When Mae Neri flew into Buenos Aires on March 6, 2018, all she had to her name was $600 and two big bags of personal belongings. It was a rough landing – the former professional football player from Caracas, Venezuela, ended up alone on the streets, but she’s built a new life thanks to the kindness of strangers and her football prowess.
(More on WikiTribune: “Venezuelans fleeing home turn to Argentina for employment and stability”)
Neri had always been drawn to Argentina, due largely to Showmatch, a popular Venezuelan TV show, and the country’s love of football. For more than a decade, she played professional football in Venezuela – including a stint on the national team – before becoming a special needs teacher.
But as Venezuela’s economic and social crisis has worsened, Neri, like hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, decided to leave the country with as much as she could carry. Neri is one of almost 20,000 Venezuelans who settled in Argentina in the first five months of 2018, according to official migration statistics. The world’s highest rate of inflation (Forbes) has wiped out the value of the national currency. Spiraling violence has made normal life increasingly difficult to manage. Neri’s mother borrowed money to pay for her ticket to Buenos Aires, which she agreed to pay back once she found a job in Argentina.
“The hard part was leaving the [Simón Bolívar] airport,” Neri (real name María Elena Urdaneta Pérez) told WikiTribune, echoing the words of another Venezuelan immigrant who arrived in mid-2015. “I didn’t know if my stuff would arrive [to Argentina], and they were the only things I had. I had my entire life packed into two bags.”
‘My family is better off with me here’
From Venezuela, the trip to Argentina is relatively expensive compared with overland passage to Colombia or Brazil. So, many of the Venezuelans arriving to Buenos Aires tend to be well-educated adults with some professional experience, according to Argentina’s official migration body (in Spanish).
This means Venezuelan immigrants in Argentina generally have the skills to integrate into the formal economy without major hiccups. But they do need to receive temporary residency papers in order to work legally. Despite a recent government provision (in Spanish) aimed at making it easier for Venezuelans to settle in the country, the duration of these permits varies regionally and on the number of Venezuelans coming into the country.
Neri had her appointment scheduled for May 28, 2018, almost three months after her arrival.
In many ways, Neri’s story, which she shared with WikiTribune while having coffee at a café in downtown Buenos Aires in between work shifts, resembles that of the dozen Venezuelans WikiTribune spoke with. The first few months are tough for new arrivals with little money and few contacts. They must navigate a new country, find a job, and find a place to live.
Neri calls it the “crisis of the three months.”
“That point when you feel alone, you want to go back, that you can’t handle your life,” she said. “But that comes and goes. You have to stay positive and think that the sacrifice you’re going through here is worthwhile.”
All of the people WikiTribune spoke with eventually found their feet, and say they won’t go back to Venezuela.
Neri said she was asked several times by Argentinians whether she thought it was worth coming over, and whether she would do it again.
“Yes, a thousand times yes, because I know my family, my friends and I are better off with me here.”
‘That man was an angel sent by God’
Neri stayed at a friend’s apartment the first few days in Argentina, but she left after several arguments with the friend’s flatmate.
Although she’d already found a room at a women’s residency, her move-in date was a week away. She spent the interim living on the streets, earning some 30 pesos ($1) a day handing out flyers. It was barely enough to eat. She told WikiTribune she lost five kilograms in that time. Still, she says that people were kind enough to stay with her when she had a panic attack after getting lost.
“My mom never found out about anything, I never called her about that bad time,” said Neri. “My mom was sure I was still living with the friend who took me in.”
Instead, Neri called her friend Hugo Vázquez in Venezuela to tell him about her desperate situation. The next few days would change her life in Argentina.
Neri got a call from an Argentinian man named Pablo who runs a group that provides newly arrived Venezuelan immigrants with winter clothes. He and his wife offered to take Neri out for a steak dinner.
“I ate what I hadn’t eaten in the previous week,” said Neri. “That man was an angel sent by God.”
The conversation turned to football. Neri told Pablo she would love to play, so he told her to send him a resumé. Two days later, on March 18, Pablo called again and told Neri to hop on a bus. When she arrived to her destination in the city’s suburbs, Pablo and his wife took her to an apartment. It was her new home.
Pablo had arranged for her to stay in the apartment from that time onward, and even paid her first month’s rent. Neri couldn’t stop thinking why Pablo was helping her.
Later that day, Pablo took Neri to a nearby bakery, where he had arranged a job for her. Later that week, he put her in touch with Evelina Cabrera, the founder of Argentina’s Female Football Association (AFFAR, in Spanish). Neri now plays for Atlas Futsal Femenino, a semi-pro women’s futsal team.
Cabrera and Atlas trainer and former pro football player Mariela Viola helped Neri get winter clothes and other things she needed. “They’re also my guardian angels and they’re my new family in Argentina,” said Neri.
Pablo had helped Neri find a new home, a new job and a new football team in under two weeks. All Neri needed now was to find out why he’d helped her so much. So she asked him.
Pablo asked Neri if she remembered Susana, a friend of Neri’s friend Hugo Vázquez, who had died from brain cancer a few years prior.
Neri told WikiTribune she and Hugo had taken care of Susana from the moment she was diagnosed until she died, about a year later. It turns out, Susana and Pablo had gone to school together, and Hugo had told Pablo everything Neri had done for her in that time. Pablo had taken it upon himself to make sure Neri had everything she needed to start anew.
“My mom always told me ‘It doesn’t matter what religion you subscribe to. It doesn’t matter. Up there, there’s a god who looks down and sees all the good you do, and pays it back,'” Neri said. “I think that’s been my biggest lesson here. In Venezuela, I was a woman who dedicated herself to helping others … Not everyone is as lucky to find such wonderful people in a strange country where you don’t know anyone.”