I get to a stoplight driving D. to a karate friend’s birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese’s, and see the Facebook notification I’ve expected to receive every Saturday: the weekly schedule for the restaurant’s shifts, posted on the private group. I didn’t look at it right away, of course, being in a moving car at all, but also, I had the proverbial bad feeling. I decided to wait till I got home.
My next-to-last table for the day was a big one: nine people. Two men, three women, and four ladies between twelve and I’m guessing twenty. As I approached I heard them talking not in English. My first reaction was to assume they were of the same nationality as I’d say roughly seventy per cent of my customers. Not to mention, they were of no ethnicity I could assume.
One of the men, a burly specimen in his mid-fifties but with a kind smile, flashed said smile and said in broken Spanish:
–No, Brazil no. Egipcios.
–Oh!–, I said, a little taken aback but not losing own my smile–. Then we continue in English.
They were a lively although demanding group. The girls were very easy to laugh, and the youngest one was what you could call an old soul. Near the end of the meal one of the ladies called me over.
–Are you Indian by any chance?
–No, ma’am. Venezuelan–. I smiled again, and assumed a Punjabi accent–. Though I am greatly respectful of the wonderful people of India.
I got the expected laugh out of the table, but then one of the ladies grew a bit serious.
–How long have you been here, sir?
–Since November, ma’am.
–Things are not good back home, yes?
–Not quite ma’am. I guess back yours they are better, right?
–No, no–. She pointed to the burly man. –He’s Egyptian, he’s my brother in law. We’re Syrian.
My heart sank, as you can imagine. –I am so sorry, ma’am, for everything that is happening in your country. Where are you living now?
–We’re in Canada. They live in New York.
I looked over at the girls again, this time with new eyes. Do either of them remember their country? What had they seen? What have they told them?
–You have all my sympathies. My country is also causing an immigration problem in the region.
–Why is that?
First, a reminder. Syria has been in the midst of airst civil war since March, 2011, briefly after the events of the Arab Spring toppled regimes in Tunisia and yes, Egypt. Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad refused to back down or even make decent reforms, so a full-on war exploded. This was also the beginning of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, but it also caused one of the worst refugee crisis in history. More than five million Syrians have fled their country, mostly toward Europe, by land and by sea. Many have drowned, and many others are caught in diplomatic limbo in refugee camps all over, especially in Greece, where they are not exactly welcome with open arms.
With that in mind, I explain to the lady that Venezuela itself is starting to cause an immigration crisis. Estimates of how many of us have left the country vary a bit, but most say that the number is between two and three million, mostly middle-class.But as the Council on Foreign Affairs of the United Nations noted recently, it’s starting to get worse. Colombia, which is right next door, has seen some 250,000 Venezuelans come in between August 2017 and March 2018, with some estimates of as many as 3,000 coming in a day. And the rest of Latin America is not far behind: according to The Washington Post, Chile has seen a 1,388% increase of Venezuelan immigrants since 2015; Panama, who saw an overwhelming influx of my countrypeople between 2010 and 2016, imposed new visa requirements that make it that much harder to come in the coun try; and, well, there’s this guy, who doesn’t exactly make it easy.
After I explain this, the woman looks at me with a sad smile. “So we come from the same place”, she sighs.
They were obviously a well-to-do family, perhaps even educated. They all spoke very good English, if with an accent. They still had family in the capital (Damascus), but they had survived the worst part. I was amazed to agree with her, because although my country is not at war, I too left a life that would not have let me reach my full potential. It doesn’t help that Assad and the late Hugo Chavez were quite chummy.
After they left, I moved up to Ian, one of my fellow servers, and sighed.
–That family that’s leaving is Syrian, man. I can’t even imagine.
–Oh for real?– he asked.
–They live in New York and Toronto now. Talk about a change.
–I’ve always wondered, how people just leave their countries, start trying to find a job and what not.
–Well, look at me. I was a reporter back home, now I’m a waiter.
And so many people like that. Omar, one of our bussers, is an oil engineer. My GF is a graphic designer who used to run her own cake-designing businesses and now is a hostess. And how many doctors, lawyers, dentists, economists and the such are working as cabbies, salespeople, construction workers. Not all of us truly wanted to leave the country that saw us grow, but many had no choice. Which makes what Venezuelan turd-in-command, Nicolas Maduro, said this week — “I wouldn’t go to clean toilets in Miami”– particularly irritating. And of course many answered back.
It’s a sad fact of life that to better support your family, or at least help them, the best thing many of us could do was leave, doing things we’ve never thought we’d do. And any job dignifies, no matter if it is cleaning toilets. All we want is the chance to get ahead in life, be wherever we may be. And that applies to all immigrants or refugees, be they Syrian or Venezuelan.
