Doctor, Refugee. Violinist, Refugee. Model, Refugee.


When earthquake, war or social upheaval drives you across a border and into the unknown, you learn the hard lesson of the refugee: You didn’t just lose a home, a job, a country. You may also have lost your identity.

With refugees around the world now put at around 25 million, this lesson is being driven home for a record number of people. And more than four million of them came from Venezuela alone in the last few years as its economy collapsed amid the corruption and mismanagement of an increasingly authoritarian government.

In recent interviews, five Venezuelans spoke at length about what they had left behind, what they had managed to carry with them, and what feels lost forever.

“I’m not the same as before,” one said.

Chiquinquira Fleming

I am a beauty queen.

There was the white miniature poodle, a gift from her future husband. There were the long Sunday lunches with her family. And then there was the way people — complete strangers — reacted if they happened to cross her path.

“I used to go out on the streets and I felt like a celebrity because people would greet me, because they had seen me on television,” she said.

Chiquinquira Fleming was 18 when her modeling career took off. She rose through the beauty pageant scene and was crowned at an international contest held in her hometown, the wealthy oil hub of Maturín, in 2014.

A year later, Ms. Fleming was offered a job at her state’s largest private newscaster, covering international news. She woke before dawn, started work at 7 and by noon was on television screens across the state. Afternoons she ran Fleming Boutique, a clothes store she opened to capitalize on her growing fame as a model.

“I had everything in my profession: the best work, my own business,” she said.

The fall came swiftly.

First, new owners took over the television station and fired most of its journalists, including Ms. Fleming. Then the customers vanished from her store as the economy began its tailspin.

“People weren’t buying clothes then,” she said. “They needed food.”

And there would soon be another mouth to feed in her own household: Ms. Fleming, then 23, was pregnant.

When she looked around, she saw a once-prosperous country where infant mortality was now soaring. There were stories of parents abandoning their children as food grew scarce.

Venezuela was over for her.

One cold day last year, Ms. Fleming stood on a lonely road between Ecuador and Peru. Her feet hurt from the endless miles of walking, and she held her infant daughter, Camila Victoria, in her arms.

Try as she might, the former beauty queen once stopped by strangers on the street could not manage to flag a ride to the next town. Drivers wouldn’t even look her in the eye.

Ms. Fleming kept walking, wondering what lay ahead. It turned out to be a hillside shantytown in Lima, where she arrived at last after crossing into Peru.

The doors of journalism, once flung wide open to her in Venezuela, were closed tight in Peru, and she finally found work selling street food.

She sometimes finds herself wishing she were back in the country she fled. At least it was home.

“More than anything, I am now in debt,” she said. “I feel the same as I did there: the same anguish, the same stress. Counting coins — but this time alone.”

Mahler Carrasco

I keep people safe.

It was a four-bedroom bungalow on a lush road in a valley an hour’s drive from Caracas. On its walls hung family pictures, and in the garage were four cars and a motorcycle — the last a splurge, sure, but times were good.

A child of public housing, and the son of a police officer, Mahler Carrasco used to look around at the home he shared with his wife and two children and marvel. “My life had changed so much,” he said.

It was more than a home. It was a haven from Caracas, where Mr. Carrasco ran a private security business that kept watch over Venezuela’s most powerful families. And he had worked hard for it.

When he was growing up, Venezuela was flush with cash from a booming oil industry, and it offered social mobility that was the envy of the region.

A young Mr. Carrasco joined the army, rising through its ranks to become a member of the presidential guard. In the early 2000s, after a stint as a police officer, he started a company that provided bodyguards to diplomats and foreign executives.

When Venezuela began faltering economically, Mr. Carrasco became his extended family’s patron, sending cash to his mother, and clothes and medicine to his brothers, sisters and cousins. And he could still indulge his passion: There was the red Chevrolet Malibu and the white one, the Ford Sierra from the 80s and the Ford Fairlane 500 from the 60s.

But he could feel the violence of his country edging ever closer. Mr. Carrasco began carrying his weapon to protect himself, not just his clients. Then the clients dried up, as foreigners fled the country.

“I started to sell what I owned,” he said. “It was a liquidation. I was no longer the same person.”

In 2017, a group of men arrived on motorcycles and attacked Mr. Carrasco’s daughter with a knife. When he intervened, he was badly beaten.

The bungalow in the valley was no longer a haven — and staying in Venezuela became out of the question.

