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Fleeing Venezuela, families seek new lives in Utah

By Laura Giles correspondent - | Jan 4, 2017
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A Venezuelan political refugee, who wanted to keep her name protected, kisses her daughter as she falls asleep Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2016 in American Fork. With the destabilization of the political and economical situation in Venezuela, many nationals are leaving the country to seek safety in the United States. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Nerza Pena, left, cries while speaking about leaving her country with Wilma Medina, right, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2016 in American Fork. With the destabilization of the political and economical situation in Venezuela, many nationals are leaving the country to seek safety in the United States. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Venezuelan refugees gather to gather to talk about their new live in America as well as the political persecution they faced in there home country Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2016 in American Fork. Because of the refugees needing to leave, many will not be able to see their families back home for at least a decade. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

This is the first in a four-part series of articles about Venezuelan refugees who are establishing new lives in Utah County.

Why leave home? The reasons are many for Venezuelans who have been fleeing by the thousands, hoping for better lives.

According to the Pew Research Center, United States asylum applications filed by Venezuelans jumped 168 percent in fiscal year 2016 compared with the same time period a year earlier. Other countries are experiencing an influx of Venezuelan refugees as well, including neighboring Colombia and Brazil.

Economic crises, political unrest, threats against lives and starvation are just some of the reasons given to the Daily Herald by a group of Venezuelan refugees living in Utah County. Here as international students or with political asylum, they all have different stories, but the ending is the same – they are making new lives in the United States. Now, they tell their stories in hopes of raising awareness of the problems in their beloved home country, Venezuela.

Defending protesters

Just seven months ago, Felix and Sandra Matos left their home in Venezuela, near the Colombian border, to come to Utah. Although they now live in Provo far from the Venezuelan government, they still feel uneasy about sharing all of the details of their story.

Felix, a criminal defense attorney in Venezuela, was assigned to defend imprisoned students who were arrested for protesting against the government in 2014. However, defending them was difficult because he was allowed only limited access to the youth.

Trying to help them the best that he could, Felix spoke about the case on a local radio program. He also spoke about the mistreatment, including sexual assault, of the students while jailed.

“I was forced to create awareness of the political situation in the country,” he said. That is when the danger for Felix and his family began.

“I was getting calls saying to stop reporting,” he said. “I got multiple calls from people threatening my life and my family.” Both the Matos home and radio station were vandalized. “I was personally attacked by people who didn’t like what I was saying, by sympathizers of the government.”

Leaving their country was not easy, but in order to keep their three children safe, the Matos family left. The relief they felt upon arriving on United States soil in Orlando, Fla. was overwhelming, but even more so when they passed through immigration, after four hours in line.

“Many get to that point and because of a problem, have to return,” Sandra said.

The Matos family, members of the LDS Church, felt that they wanted to live in Utah, where they have family members. When asked how Utah is different from Venezuela, they laughed. “Everything,” Felix said.

Felix misses his work as an attorney; after years of school – he has two postgraduate degrees – and working with the law in Venezuela, he now works part time in a bakery.

“I spent so many years studying and working and now I would have to start at zero,” he said.

Learning English, adapting to the cold weather and being away from family are also difficult.

“Our parents, grandparents and other family are in Venezuela,” Felix said. “I think it’s the hope of everybody that our families are fine, that someday they can come where it’s safe,” he said.

Despite what is missed, the safety and security of the United States make the Matos family’s sacrifices worth it.

“Here, I can walk around with my phone out and take a picture and not have to be afraid,” said Felix. “Here, my family is safe.”

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