket out of the country last year. It was a perilous journey past several Venezuelan airports and hotels that were either run down or extremely expensive. In the end, he met up with his mother. ‘I spent seven hours in a car, knowing I could get mugged at any moment. The car stopped in dangerous areas several times. It was scary.’
Now that they’re here, it’s practically impossible for the students to return. Alejandra’s passport has expired and she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to get a new one.
The three Venezuelans found each other in Groningen. Andres says they’ve formed a strong bond. ‘We’re here for each other’, says Alejandra. ‘We’ve lost our homes; they’ve been scattered into tiny pieces all over the world.’ ‘Where is my home?’ Andrea asks. ‘Is it here? Is it with my mother? I can’t even tell anymore.’
I hope to go back one day, too see my country flourish.
One of Andrea’s best friends is still in Venezuela. ‘Two friends and I send her 21 dollars every month’, she says. ‘She can live off that for a month.’
Do they have any hope at all? ‘We have to’, says Alejandra. ‘I hope to go back one day, too see my country flourish. I want people to stop dying simply because they don’t have access to medication. That would be a win for me’, says Andrea. ‘So many people have never left the country, though, and they don’t know any better. In that sense it’s a social problem, and a new government won’t just fix that.’
Andrea, Andres, and Alejandra will be staying in Groningen for now. ‘We were forced to come here, but that doesn’t mean we’re not happy to be here’, says Andrea. ‘We’re grateful that we’re able to grow as people and work for our futures here.’