Leaving Venezuela, with just four suitcases


This is the place where she was born, where she is surrounded by her adoring family, where she fell in love, where she became a mom.

But now she’s moving to an unknown land with her husband and infant daughter, packing up her entire life into a few suitcases.

“I don’t really mind leaving material things behind,” Wong says, as she sits in a small room surrounded by piles of clothing. “What truly hurts is leaving behind our family that loves us so much.”

Stories like hers are becoming increasingly common, with more Venezuelans looking at their heritage and seeking out a citizenship and a passport from another country. Through her Peruvian mother, Wong was able to get the necessary documents to emigrate legally with her husband Jorge Salas and their 7-month-old baby, Akira. None of them have even visited Peru before.

“We are leaving in search of financial independence and to seek a better future for our baby,” says Salas, 26, an artist and actor. “But we are certain we will be returning to Venezuela one day; that is the conviction we are leaving with.”

The young couple recently celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary. The commemoration doubled as a goodbye party, during which dozens of friends, aunts, uncles and cousins crammed into the narrow house the couple shares with Salas’ mother, Mirtha Mandarino.

Located in the capital’s middle-class neighborhood of Santa Monica, the house had always been their safe haven — until the violence and protests increased and they found themselves running into a back room after a tear gas grenade landed by their front gate.

“I had to grab the baby and rush her into the back room and put a rag on her face so she wouldn’t breath the gas,” Mandarino says, fighting back tears. “I’m heartbroken that they are leaving but happy to know they will be safe.”

Mandarino’s oldest son, Elio, is also gone. He left for Italy a year ago to study and decided to stay in Europe as long as he can. Baby Akira is her first granddaughter, and tears begin to well up as she squeezes her chubby body.

“This is the one thing I can’t forgive (President Nicolas) Maduro for, he’s torn my family apart,” Mandarino says.

Wong’s sister, 12-year-old Alexandra Ballesteros, hopes she will be able to catch up with the couple soon and move to Lima as well. As she folds her baby niece’s clothing, she talks about her hopes and aspirations.

“I want to wait until I have a good plan in place in order to not waste money on an adventure,” Alexandra, who speaks well beyond her years, says in a confident tone. “My dream is to go to Harvard University and study business administration or political science and be able to make a difference here in Venezuela.”

During their last week in Caracas, Wong and Salas took a trek up the Avila Mountain, one of their favorite activities. As they looked out on their chaotic valley home, they vowed to return one day with their daughter in tow.

“I keep wondering, when will I see my mother again, my sister,” Wong says. “I know in the end, we will find a way. Our family is like a magnet, we’re bound to be together again soon.”



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