John Farrow introduced Marioly. Two COVID benefits are reaching out and connecting through online meetings. Members suggested reaching out to past YX students. Marioly was an obvious choice; she left a real mark on our club. She arrived in 2005. (after an emotional pause) “Good to have you here.”
Marioly Sanchez:
Good morning. I'm glad to see familiar faces. Thanks for inviting me. It’s a huge honour to be your speaker. I never thought I would ever be the speaker of the club. I was the youth exchange student in 2005-06. I am originally from Venezuela. I have been living  in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the past eight years. Today, I will tell you a little about my life in the past 15 years, how I ended up living in Argentina, and how I think my life has radically changed since some of you first met me. I am the older child in my family; Manuel is four years younger. He was an exchange student in 2009, hosted by the Rotary Club of Renfrew. Thank you, Joe and Kathy, for being here this morning; it’s really important to me.
We both were exchange students in the same district so my family and I have a lot of thanks to Rotary and especially to District 7040. My mother says she loves Canada and Canadians even though she has never been there because her kids had such an amazing experience. She is still living in her home town in Venezuela. My brother Manuel is in between places, but right now is there. Dad passed away from cancer 5 years ago. We are originally from the city of San Cristobal on the very west about 45 km from the Columbian border.
I don’t remember ever having gone through a decision process about wanting to become an exchange student. I remember that since I was in middle school there were many foreign students who would go to San Cristobal every year, so to apply to Rotary Youth Exchange was the natural next step I knew I would take after finishing high school. My parents were always very supportive of that decision but for a different reason—to make sure that I would learn a second language. They were actually pushy about me going on exchange. They weren’t really asking me. “Please just go and do it!” Looking back, I don’t understand how I had the courage to do youth exchange when I was 16 years old. If you asked me today, I think I wouldn’t be brave enough to do it. What was I thinking when I decided to do this, in a good way, of course? What were my parents thinking? It’s a super brave thing. Then when I was 24, I did it again, because I went to Argentina to attend graduate school. The one thing that I’m so sure about is that my exchange in Canada was like a training for the second time that I moved out of the country. I’m super grateful for that.
When I first arrived in Canada, I didn’t understand one thing, not only about the language, but about everything. I was so young. Even though we’re not that far away and belong to the same continent, I was so amazed at how things were so different, or just weird, in a good way. One of the greatest things I learned that year was to accept and recognize other cultures and places. I understood that they were always going to be different, not better or worse, just different.
It was an amazing year for me. I got to meet so many amazing people that I’m still in touch with today. They have been incredible influencers in my life, though they may not even know. I was first welcomed to Kingston by Francine and her parents, who I see as family of my own today. They have been there to listen and help me so many times over the past 15 years. Then I first lived with Rob and Kathy Campbell. Thank you again for being here today. After that, I moved to the Kemble’s house in Yarker. Living there was super nice, except for being the last to be dropped off by school bus! Thankfully, Heather drove me in the mornings. I love Yarker so much.
After the exchange, I went back to my country, to Venezuela. I attended university there and graduated from law school in 2011. The year after that, I applied for grad school in Argentina where I moved in the beginning of 2013, almost eight years ago. I came here to complete a masters program in International Relations. I decided to study this because I wanted to get some education that would allow me to do other things out of my country. A law degree was very limiting for that. At that time, things were starting to look very weird in Venezuela, and I knew that I would eventually have to leave. A few months after I completed my masters, my Dad was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away in 2015. When I finished school at the end of 2014, it was a very difficult time for me. I had to decide to to go back to Venezuela to be with my dad, or choose the life that I had somehow started in Argentina. I went to Venezuela during that summer vacation, which was Christmas. We celebrate Christmas with a barbecue in 40 degree weather.  He gave me his blessing and said that I should come back to Argentina. He passed away two months after that. Emotionally it was a super-complicated time of my life, but I think I have now overcome it.
This happened right after I started working for a big global company Accenture and was there for almost two years as an outsourcer for Microsoft in Latin America. Then I became a Microsoft employee where I have worked for the past three and one-half years on the Argentinian sales team. That’s why I don’t normally use Zoom; I use Microsoft Teams! I’m so grateful for these chances to work that I’ve had. Where I work now is a great place to work and it allows me to be in a privileged situation. But what is important for me to say to you is that a major factor helping me get my last two jobs is that I knew how to speak English fluently. It’s only thanks to that that they hired me. I am fluent in English because you hosted me as an exchange student 15 years ago. I’m really grateful about that.
