Venezuela crisis continues to harshly impact students in Toronto

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Photo: flickr/ Jorge Andrés Paparoni Bruzual

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Plummeting oil prices have pushed Venezuela towards economic and political crisis. While protests over food shortages have rocked the country since February 2014, Venezuelans studying abroad have been all but abandoned by their government.

On October 2, 2014, Sonny Carmona, a current business administration student at Seneca college, woke up to an official email explaining that conversions from the Bolívar fuerte -- Venezuela's currency -- to foreign denominations were now prohibited.

"Kids [from Venezuela] had to sleep in streets, all around the world," she explained. "It changed everything." Well into 2015, Venezuelan students abroad are still bearing the impact of their government's decision.

Despite having a job, a car, and friends in Venezuela, Carmona and her brother left for Canada because of security concerns at home. Although she can't work in Canada, she has survived with help from the Toronto Venezuelan community -- and from money bought by her parents on the black market.

"We cannot live in Venezuela," said Carmona. "We are not safe over there. So our parents [made] this hard decision. They [said]: go, and we will see if we can save ourselves and go with you, but for now you have to go."

Legal money exchanges in Venezuela must be made through CENCOEX, a state-run agency set up in 2003 to avoid capital flight. However, dwindling foreign currency reserves has meant the agency now routinely denies requests. This means that Venezuelans abroad are forced to either purchase money on the black market or work illegally.

CENCOEX sets a nominal rate of 6.3 bolívares per U.S. dollar, however, exchanging money illegally can allegedly cost a hundred times as much according to sources.

"We don't want our parents to send us money because it's really hard for them. As long as we've been here, they have sent us maximum $1,000," said Carmona

"I spent six hours a day going from Whitby to Toronto because I couldn't afford the train. We didn't have winter clothes, so we had to go to places for homeless people, so they could give us clothes. Your life changes completely."

Buying money on the black market is now the norm for Venezuelan students abroad. Andrew Carvajal, a Toronto immigration lawyer who works with some of the students, confirmed that most of are "paying out of pocket" for black market dollars.

He tried to secure the students humanitarian work permits, but with limited success. The federal government took so long to process the applications that by the time it started investigating the issue, a full academic semester had passed.

"At that point it was moot to the students because most of them had already found some other way to pay for their studies, so we had to basically withdraw those applications," he explained. "So the government wasn't very helpful."

These days Carvajal deals with fewer CENCOEX cases, describing his current clients as "lucky ones" whose parents have managed to open bank accounts in the U.S. or Canada. Although none of his clients have had to return to Venezuela, many also rely on working partners who support them.

Rafael Ramos, a former civil engineer for PDSVA, the Venezuelan state-run oil company, was already studying in Canada with his wife and child when CENCOEX banned foreign currency exchanges. Like many others, he turned to illegal money changers.

"I lost all my savings studying here, the thing is, it's an opportunity for me, and no matter what, I'll take the risk," he said, citing the economic and security situation in Venezuela as the reason for leaving.

Currently, he works for 20 hours a week in a restaurant, the most allowed under his student visa. His wife, however, gave up her studies and found a job because of financial concerns.

"Life is more difficult here, but I'm more grateful," said Ramos. "You have to work really hard. You have to sacrifice a lot of things."

Though Carmona and Ramos' stories are typical, they aren't the worst.

"Many student are entitled to work, but it is difficult to find regular hour jobs, so some of them end [up] working in clubs and have been exposed to people that offer them large amounts of money for sexual favours," said Rebecca Sarfatti, who runs the Facebook group Venezolanos en Toronto.

"I have also heard of students who work overnight in order to be able to go to school full-time, so they just sleep a few hours."

Sarfatti, who started organizing food and clothing drives in 2014 after CENCOEX began issuing blanket refusals, believes that most who are able to come to Canada are fleeing violence and searching for a better future. She is part of a network of landed Venezuelans in Toronto who are trying to ease the students' plight.

"The community needed to do something. Many families provided them with care, [such] as inviting them to dinner or the holidays, just to boost their morale and help them stay on the right track. It has been very difficult emotionally for many."

According to Sarfatti, the Venezuelan community have asked for help from neither the government nor charitable organizations. However, undisclosed organizations provide space for the food drives, advertised through secret Facebook groups.

Carmona was thankful for the strength of support received from the Venezuelan community. "They've helped a lot," she said. "When I moved here, my brother didn't have a bed, he was sleeping in the floor. But someone gave him a bed. It's nice to know that you have the support."

Sarfatti also prefers to stress the positive.

"Many of [the students] have organized themselves to become babysitters, they cater delicious food, make jewelry, volunteer, graduate, and then take the advantage of the work permit and reach the job of their life.

"They are a story of perseverance and fighters for what it is right."

Emmet Livingstone is an political science MA student and former McGill Daily editor. He has written for The Montreal Gazette and is currently interning at POLITICO Europe. Follow him on Twitter @L4ingstone.

Photo: flickr/ Jorge Andrés Paparoni Bruzual

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