As I picked up their table, two of the girls lingered behind. I asked their mother permission to say one last thing. They told me they were twelkve and fifteen.
–No matter where you are, girls, always remember and care for your country. Because your country made you who you are. Learn everything about it, as much as you can, because it’s going to be up to you to fix the mess that your elders have left behind. We’re counting on you.
They listened carefully, and smiled what I operceived as honest, interested smiles. I wonder what would come later, how they would grow up. Only time can tell, of course. Meanwhile, here we are, and here we go on.
I’m approaching my third month as an immigrant. I write those words, think those thoughts, and can still hardly believe it. I start wondering when I will. Maybe confronting a few things will help.
Magic Kingdom, guest parking space. Next right.
The last time I saw that sign, it drew a feeling of elation from me, even as a supposedly mature thirtysomething. It meant fun, laughter, an escape from reality.
That was then. Today when I saw it, it meant entering a new reality.
We got to the service entrance in the middle of a fog worthy of Victorian age London and cold unworthy of Florida. I was wearing a hard hat and security vest and goggles for the first time in my forty-six years of life. The “sissy” hands many people pointed out with varying degrees of bad intentions would start a perhaps short trip into callousness. To say it was humbling was to say the least.
This is what happens when you move to a new country, even though in my case it remained my country. You start from scratch unless you’re incredibly lucky and manage to find work in your own field. But most of the time, you’re a blank face, a clean slate, but you still need to make a living. So you take what you can.
I tell this to Larry, my new coworker. He’s a tall, lanky kid, with a goatee and short, thick mane, the typical gringo catire ojos azules we Venezuelans usually make fun of. He looks like a surfer dude. Turns out I’m close: he’s a skater dude. Loves the Florida weather because of that. Been working for the Dutchman that owns the company that makes the greenhouses for six months. And as you might expect, he’s laid back and pretty darn friendly.
–How did you get here?– he asks. He’s 22, from Michigan. Or is it Minnesota? I only now remember that many Americans confuse “Venezuela” with “Minnesota”. Or so Joanna Hausmann says.
–He hooked me up–, I say, pointing at my GF’s friend’s husband, where we’re staying.
–That’s so weird… Do you plan on quitting journalism for good, doing this full time?
I look down at the wire I’ve been setting up for the past hour and contemplate the pain on my knees. –Oh hell no–, I answer with a smile. He chuckles back.
One thing I have been trying to do since I got here is keep talking to strangers, just to keep my interviewing skills sharp. Got Austin Kleon to thank for that little piece of advice. So I start talking to Larry while we pull the tarp over a few topiary figures in progress. Kermit the Frog listens intently.
He’s the oldest of four children, with a brother and two sisters, who both gave him five nephews. The company he –well, now, we– work for sends them all over the States to set up the greenhouses. He travels with his girlfriend of four years, although they’ve known each other their whole life; her mother is Larry’s mother’s best friend.
–We used to drink together growing up while our moms sat and drank as well– he tells me.
He’s the one in the family who earns the most, something he’s both proud and mortified of. –My dad had his own construction company for over ten years, till it went down. Now he works in fucking Taco Bell. Can you believe that? He’s 54, 480 pounds and working in Taco Bell. I earn so much more than he does. Unbelievable.
I involuntarily do the math –454 grams to a pound, so that means dad weights 217 kilograms. In a stressful job, as does mom, who works in a factory, I think. They both drink, so I wonder how long till Larry gets another scare.
–I just smoke weed, helps with my PTSD.
–Oh did you serve?– I ask before knowing how stupid the question was; he’s just 22, he doesn’t need to serve in the Army. Case in point:
–No, (a family member) died in my arms. Downed a whole bottle of (liquor whose name I didn’t hear nor ask to repeat) and I walked in to find him all blue. He had a smile on his face. That shit messed me up. So I smoke a joint right before bed, so I don’t dream. Those nightmares fuck me up.
His girl travels with him and has a pretty easy life, in comparison. –She went to nursing school, and worked at Target, but I make more money. So she just comes along where we go. Stays at the paid hotel, gives me my back rub when I get there. It’s cool.
At break time, I look at this odd little crew. Two Venezuelans and a Minnesota boy under a Honduran boss. In this little group, Larry’s the minority, but it’s just on this table. He’s got it easier. Darwin, our supervisor, has been here three years, and he’s trying to get his own company going. He sorta speaks English but with a heavy accent. Joel has also been here three years, with his wife and her four-year-old son, and they’ve both managed to find a house and two cars, working their proverbial asses off. And then there’s me, brand new, with less than two hundred bucks to my name. It pains me how much I still depend on what my GF has saved to make a start, so I am doing the opposite of complaining.
In the meantime, I’m glad I get to meet people like Larry, who make life a little more interesting. All I have to do is ask.