“My friends were in class, but I was sleeping on cardboard”

A teenager and her family left Venezuela for Brazil. UNICEF learning spaces are making the transition to a new education system a little less daunting.

By Inaê Brandão
Una niña sonríe en un centro de aprendizaje temporal en Venezuela EN
UNICEF/BRZ/Inaê Brandão

05 April 2019

BOA VISTA, Brazil – Ronneilys remembers working hard at school to reach the fourth grade. But when the time came for classes to start last year, she wasn’t able to join her friends at school in Venezuela. She was now living in front of a bus station in Brazil and her family was homeless.

“I saw pictures of my friends online wearing their uniforms and studying and [hanging out together],” says 15-year-old Ronneilys. “But I was living on the street.”

Ronneilys’ journey from her hometown in northern Venezuela began in August 2018, when the situation in the country prompted her and her two brothers to pack their bags and travel to Brazil to be with their mother. An estimated 1.1 million children will need protection and access to basic services across Latin America and the Caribbean in 2019 as a result of the Venezuela migrant crisis.

“It was the first time in my life I had to live on the street”

Ronneilys says she grew up in a loving home with her maternal grandparents and had some good memories – even if only just a few personal possessions – to take with her. She had never actually lived with her mother, and her father passed away before she was born. But upon hearing that her mother – who had moved to the Brazilian city of Boa Vista eight months earlier – had found a job and could afford the rent for a small house, the time felt right to join her.

A month later, everything changed.

Her mother had lost her job. With no money, the family ended up homeless, sleeping on cardboard in front of the city’s bus station.

“It was the first time in my life I had to live on the street,” Ronneilys recalls. She says they were forced to ask people for food – and to suffer the indignity of having sand thrown at them as they slept.

“People would drive by at dawn and shout at us to go back to Venezuela,” Ronneilys says. “It was the most difficult period of my life.”

But after almost two months, the family’s fortunes started to change.

UNICEF learning spaces are giving children and adolescents a space to study, play and get reacquainted with a normal school routine.

In late September, the family was offered a tent at the Jardim Floresta immigration shelter in Boa Vista. During her two months at the shelter, Ronneilys joined a UNICEF learning space, where migrant children and adolescents from Venezuela can study, play and get reacquainted with a normal school routine to help them prepare for entry into the regular Brazilian school system.

Brazil. A teacher delivers a class in a temporary learning space.
UNICEF/BRZ/2018/João Laet
A teacher holds a class at a temporary learning space in an indigenous shelter in Pacaraima, Brazil, near the border with Venezuela.

UNICEF has established 12 learning spaces, operated by the NGO Fraternidade Internacional, in the northern Brazilian State of Roraima, the entry point for most Venezuelans who are migrating from their home country.

At the learning spaces, which had registered attendance for more than 3,210 children by March, Brazilian and Venezuelan teachers lead classes in Portuguese, Spanish and math, among other subjects. Psychosocial specialists are also on hand to provide support and look for any signs of abuse to ensure suspected victims are quickly referred to child protection units.

“It was a safe place where I knew that nothing would happen to me and that I wouldn’t feel humiliated. It had a mattress to sleep on, and we weren’t in the cold anymore,” Ronneilys says. “We had food every day, and we didn’t need to ask for it. Even better, I was studying again.”

“We had food every day, and we didn’t need to ask for it. Even better, I was studying again.”

But Ronneilys’ journey wasn’t over. With assistance made available by Brazil’s government, her mother found a new job in São José, Santa Catarina State; the family once again packed up their few belongings and headed south.

Now, around 5,000 kilometres away from the shelter in Boa Vista, Ronneilys says she misses her grandparents more than ever, but that she feels more confident about her situation, ready to get back to school – and to continue pursuing her childhood dream of becoming a dentist.

“It’s not easy, but I believe happy days are ahead,” she says.