“I welded shut the doors, I sealed it all,” Mr. Carrasco said. “And I left my house, just like that.”

The family fled across the border, making its way to Peru. Then last year, Mr. Carrasco learned he had lung cancer.

His family’s sole provider, he found an old grocery cart and started selling juice outside the hospital where he was getting chemotherapy, at times so weak that he could hardly stand.

Then he found a job as a neighborhood watchman. It’s not like the old days at the security company, but it does let him feel like he is protecting others again.

Not long ago, Mr. Carrasco heard that burglars had broken into his old home, emptying it. Sometimes, he thinks about how unimaginably far he once rose in his old land, and how far he has fallen again.

“We never thought there could be such another radical change,” he said.


I am a graphic designer.

Cinthia Delgado’s husband was a refugee when they met in Venezuela in the 1990s. He had just fled Colombia and the carnage of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord.

In the city Juan Pablo Chalacra was leaving behind, Medellín, Escobar’s thugs were roaming the streets, pressuring men to take up arms and join their fight against the government.

But in Ms. Delgado’s Venezuelan border town, San Cristóbal, Mr. Chalacra found a haven. And he found Ms. Delgado.

He was among countless Colombians pouring into Venezuela back then, few of whom expected to return home. “I can tell you, we all had a Colombian family member back then,” Ms. Delgado said.

When she thinks back now, Ms. Delgado remembers working as a graphic designer, sketching out designs for logos and business cards at a firm, where business was booming. She remembers the Saturday barbecues, and her dogs Lulu and Dolly. But what she most remembers is the home she shared with her new husband.

It was a work in progress. As Ms. Delgado’s extended family grew larger, so did the house, with new floors built for cousins, aunts and grandparents. The apartments were modest, but they were built to taste.

“Mine had the big windows, because I like big windows,” she said.

As Venezuela’s economy plummeted, however, so did Ms. Delgado’s personal fortunes.

When Mr. Chalacra had a motorcycle accident, injuring his legs and back, the struggling hospital could not offer the CT scan he needed. When it came time to operate, doctors gave the family a shopping list: On it were sutures, antibiotics and gloves.

Mr. Chalacra recovered, but when it was clear that Venezuela would not, the couple realized they had no choice but to reverse the path he had taken decades earlier, and move to Colombia. Now, Ms. Delgado’s husband would be the one offering refuge — and in the very country he once fled.

Like Mr. Chalacra decades before, Ms. Delgado crossed the border in 2018 with her pockets almost empty. She and her 22-year-old son carried only clothes and enough money to buy tickets for the afternoon bus to Medellín, where Mr. Chalacra was preparing their home.

At first Medellín frightened Ms. Delgado. All she really knew about her new home in the Andes was the gruesome tales her husband had told of the Escobar era. “I spent almost a year like I felt I was going to cry,” she said.

But because her husband was Colombian, at least she had a home.

“We didn’t arrive like so many Venezuelans that have to sleep on the street,” she said. “We arrived at a house. We arrived to his family.”

Still, Ms. Delgado had much to learn.

She tried working in a restaurant. Then she tried caring for the children for a wealthier family — her first job as a domestic worker.

When her husband began selling food on the street, she said, she cried. How far they had fallen, she thought.

Her husband, the more seasoned refugee, set her straight. “He told me this work isn’t dishonorable,” she said.

Now, Ms. Delgado can be found right next to him.

“He told me: ‘My love, we must work. Food won’t wait for us. Hunger won’t wait either.’”


Credit…Andrea Calabrese

Andrea Calabrese

I am a classical musician.

Her violin was made in Italy, and as she was growing up in Caracas, she used to dream of performing Beethoven for concertgoers in evening wear — little surprise, considering her family.

Andrea Calabrese’s mother was a viola teacher, her father a well-known composer and conductor. “Some families go to the park on Sundays,” she said. “We went to the concert hall.”

She was 10 when she first picked up a violin, practicing scales after her homework. Her parents’ marriage ended when she was young, but their life project — to raise a musician — continued.

Her mother, Joyce, patiently taught her to play between lessons with her other students. In the evenings the child would watch her father composing orchestra works in his studio. He often paused to tell stories about the lives of composers.

Ms. Calabrese lived the life of a young upper-middle-class woman, and for a time her family felt shielded from the economic crisis overtaking the country, even as staples like corn meal and coffee began to disappear from store shelves.