Until that moment, when I finished school here and started working full-time, I thought that life in Venezuela was somehow normal. In the years before that, it didn’t seem that we were living in a normal country because of the economic and social and political process that had been going on there since 1999. Now, looking back, and especially after having the chance to live in Argentina, I realized that the reality of Venezuela was pretty average for a Latin American country. There is always a protest going on for something and people are always complaining, sometimes in a violent way. Back then, I felt it was a thing of Venezuela, but now I realize it’s a common thing in this part of the world. Back then, we were not on top of the developing world but neither were we on the bottom. Most people could live a normal life on the Latin-American terms of normal, but still normal.
At that moment, six or seven years ago, everything went absolutely wrong. If I compare my life now to the one that I had when I went on exchange, it is 100% different. In the past five or six years, Venezuela has had the economy of a country that is at war. We lost 70% of our GDP. We stand as the worst economy in the world, the worst. We have hyperinflation, unemployment, insecurity, a failed health system, and we are in the middle of a pandemic, too. Just for you to understand how bad things are in Venezuela, we are now importing gasoline from Iran, because the country failed in every single sense. At the same time we are the country with major oil reserves in the world. It’s chaos there.
We also became the country with one of the major migrations of the past 10 years, with the most people fleeing the country. I read that  If things keep as they were before COVID, by the end of this year there will be more immigrants from Venezuela than from Syria. There are many things I could tell about Venezuela these days but I would like to focus on the immigration issue. That is the one I know the best, my own situation. To summarize it, I do not have any friends left in my home town or in any other town in Venezuela.  Every single friend that I had back in high school and university has left the country. What is extremely sad about this situation are the people who stayed behind because they couldn’t leave or didn’t want to leave, like my mom, who didn’t want to take such a big decision to be out of the country and starting her life from zero. In the very last year, before COVID, people were so desperate to leave the country that they literally started leaving by foot, walking. Living in Venezuela does not allow you to save enough money to buy a plane ticket or even a bus ticket. There are many people who left, walking from Caracas, 900km to get to the Columbian border, then walked to Bogota, the capital of Columbia, which is another 900km away. Or they just walked across the whole country and got to Ecuador or Peru.
I know that these very sad things happen in a lot of countries, and maybe it is just my wrong perception, but it is important for me to let you know about this. I have watched documentaries about the terrible, terrible situation of North Africans crossing the Mediterranean, or the terrible things that have been happening in the Middle East for years, but I have the feeling that not many people speak about Venezuela. These things are not in their main stream of international media. It’s only five hours flying from Toronto. It’s not something happening on the other side of the world, but it’s close. The countries with the most  Venezuelans are the US, Columbia, Chile, Peru, and Argentina. Especially for those who cannot afford travelling to the US or Europe, they choose to go to other places in South America. There are many Venezuelans here in Argentina, because coming here is very easy on legal terms. You just need your passport. You don’t need to apply for any residency. It’s automatic.
In the past few years, I realized that I went from being a foreign grad school student to being an immigrant. That is the main difference between the two experiences I have had living in foreign countries—first as an exchange student and now as a non-exchange student. When I came, here eight years ago, there were only 12,000 Venezuelans in Argentina. Now there are more than 150,000. Earlier I said it is a privilege, because I feel that I am so blessed to work for a company that provides stability and cares about me. Not everyone is as luck as I am. That’s an opportunity that I got here in Argentina, so I’m deeply thankful for this country. At the same time it hurts me that sometimes when such a big community arrives to a place in such a short period of time, it is shocking for those who are originally from here. It happens in many places, not only here. I’m extremely grateful for Argentina. My boyfriend is from Argentina. His family has welcomed me and they treat me as if I were there daughter. My co-workers, who are all from here, are amazing people. They are like family to me. But at the same time I have come across people, when they hear my accent, which is from the Caribbean, somewhat different from the Spanish from here, they have to believe that I am here stealing a job position from someone here.
What’s important is that I am very happy that I can work here and it allows me to help my family. The families of all people of my generation who fled the country can only survive because we help them economically, not because they cannot work any more, but because the country is so broken that life there has become extremely complicated. At the time as was on exchange, if you had asked me where I see myself in 15 years, I wouldn’t have imagined that all these things would have happened to me or to us Venezuelans.
