Venezuela’s Emigration Wave Takes Toll on Mental Health

EspañolAccording to Iván de la Vega, a researcher and sociologist with the Economics Department of Simón Boívar University, by the end of 2013 there were 1,200,000 Venezuelans citizens living abroad. Luis Vicente León, director of Datanálisis — one of the country’s leading market research firms — has also reported that within the next few weeks, at the end of the current school year, the largest wave of emigrants in Venezuela’s history are expected to leave the country for good.

That there are already more than one million Venezuelans living abroad is itself an historical milestone. De la Vega’s work reveals that by the mid 1990s, about 50,000 Venezuelans were living abroad. This means that the figure has increased by more than 2,000 percent.

Datanálisis has detailed that at least 9 percent of the Venezuelan population have considered emigrating at some point. This percentage, according to the consultant, is the highest in the history of Venezuela as well.

In this context, the Center for Migration Training (CMT) assists Venezuelan families and individuals in the process of planning and implementing their decision to leave the country for a better future. Harry Czechowicz, founder of CMT, explains that its purpose is to develop people’s “immigration intelligence … a group emotional, social, and psychological skills necessary for adapting to a foreign culture, and achieving successful integration in a new social reality in a different country.”

Czechowicz, a psychiatrist, sat down for an exclusive interview with the PanAm Post. We discussed migration, its social impact on the difficult political situation Venezuela is going through, and the services that his team offers for Venezuelans to support them through the adaptation process after they flee their home country.

Emigrating is a challenging process for Venezuelans
Emigrating is a challenging process for Venezuelans. (Wikimedia)

What are the key services offered by the Training Center?

At the center, we aim to prevent what can happen once the “honeymoon” period in the host countries is over, so people are not paralyzed by the cultural shock that ensues when they truly realize they have left their homeland once and for all. This is best achieved with a series of personal changes that people should start working on before leaving their country.

Center for Migration Training logo
(CCM Facebook)

For this, the center offers workshops and consultation modules so that people start working early enough in the decision process, so that they do not improvise in the typical “tropical” fashion. They must start reflecting upon the fact that the host society is different from theirs, and that they will have to adapt to living far away from everything they are strongly familiar with.

We assist people in choosing a particular destination country and thinking through whether that particular country is a good fit for them or not. Also, we help them build up the necessary external resources (such as a resume, a financial cushion, researched job opportunities), and internal resources (personal qualities such as resilience, optimism, and a positive outlook).

What led you to dedicate your career to the cause of helping prospective migrants?

I experienced “migration grief” — a term we use very often — firsthand when I spent a year in Canada. When I came back to Venezuela, I found that 70 percent of my patients wanted to discuss migration issues, and today migration is a topic of everyday conversation and an issue for public debate.

Through the years, I found that people needed counseling to deal with what is called Migration Affective Disorder (MAD), which is a complex profile of several interlocked anxiety disorders.

Usually people suffer these anxiety disorders before they leave, especially with the current situation in Venezuela, where it is difficult to even find food on supermarket selves. But they believe that once they manage to obtain the legal documents they require to emigrate to another country these symptoms will instantly go away, and that is not necessarily the case. People tend to believe that they will now live in a “problem-free” country, but the hard truth is that each and every country in the world has its own problems.

In your experience, what is the prevalent concept that Venezuelans have of the migration process and how do they deal with it?

Venezuelan migrants struggle with a very particular internal conflict, because they emigrate from the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” but feel attached to what was the “Republic of Venezuela,” which basically doesn’t exist anymore. These two realities clash within people’s minds, and once they emigrate they tend to obsess with the news about their home country in an effort to reassure themselves that they made the right decision, and hoping to return to that lost country that they long for.

When we leave our home country, we have to do it without looking back, understanding that this is a definitive decision. Many idiosyncratic social skills that are useful in Venezuela don’t necessarily have much value in the host country, so people cannot rely on them any longer. People have to learn to adapt to the change process and focus on building other, more flexible abilities, such as their psychological resilience and emotional intelligence.

Luis Vicente León, founder and director at Datanálisis, assures that the demographic group most likely to emigrate is that between 18 and 35 years of age, and almost 30 percent of people within that group consider the possibility of emigrating at some point. They are also the most likely to leave, since they were still able to build their talent and skills thanks to a public education infrastructure that started its expansion and modernization in the 1950s.

That is why the profile of Venezuelan emigration is quite different from the rest of Latin America. According to the Migration Landscape for South America 2012 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Venezuelans have one of the highest academic training rates among 30 countries contributing immigrants to Spain — 60.1 percent of them are professionals or highly qualified workers. For those who emigrate to the United States, the rate is 48 percent.

The fact that a Venezuelan migrant can afford the services you offer speaks volumes about their average level of education and purchasing power. What is the situation of lower-income people who cannot afford this kind of psychological work before they leave?

Indeed, Venezuelan emigrants are nowadays predominantly upper middle and middle class, but education levels and money have nothing to do with emotional intelligence. We focus on building “immigration intelligence,” basically getting people out of their psychological comfort zone. Because having a degree can be a strength or a weakness for emigrating. Many people will simply not be able to do what they used to do for a living in Venezuela in their host countries.

Many times they arrive to a new country to realize they are not able to work in their area of expertise for legal or other reasons. This is a shocking realization for people used to certain professional status after years of practice, which triggers a profound soul-searching process that requires a specific set of emotional and psychological skills to take full advantage of it and thrive in the new environment.

Do you agree with the idea that there will soon be an emigration explosion in Venezuela?

I think that more people from all income levels and social classes will start to emigrate in larger numbers. This is a momentous historical change in our society and in our economy. The main factor that I think will contribute to this phenomenon is the extreme legal uncertainty we are living in, which leads to an ever increasing number of businesses shutting down their operations, and increasing levels of unemployment.

Next Saturday, a new immigration-intelligence workshop in Caracas. And July 5 in Puerto La Cruz!

The Center will celebrate this Saturday in Caracas a forum entitled ” Immigration Intelligence: Should I Stay or Should I Leave?” hosted by El Nacional newspaper. They have already carried out 15 workshops of this kind throughout Venezuela, and over the next few weeks they will celebrate several more in Puerto La Cruz, Barquisimeto, and Margarita.

For those thinking of emigrating from Venezuela, one of these forums can help them lay their cards on the table with a cool head, and start planning for the challenge of integrating into a new culture with enough time in advance.

“I think it is important to look at the glass half full and realize that not all bad times are necessarily negative for our personal development. Right now we might be living in a country where finding milk or cooking oil is a daily struggle. But precisely for this reason, Venezuela is an excellent school to learn how to persevere despite the circumstances,” said Czechowicz.

Follow the Center for Migration Training on Twitter, or visit their website for more information about their events and services.

Translated by Alan Furth.

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