In Uruguay, facing a pandemic far from home

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty to families across the globe. Migrants can be especially vulnerable.

22 May 2020
In Uruguay, facing pandemia far home
UNICEF Uruguay/2020

Geisy Vizcaya still remembers the chill she felt just over two yearsx ago as she packed to leave her home in Venezuela. It wasn’t just the cool early morning air. As she stuffed some essentials into a suitcase, her eldest daughter asked her a question: “Mummy, what if you make a little space in there and take me with you?”

Tears fill Geisy’s eyes now as she recalls that conversation. She remembers the optimism she felt as she prepared for a seven-hour flight to Uruguay that she hoped would be the beginning of a new chapter for her family. But this hope was tempered by the uncertainty over when exactly her husband and two daughters would be able to join her. She had no idea then that it would be two years.

“I still have anxiety attacks”

Geisy is one of the around 50,000 migrants from the region who have arrived in Uruguay over the past five years. Those coming to the country not only face the stress of having left loved ones behind, but also the challenges of securing the necessary immigration documents, finding a job, and integrating into their new homes.

Two days after arriving in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, Geisy was able to secure the documentation needed to work in the country. She quickly lined up an interview and was hired on the spot. But while securing a job was a relief, it wasn’t the end of her struggle – her family wasn't able to join her. 

“I still have anxiety attacks,” she says. “The pressure of not knowing when [my family] would be able to come – I’d wake up every day thinking about it, and I’d go to bed every night thinking about it, too.”

But in February of this year, after two years apart, Geisy was finally reunited with her family. 

“When I saw my daughters and my husband for the first time coming through that door at the airport, my heart started beating again,” Geisy says. “When you’re on your own, it’s as if you have to set all your own feelings aside so you can concentrate on what you are here to do: to work and fight for your family.


In Uruguay, facing pandemia far home 3
UNICEF Uruguay/2020

“It was such an emotional moment to have my daughters here with me again…I could see how much they had grown.”

Unwelcome surprise

Geisy quickly began the application process for Uruguayan citizenship for her daughters and her husband. He had an appointment lined up for 16 March to obtain the documents he needed. But just a few days before, as the couple were celebrating their eldest daughter’s ninth birthday, the family’s plans were upended as Uruguay announced its first confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“My husband couldn’t make his appointment to get his identity card [because of the COVID-19 outbreak]. Without that card, the immigration process stops, which then impacts other things, especially employment,” Geisy says. Meanwhile, with many schools across the country shut, Geisy's daughters are no longer able to atted classes. 

Lucila Pizzarulli, coordinator of the Migrant Protection and Assistance team from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Uruguay, notes that the employment situation is particularly difficult for informal and day workers and migrants.

“Many of those who were on three-month trial periods were dismissed, and those who have just arrived and are looking for work are finding it much harder to join the workforce,” she says. "Recent arrivals have been unable to obtain their documents or to begin the immigration process. So, joining the labour market has become very difficult."  

In response to the growing challenges facing migrants in Uruguay during the pandemic, UNICEF and IOM has launched a three-pillar programme that provides housing and food to migrant families and their children; supports a psychologist specializing in children and adolescents; and provides materials and toys to support learning and play, which can help reduce stress during this particularly stressful period.  

In Uruguay, facing pandemia far home
UNICEF Uruguay/2020

The three pillars are in line with UNICEF’s global priorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes a focus on protecting the most vulnerable children through preventing the spread of coronavirus, and helping families deal with the knock-on effects of the pandemic.

In Uruguay, facing a pandemic far from home 4
UNICEF Uruguay/2020

Geisy and her husband are trying to make the best of the situation as they stay home, helping their children with their schoolwork, watching movies and cooking together. Geisy says that she knows the stress she has felt since she was first separated from her children isn’t healthy, but that the anxiety helped keep her focused on the goal of being reunited.

“[It] helps you stay motivated to carry on,” she says.