I didn’t go to Venezuela for five years after my dad passed away. Then last February I went there. I was so scared; I have never been so stressed in my life as I was back then, not because I feared for my life, or because I was scared that something would happen to me. I was stressed because I knew that the place where I had been born and raised, the place that I had remembered, had radically changed. That place does not exist anymore. In February, I flew to Columbia, where I met with my mother, and she took me home, walking, because that is the only way to cross the border there. My brother was waiting for us on the Venezuelan side to drive us home. This happens because all the bridges and roads between Venezuela and Columbia have been closed for more than four years. The only way to cross is walking. It was the longest 15-minute walk I ever took in my life. That place between the two countries is the perfect picture of the decadency of the last 20 years of bad administration. It’s sad to feel so scared about going back to the place where you were born. But that’s how I feel. Now I feel the way many people in my same situation would have felt.
Maybe I went too deeply into this immigration thing. I hope you don’t think that it was too much. John and Francine, you didn’t ask me to talk about this, but about my life in the past 15 years. Maybe you were expecting more fun details, but the things that I have said today are extremely important to me and they are part of the reality, which is my life today.  Of course, I am a very happy person, and I have a lot of fun here in Argentina. I’m a super chick, so I have a lot of fun for sure! Again, I feel so thankful for all the opportunities that I have had in my life in being an exchange student. I am so  happy for the goals that so far I have reached. They are more than I had expected at 31, even though I don’t live in my home country. What’s important for me to let you know today is that the first great experience that I had in my life that prepared me for whatever was coming and that affected me so deeply and still influences me every single day, is having been an exchange student hosted by you fifteen years ago. If I hadn’t done that, i’m not sure that I would have taken the decision to come here when I was 24. You may imagine that if I hadn’t come here, my life would have been completely different. That’s it!
Francine: It’s wonderful to hear your voice. Always amazing to hear what’s happening to you and what has gone on. Could you tell us a bit about your brother’s experience and education, and how he does not have some of the same situation and opportunity?
Marioly: I went to a private school. My brother studied to be vet doctor and so had to go to a public school. Our experiences are radically different. I graduated after five years. My brother has been going to university for the last 10 years, and I’m not sure if he will ever be able to finish school. At first he was partying too much. Then when he got serious and our father passed away, things got really bad. University employees were on strike 100 times. He hasn’t been able any year to complete a semester. He goes to the second biggest university in the country. The university doesn’t have even have doors, chairs, desks, cables. Now during COVID, they tried online, but the electricity keeps failing, often only 6 hours a day. Many people don’t have computers or Internet.
John Farrow: Situation about COVID in Argentina?
Marioly: In lockdown since March 19th. I can work from home, but feel so sad about the many people who not as privileged. Many businesses have shut down. Economy is failing because the focus has been 100% on people’s health. One of the longest lockdowns in the world. Bad think, not sure that it actually helped. Now have same deaths as Sweden where they didn’t lock down. The price we’re paying is the economy.
John G: Partner’s oldest daughter went to Venezuela to San Cristobal on Rotary youth exchange. All four children in her host family have left.
M: Now I remember that. All my friends and my cousins have left. My aunts and uncles are there. My brother will leave when the borders open.
John G: How do you keep in touch with your mother?
Marioly: We talk and message every day. Thankfully, when I was on exchange, I didn’t have a cell phone! Then we only used to talk once a week. Now we talk and message every day. Some things are totally failing but every one has an iPhone! Weird.
Bill E: Very moving experience. My own daughter, a musician, lives with her family in Quito Ecuador, and with Gabby attending, it brings me close to the situation. As a musician myself, I know that Venezuela gave the world the greatest music education system in the world with 300 youth orchestras, and it has even spread to Canada. I hope that the country will some day come back to what it could be.
Marioly: I don’t think it will happen for me, but maybe if I have kids, it will happen for them.
John F: Plans to return to Canada?
M: Would love to go to Canada. On vacation, of course. I have been twice. Moving to Canada would be amazing, but to be honest I’m doing well here. Let’s see!
John: We’ll settle for a visit.
Rick Fiedorec: Thank you very much. It’s obvious that your exchange has given you the ability to adapt to change.