But at her orchestra rehearsals, the fraying threads were impossible to miss. Musicians went unpaid for months, and many left the country.

The marches against the government began in 2017, and many musicians took part, some bringing their instruments to play amid the tear gas and rubber bullets. Ms. Calabrese remembers the day one, only 18, was shot dead by the police. He had played the viola — her mother’s instrument.

Ms. Calabrese’s course became clear some months later, when she got a call from a friend who said she was leaving for Buenos Aires: For her, too, the musician realized, life in Venezuela was over.She joined her friend at the airport.

Ms. Calabrese was abandoning her country, but not her dream. The violin from Italy was among the few belongings she grabbed before leaving.

In Argentina, a friend recommended her for a local orchestra, but the pay was too low to cover food and rent. So Ms. Calabrese quit, and sought an audience elsewhere, waking at 4 a.m. to play at Station 11 of the Buenos Aires metro, and living off spare change.

“I could earn in three days what I earned at the orchestra in a month,” she said.

But other musicians, some Venezuelan, got the same idea, and Ms. Calabrese’s earnings fell.

Recently, she put her violin away and took a job behind the counter at an Italian restaurant downtown.

Just going to a concert is a luxury, though she did see a performance by a soprano from Venezuela, Mariana Ortiz, who had come to sing at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires’s storied opera house.

“She sang so many times in my father’s orchestra,” Ms. Calabrese said. “But she has left the country too.”

Leonardo Pérez

I run a top medical practice.

Dr. Leonardo Pérez chanted encouragement into the ear of his patient with the calm that comes from having delivered thousands of babies.

But he was no longer in the boutique obstetrics practice he once ran in Venezuela. He was at a hospital in a miserable Colombian desert city crushed by Venezuelan refugees. Some staffers call it a “cemetery for immigrants.”

The hospital had no pain medicine, so someone had stuffed a rag into the mouth of the young refugee next to Dr. Pérez to keep her from biting her tongue as she gave birth.

Around him, it was anything but calm.

The hospital was in Maicao, and the patient had a high-risk pregnancy. But these days, so do almost all the women who turn up on the hospital’s doorstep. Their numbers seem always to be rising, as more and more Venezuelans seek refuge in Colombia from the turmoil in their own country.

Dr. Pérez is one of them. He lives his life straddling the border.

For two weeks a month he lives alone in Maicao, in a small apartment next to the collapsing hospital, where he works long hours to send what money he can back to his family in Venezuela.

The other two weeks he spends across the border in Maracaibo, the city where his heart is, the place his wife and two sons, 12 and 8, still call home. Dr. Pérez feels so deeply tied to Maracaibo that he keeps his watch on Venezuela time, no matter which side of the border he is on.

But these days, he can barely recognize his hometown: Maracaibo is enveloped by crime, starvation and growing sense of dread. He remembers when it was a community of restaurants, malls and movie theaters — but more than anything else, he remembers it being green.

“Now it’s brown, now it’s dry,” he said. “There’s no longer that green of life.”

Dr. Pérez remembers his medical practice withering, too.

He had been mentored by a prominent obstetrician, and as his own reputation grew, he took pride in his own role teaching young doctors how to follow in his footsteps.

Now, the photos of him with his old students in scrubs and masks tell the story of how much has changed.

“They’ve left, they’ve left, they’ve left,” he said, pointing at student after student.

When it was his turn to leave in 2017, Dr. Pérez found himself in Colombia, knocking on doors looking for work. He landed a short contract as a gynecologist in a small village with a heavy guerrilla presence. But the government would not certify his Venezuelan medical degrees, so Dr. Peréz tried his hand at a fast-food restaurant. It failed.

When Colombia finally gave him permission to practice medicine again, it put strict limits on what he could do, and so he found himself at the hospital in Maicao, overseeing as many as 20 deliveries a day, and forbidden to draw on his skills as a gynecological surgeon that he was known for back home.

“I could do so much,” he said in frustration.

A “cemetery for immigrants” — the words are chilling to Dr. Pérez. What will happen to his loved ones if they are forced to cross the border, too?

And so he keeps working to send the money home.

“I’m a prisoner,” he said, crossing wrists as if in handcuffs as he sat in scrubs and the camouflage scrub cap he brought with him from Venezuela. “I haven’t just lost hope, I’ve lost faith. I’m not the same as before.”

Nicholas Casey reported from Medellin, Megan Janetsky reported from Maicao and Andrea Zarate reported from Lima.


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