Saturday, March 24th, 2018

New victims of oppression seeking help at Miami center come from Venezuela

Miami HeraldThey used to be predominantly Cuban, many of them recent immigrants from the island who had to contend with the psychological consequences of Cuba’s communist regime.

But just over a year ago, the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture (FCST) began recording a significant change among people seeking help: the majority came from Venezuela.

And within the new wave of Venezuelans flocking to the center are victims of violent repression unleashed by the Nicolás Maduro regime during protests last year that still haunt those who lived through the experience.

“Since the uprise of February 2014, we went from providing our services primarily to Cubans, to Venezuelans,” said Sylvia Acevedo, director of FCST, a program of Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services that provides services to refugees, asylees, asylum seekers and survivors of torture and genocide.

Among Venezuelans “the trauma is very big,” said Sabine Balmir-Derenoncourt, program coordinator in Miami for FCST. “They are terrified about the possibility of having to return to their country and they fear for the family members they have left behind.”

More Venezuelans seeking services at Florida Center for Survivors of Torture

Sabine Balmir-Derenoncourt, program coordinator in Miami for the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture, talks about the work the organization does, and Venezuelan refugee Giovanna Medina discusses seeking political asylum in the United States from her home country of Venezuela.

Since the program’s inception in 2001, more than 2,200 individuals have been served. In the past fiscal year, the center, which has offices in Miami and Tampa, has helped 167 survivors of torture and their families. More than 50 percent are Venezuelans. Many of them are young adults with a college education.

The FCST, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement and the United Nations Torture Victims Relief Fund, connects victims of torture with a network of providers that includes psychiatrists, social workers, interpreters, lawyers and doctors, among others.

Some of those receiving help were among young activists who took part in a series of massive protests throughout Venezuela last year that ended in bloody clashes with Venezuelan authorities, which left at least 43 dead, nearly 900 injured and thousands arrested.

Dozens of cases of torture also were reported, as well as the use of government-loyal paramilitary gangs, known as colectivos, whose members are blamed for many of the deaths and injuries caused by firearms during the protests.

Members of human rights groups who came to the defense of the demonstrators also came under attack by the government.

Such is the case of Giovanna Medina, who fled to the United States in May 2014, after the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, accused her of plotting to overthrow the government.

The young attorney, who specializes in human rights, was part of an international organization called Global Shapers, which brings together leaders between the ages of 20 and 30 who carry out social work in various countries.

Medina’s mother and sister also fled Venezuela following the coup-plotting accusation, but her stepfather died of a heart attack in Venezuela, leaving Medina to wonder whether the heart attack was the result of fear and stress caused by the family’s situation.

“I was filled with guilt,” said Medina. “But now I understand that I can’t change what happened. And instead of feeling bad about the activities I took part in, I came to feel proud, and I continue to work in favor of human rights here in Miami.”

Medina, like most of the Venezuelan clients at FCST, has requested political asylum in the United States.

The asylum application is an expensive process that takes time and has no guarantees of approval, said the coordinator. Meanwhile, people who request it have no economic support, which creates instability and tension in the family.

Asylum seekers must wait 150 days after submitting their applications for a work permit. In addition, they are entering the United States without documentation or as tourists, and have no access to any benefits. According to Balmir-Derenoncourt, 70 percent of FCST clients from Venezuela arrive in the United States with only enough money to sustain them for about three months.

Meanwhile, they struggle with adapting to life in a new country while still overcoming emotional trauma from the life they lived in their homeland.

“Some have been imprisoned, there are cases of kidnapping, missing children on school buses, and the persecution and threats they receive are constant,” said Balmir-Derenoncourt. “We’ve had cases of rape, especially within the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.”

The asylum application process “is very stressful and increases the traumatic process for petitioners because they have to prove they have been tortured and have to relive that experience and submit evidence,” Balmir-Derenoncourt said.

Patricia Andrade, director of Venezuela Awareness, a community organization that helps Venezuelans and has referred clients to FCTS, said emotional damage among political refugees is not new. But the spike in the number of emotionally-scarred Venezuelans is directly linked to “the appalling and widespread persecution of 2014.”

Newcomers who have come to the center often “live under constant fear that something bad will happen to them,” she said. “These are people who do not have inner peace.”


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