They fled Venezuela and found a new home in an un­likely place

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JIM WYSS jwyss@mi­ami­her­

Des­per­ate Venezue­lans look­ing for refuge are end­ing up in an un­likely place: a small town in the Peru­vian por­tion of the Ama­zon Jun­gle.


One man ended up in this sleepy bor­der town deep in Peru’s Ama­zon be­cause he had run out of money, an­other be­cause she’d run out of hope. Yet an­other fam­ily came here, to Iñapari, a vil­lage of fewer than 3,000 peo­ple, be­cause they said God had sent them. As more than 2.3 mil­lion Venezue­lans have fled their home­land in re­cent years, most are end- ing up in the re­gion’s swollen cap­i­tal cities. But a few are stum­bling into small towns and vil­lages across South Amer­ica, com­mu­ni­ties they had never heard of — much less planned to visit or live in — un­til hunger and po­lit­i­cal chaos drove them from home.

One of those un­likely com­mu­ni­ties is Iñapari, a sun- scorched town of dirt roads and a smat­ter­ing of res­tau­rants and low slung mo­tels in south­east­ern Peru on the bor­der of Bo­livia and Brazil. It’s about 2,400 miles from Cara­cas over­land — far from the chaos and poverty of home, but far from ev­ery­thing else as well.

Emilio Mar­cano, a 49-yearold re­frig­er­a­tor re­pair­man, is among the dozen or so Venezue­lans who now call Iñapari home. He fled Venezuela with his fam­ily be­cause he was tired of ram­pant crime and watch­ing his neigh­bors go hun­gry. He sold three cars for a to­tal of $1,600 and dragged his wife and two chil­dren over Venezuela’s south­ern bor­der, across Brazil, and then to the Peru­vian cap­i­tal of Lima — a city that he thought would be “par­adise on earth.”

In­stead, he found him­self strug­gling to hold down a job and care for his fam­ily. “We went from a sit­u­a­tion where there wasn’t any­thing [in Venezuela] and there was hunger, to a place where there was ev­ery­thing but we were still go­ing hun­gry,” he said.

Down to the fam­ily’s last few dol­lars, Mar­cano said God came to him in a vi­sion and told him his “feet had to step on borders.”

He didn’t know what it meant, but he knew that he had

Some Venezue­lans flee­ing home start over in a small vil­lage called Ina­pari in Peru’s Ama­zon. More than 2.3 mil­lion Venezue­lans have left their South Amer­i­can coun­try amid hunger and po­lit­i­cal crises.

to take his fam­ily back the way they came if they were to sur­vive. On his way by bus to Brazil — and even­tu­ally Venezuela — the fam­ily stopped in Iñapari. That’s where their luck changed dra­mat­i­cally. A lo­cal woman of­fered the desti­tute fam­ily a free place to stay and an­other paid for ra­dio ads ad­ver­tis­ing Mar­cano’s skills as a re­frig­er­a­tor re­pair­man.

It was only later, when he looked at a map, that he re­al­ized he was al­most lit­er­ally stand­ing on three in­ter­na­tional borders: Peru, Brazil and Bo­livia.

On a re­cent week­end, Mar­cano sat out­side his small home on a dusty road, sur­rounded by a dozen bro­ken freez­ers and re­frig­er­a­tors that had been brought to him from all three coun­tries. He said he was go­ing to pull the ra­dio ads be­cause he was over­whelmed with work — one of the ben­e­fits of be­ing the only re­pair­man in 140 miles.

“This is vir­gin ter­ri­tory,” he said of his new home. “There’s noth­ing here, so they need ev­ery­thing.”

Since Mar­cano’s ar­rival eight months ago, about a dozen Venezue­lans have fol­lowed, find­ing that their skills — su­per­flu­ous in big cities — are in high de­mand in Iñapari. There’s the bar­ber from the north­west­ern re­gion of Delta de Amacuro, Venezuela, who rou­tinely has a line of clients from Brazil and Peru. There’s the elec­tron­ics re­pair­man from the port city of Puerto La Cruz, not far from Cara­cas, who re­cently worked on a so­lar panel brought to him by a Peru­vian indige­nous com­mu­nity.

Iñapari Mayor Al­fonso Bernardo Car­dozo said his town sur­vives on sus­tain­able forestry and week­end tourists from Brazil, who drive across the bor­der for Iñapari’s roasted chicken. But he said the com­mu­nity strug­gles to keep its youth.

“Once our young ones study a pro­fes­sional ca­reer, they never come back,” he said. “We’re a small town, but there’s a lot of room for peo­ple here to work.”

