Stories of Immigrants: Niurka Melendez
Wednesday | June 17, 2020 | by Wilma Lee
The Stories of Immigrants Project began as a way for employees at World Education Services (WES) to become more involved with the company’s mission and learn more about the immigrants and refugees who we work to support every day. Over the course of a year, the project blossomed into something more meaningful than we could have ever imagined, touching the lives of hundreds who participated.
Below, read excerpts from our wonderful interview with Niurka. Or, you can watch the video now!
WES: Tell us a little bit of your life before moving here. How did you decide to move to the United States?
Niurka: I’m from Venezuela. I was born in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. I fled my country in 2015. I’ve been here for almost four years.
There are two main reasons I decided to flee my country. The first was my son. I’m a mother of a now 10-year-old. When I was in Venezuela, the situation was just unbearable. We had to [stand in] lines to buy food. We couldn’t find the right medicines [at] the right moment when we needed it, as we were used to. It’s not that easy to face this kind of situation, knowing that one day in the near future you cannot offer even the most basic medicine or food to your boy. That motivated me to flee Venezuela, even though for me it wasn’t that easy of a decision to make.
They left Venezuela first—my husband and my son—in 2014. I remained in Venezuela, because I was always hoping that things were going to just get better. I was really involved with everything considering my activism as a citizen of my country; I never belonged to any political party there. However, I was playing my role as a citizen: I was trying, just speaking out, whatever we could do in that moment. [I kept hoping that] everything good was coming.
But seeing the scenes, seeing the political stuff, we as a people in the middle of these negotiations, revolutions and terminologies going around in my country, I fled. I left Venezuela. I decided to leave Venezuela in 2015.
WES: How is your life in the United States? Did you face any challenges? If so, how did you overcome them?
Niurka: I know New York a little bit. Well, I like the city. And what I like about New York [is that] it looks similar to my capital, my city, Caracas, in terms of the busy way, rushing every time. You cannot stop in the middle of the hall in the metro, because everybody is going to get mad at you. It’s so interesting because it’s quite similar [in New York and in Caracas].
The diversity here is just marvelous. Also, the scenery. You can make the contrast between too many buildings [and] the natural sceneries, like Central Park or Prospect Park in Brooklyn. So, I like it a lot about the city.
[I also like] the way that [New Yorkers] are open to you. [They are] not just receiving you, […] but also being patient with you when you are talking to them in English. You can realize when they are just trying to do their best to understand what you are saying sometimes when we are not that clear enough. And that makes me feel so welcome from them, that they are very kind, even though you will notice […] how everybody’s so busy and in a rush. However, you can find that kind smile on your way to say, “OK, no worries, you are doing great, you are learning this language.” I like it.
WES: Can you share any examples that highlight your experience of living in the United States?
Niurka: I once went to Albany for an immigration conference. One of the organizations I volunteered for invited me to explain a little bit about the difference between asylum-seekers and refugees.
The first time they asked me to meet with them, I asked if they are going to go with me. I had to face the fear that I may need to explain to a police officer that we were waiting for the asylum application and we are in the process of something.
But I wasn’t ready to face it. I think it’s really too much for whichever person to face this kind of stuff. So, they said they were going to be with me on the same bus. So, I went to the conference. It was such a nice experience.
WES: What do you want to say to other immigrants who are considering this journey? Do you have any advice for them?
Niurka: Sharing with people from here helped me a lot, and taught me a lot, because I can see the compassion and the resilience from them. Sharing food is for me the international language. We don’t have to speak. It’s not just to see faces enjoying your food, my food, that is a good excuse to say more, beyond our words, and beyond our empathy for people in general.
Are you currently planning your own immigration journey?