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The ‘orphans’ of the Venezuelan exodus

Frankeiber yearns for December to hug his parents, given the promise of reunion. Like him, many children have remained in Venezuela while their parents are forced by the crisis to emigrate to support their families.

He was 16 when he spent his first Christmas without his mother. The following year, his father was absent, too. Since then, the holidays are “a blow” for Frankeiber Hernández and his younger brother, with dinners that end in tears.

The worst crisis in the recent history of Venezuela pushed his parents to Peru. The brothers were left in the care of their grandmother Estelita, 58, who suffers from cervical pain, and her 70-year-old husband.

It is a situation that has become common in Venezuela. One in four migrants says goodbye to a child, according to estimates by the NGO Cecodap.

“Some 846,000 children … could find themselves in these conditions,” their coordinator, Abel Saraiba, tells AFP, warning that this year they will exceed one million.

It is an exodus that has not stopped. With 3.6 million Venezuelans who have left their country since 2016, according to the UN, infants growing up in foster homes have multiplied, with grandparents as primary caregivers.

“I can get depressed, but (…) I still have the hope that they will come back,” says Frankeiber, now an 18-year-old university student.

Meanwhile, he dreams of the announced visit of his parents at the end of the year to his grandparents’ house in the popular neighborhood of Catia, Caracas.

Leaving to support the family

Frankeiber, Fraiber and their grandparents depend on the dollars the brothers’ parents earn in a fast-food restaurant. The U.S. currency allows them to face voracious hyperinflation and the de facto dollarization of the Venezuelan economy.

This year, Venezuelans abroad will send some $3 billion in remittances, Ecoanalítica consultancy estimates.

Estelita Batista appreciates the help, but is saddened by the separation.

“I prefer her (my daughter) here because she says (…), ‘I am losing my son’s love,’ ” she tells in a broken voice. Fraiber’s conversations with his mother have declined, and he now spends a lot of time immersed in video games instead.

A child’s personality often changes after separation, Saraiba explains, showing irritability, sadness, anger and difficulty in processing emotions.

This is the case of Xavier (11), who breaks down in tears at night since his mother left for Spain a year ago. He writes letters with messages like “Mommy, I miss you,” which the family saves.

Video calls comfort him, just like his 16 and 2-year-old brothers and his 7-year-old cousin. Carmen Lugo took custody her grandchildren when her two daughters migrated “to help the family” from Madrid.

At 68 years old and asthmatic, the grandmother cooks, takes them to school, works and takes care of them when they return home. At night, they all sleep in their bed.

Transnational families with ties to Venezuela

The rupture has created “transnational families” in Venezuela, whose pillars are digital communications and remittances, explains Claudia Vargas, a sociologist specializing in migration.

The integration of these children into society will depend on their care, and experts recommend parents not to create false expectations of upcoming reunions to avoid trauma.

Andreína (15) knows that she will no longer see her dad, who is working in Costa Rica, although she hopes to move with her mother to Curacao before the end of the year.

“I would like her to leave, not because she weighs on me, but because of her feelings,” her paternal grandmother, Minu Vásquez, told AFP.

But their departure is uncertain: Venezuelan laws prevent minors from traveling without at least one of their parents and prohibit third parties from authorizing their departure from the country.

“I would be happy with my mother, but at the same time sad because I am going to leave my grandmother,” Andreína says, thinking about saying goodbye to her caretaker and 64-year-old “best friend.”

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