On a re­cent week­end, three Venezue­lans — a hus­band and wife and a friend they had met in the vil­lage — were plan­ning their next busi­ness ven­ture. The trio, along with the Venezue­lan bar­ber, had rented a space for $78 dol­lars a month where they can all work. They imag­ine it as a one-stop shop where lo­cals can have their elec­tron­ics fixed, get a hair­cut and have a bite to eat.

Ad­ner Guerra, the 35year-old elec­tron­ics re­pair­man, said he couldn’t have struck out on his own if he’d ended up in a big city like Lima — or even Puerto Mal­don­ado, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Madre de Dios, which is about four hours away by bus.

Guerra gets reg­u­lar re­ports from friends and fam­ily who re­mained in Lima. He hears sto­ries about peo­ple work­ing 11 hours a day at about onethird of Peru’s min­i­mum wage. He also hears about the back­lash in big cities, where the sight of Venezue­lans singing, sell­ing wares and beg­ging for change has be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon. Last week, the U.N. Refugee Agency launched an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion cam­paign in Peru amid grow­ing re­sent­ment in some quar­ters of the Venezue­lan ar­rivals.

Guerra and oth­ers say they’ve also felt the sting of xeno­pho­bia in Iña­parai, but for the most part the town has em­braced them. Here, they’re not steal­ing any­one’s job, he said. They’re pro­vid­ing needed ser­vices.

“We’ve been here for a month and started from zero,” he said. “There aren’t any elec­tron­ics tech­ni­cians here, so things have been go­ing well.”

All of the new ar­rivals say what they miss most about home is fam­ily, so they’ve built a fam­ily of way­ward friends. The bar­ber, 55-year-old Jose Martinez, trav­eled to Iñapari with one grand­son, but all the Venezue­lans in the grow­ing com­mu­nity call him el abuelo, or grand­fa­ther.

Martinez spent five weeks hitch­hik­ing from south­ern Venezuela to Peru, sleep­ing on the streets for at least eight of those nights. Un­like the oth­ers, Martinez said he planned to end his jour­ney at the first spot he could find work, which he had hoped would be in north­ern Brazil, closer to home.

But it wasn’t un­til he ar­rived in Iñapari that he found his skill with the elec­tric ra­zor was in high de­mand. As peo­ple lined up for Martinez’s buzz cuts and high tops, his grand­son, Leonardo León, 30, said they left Venezuela be­cause food had be­come too hard to find or sim­ply too ex­pen­sive. “It was like a tsunami,” he said. “One day to the next all the food in the city seemed to dis­ap­pear.”

Life as a mi­grant, even in Iñapari, is a strug­gle. But at least here they can sur­vive, put on weight and send money back home, León said.

Mar­cano — the deeply re­li­gious re­frig­er­a­tor re­pair­man — said he fears his coun­try is be­ing pun­ished by God, and he’s had vi­sions that Venezuela’s hunger cri­sis will get worse be­fore it gets bet­ter. In the midst of that storm, he’s grate­ful to have found shel­ter in Iñapari.

“I was talk­ing to some­one from out of town the other day and they said ‘Oh, you’re the fa­mous re­pair­man of Iñapari,’ ” he said with a touch of pride. “I feel like things are look­ing up for us.”


Leonardo León, who fled Venezuela for Peru

PHO­TOS BY JIM WYSS jwyss@mi­ami­her­

Jose Martinez, a Venezue­lan bar­ber, is re­build­ing his life in the Peru­vian town of Iñapari. Although many oth­ers flee­ing Venezuela head to big cities, Martinez said busi­ness is boom­ing in the small town be­cause he’s one of the few bar­bers in hun­dreds of miles.

JIM WYSS jwyss@mi­ami­her­

Leonardo León, left, Carolina Al­varez and Ad­ner Guerra are Venezue­lans who have set­tled in Iñapari, a small town in south­east­ern Peru.

JIM WYSS jwyss@mi­ami­her­

A sign wel­comes vis­i­tors to Iñapari in south­east­ern Peru, say­ing, ‘It’s beau­ti­ful to live here.’ The town of fewer than 3,000 peo­ple has be­come an un­likely sec­ond home for Venezue­lans flee­ing the cri­sis in their home­land.

JIM WYSS jwyss@mi­ami­her­

Emilio Mar­cano ar­rived in Iñapari, Peru, from Venezuela eight months ago. He said he was led to the tiny vil­lage of 3,000 peo­ple by a vi­sion from God.

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