A Young Expat's Childhood in Venezuela

 
Natasha Farah, 23, photographed by Mary Grace Metheny at Southern Methodist University in April 2019.

Natasha Farah, 23, photographed by Mary Grace Metheny at Southern Methodist University in April 2019.

Natasha Farah can't remember a day when political uprising wasn't part of her life.

Born and raised in Venezuela's capital city, Caracas, Natasha, 23, went with her parents to opposition protests as a child. She remembers talking about elections with her classmates in second grade. In high school, she participated in peaceful protests with other Venezuelan students. Anti-government protests were not events, she said, but part of their day-to-day life .

When she graduated high school, her parents sent her to Texas, where her older brother, Juan Pablo, was studying at the University of Texas at Arlington. She attended North Lake College before transferring to Southern Methodist University to study public relations.

Venezuela's humanitarian crisis has only recently garnered international attention, but it's affected Natasha since she was a child. When she was interviewed at SMU during a break between classes, Natasha said her stories are not uncommon because political unrest affects every life in Venezuela, no matter how young.

Natasha didn't have the American Dream; she never wanted to move to the United States. Her dream was to attend the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas .

"Yes, you can graduate here, in Venezuela," she said. "But that doesn't mean s---, doesn't mean anything ."

For Natasha, her family and her friends, the protests were not about a specific political party or belief system. They protested because they wanted out of their government. It was always personal, she said. They couldn't escape the effects of the government's oppression and political climate.

“In Venezuela, it touches your life,” Natasha said. “It’s not like you get to live your life without politics being involved. They’re always involved.”

 When Nicolás Maduro was elected in 2013, she was devastated.

"Over there, we would cry," Natasha said. "We would have post-electoral depression because we didn't get the results we wanted."

 After the 2013 election, said she felt like there was no democratic way for Venezuela to find freedom from the regimes of Chávez and Maduro. She said the government claims to be for the people yet they're trying to replicate Cuba's government, but "they don't want to call it communism because it's not sexy."

She couldn't imagine a life for herself.

 "They're just stealing away all the future from you," Natasha said.

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Burnt Out

It took eighteen years for Natasha to reach this point of burnout from opposing the Venezuelan government. She was once hopeful for change, but her experiences have made her doubt the possibility of returning to her home country.

One of her earliest memories was when her sixth birthday party was interrupted by a military coup.

"I was having my birthday party," Natasha said. "All the airplanes were flying, like military airplanes, around the city. And then we got really scared and we heard gunshots."

Natasha's family and friends were celebrating at the pool of the Club Venezolano-Alemán en Caracas when her father got a phone call about the coup.

"Those days, the atmosphere was tense," her father Natalio Farah said. "The city was unusual quiet with few cars on the streets, store working partially and people avoiding go out of their homes."

The Farahs lived on the west side of Caracas, in a neighborhood called El Paraiso. Most of their neighbors were supporters of then-president, Hugo Chávez, but the Farahs were not.

Standing near the pool, Natalio Farah had a direct view of the houses on the hills of the neighborhood. He remembers suddenly seeing people, supporters of Chávez, come out of their houses shouting for Chávez to appear. At that time, the president had been kidnapped by the opposition leaders.

"We also heard shots and riots and, as I recall, it was a really chaotic and desperate situation," Natalio Farah said. "We picked up all the stuff as fast as we could and everyone went to their homes."

Natasha was interested in typical, girly things as a child -- going to dance lessons, birthday parties and baptisms -- but political events like this shaped her childhood.

A School Evacuation

In May of 2012, when Natasha was 16, her high school was evacuated because prisoners at a nearby jail had escaped and gotten control of machine guns. La Planta, a jail for high-risk prisoners, was only a few blocks away from the school and in the El Paraiso neighborhood.

Natasha's cousin, Ariana Haggar, went to a different school closer to the prison and remembered when parents started calling their children to make sure they knew what was going on.

"The prisoners were out to escape and they were armed when prisoners are actually not supposed to be armed," Haggar said. "They were attacking and robbing civilians in the street near to our school, of course, after that time, the principal and our parents waited until the cops arrived and controlled the situation."

The next day, when Haggar was visiting her friend's house in El Paraiso, she noticed there were bullet holes in the walls and the stop signs nearby were burnt. She couldn't remember if the police captured all of the escaped prisoners. 

Problems in Venezuela are not limited to government outcry, the people live in constant fear of violence because police do not have the money to solve the problems.

"A lot of my acquaintances have been kidnapped," Natasha said.

These kidnappings in Natasha's community made international news when, in 2006, the Faddoul brothers, all under the age of 18, and their driver were kidnapped and killed by men dressed in police uniforms.

Gang members also threatened Natasha's family.

"There's no motivation other than money," Natasha said. "Other than asking for a rescue and them getting paid."

 The Farahs owned multiple shoe stores across the city. Gang members followed Natasha's father, learned his routine and the details of his family life, and called him with kidnapping threats. One of her cousins was kidnapped and her extended family scrambled to find the money to pay the ransom late one night.

"There's no way you can call the police because, if you come with the police, they'll kill your loved one," Natasha said.

Life Now

When Natasha protested with the Venezuelan Student Movement, she was fighting for her safety and her future. 

"The most concerning one for me was safety," she said. "I never felt safe, that I can say. Never."

Normal elements of an American student's life -- like sitting in a library or going out in the evening -- were not possible when Natasha lived in Venezuela. She was always on her guard, constantly aware of her safety. She opposed Venezuela's government because she didn't want to live in constant fear and without a future. She didn't see the country's leaders doing anything about it.

“It’s convenient to them to have people scared and frightened and hungry,” Natasha said. “Because, if you’re hungry, you’re frightened, you’re not going to protest.”

She said it was impossible to live under the country's leadership, they had no freedom to disagree with their political leaders. Democracy in the U.S. looks very different from democracy in Venezuela. Natasha said the last election was rigged, and many countries do not recognize Nicolás Maduro's current term as legitimate.

The government censors the press, so the people cannot access news as it happens. They rely on YouTube for their news, and even still, she said the internet is so unreliable that they cannot stay informed.  

Natasha is glad for the ongoing attempts international intervention but she said some of the media representation does not show the longstanding realities of poverty and oppression experienced by the Venezuelan people.

"It just feels like we couldn't have normal a country or a normal life," she said. 

Natasha graduated from Southern Methodist University in May 2019 with a degree in public relations. She wants to stay in the U.S., so she's looking for a job. Her parents plan to move to Spain later this year, life in Venezuela has no future for them.

Natasha doesn't know if she'll ever move back to her home country. Perhaps, one day, if things change.

A note on the story: I met Natasha in a French History class at SMU in the spring of 2019. Early in the semester, she mentioned that she was from Venezuela and we began discussing the political uprising and U.S. intervention. I wrote two stories about Natasha: you can find the first here. This story was adapted from its original form to include graphics, sound bites, and context from news sources.