FUNCHAL, PORTUGAL, Feb. 8 (Xinhua) — Javier Perreira is a Portuguese citizen, but he had never been to Portugal and spoke not a single word of Portuguese when he moved to Madeira, a mid-Atlantic archipelago and autonomous region of Portugal.
“It was a matter of starting from zero,” Perreira told Xinhua, “leaving your homeland behind and entering a new culture.”
Perreira is one of a growing band of Venezuelans of Portuguese origin who has immigrated to Madeira in recent years when Venezuela plunged into turmoil. Many have Portuguese passports, making an official tally hard to keep, but it is estimated that around 4,500 people have made the journey.
“Most people have family here and move in with them,” Perreira says. “But I had nobody. My mum left Madeira when she was 12 and I’m 45, so there was no one left.”
There are believed to be around half-a-million people of Portuguese descent in Venezuela and 80 percent of them have ancestral ties to Madeira.
The link began in the early 20th century when Madeirans answered a call to fill jobs at an oil refinery on Curacao, a Dutch-administered Caribbean island off the Venezuelan coast. When Venezuela began an open-door immigration policy in the 1940s, aimed at attracting skilled European workers to modernize its agriculture and industry sectors, Madeiran oil workers summoned friends and family.
Now the tables have turned. Perreira moved to Funchal, Madeira’s capital, in August 2015. He came with his wife and two daughters, aged 14 and 21. “The girls love it here,” says Perreira, “they missed their friends at first, but they soon embraced the freedom they have here, the security and independence.”
Security is one of the main reasons Venezuelans are relocating. “Here I can walk home from work at night without having to worry about safety,” Perreira says.
Perreira runs Full Arepa, a fast-food outlet in the Marina Shopping Center. Arepas are cornmeal patties stuffed with fillings, a popular snack food in Venezuela. Full Arepa also sells Frescolita, a Venezuelan soda, and Polar, a Venezuelan beer.
Full Arepa opened in early December 2017 after Perreira received a grant from the European Social Fund (ESF). A European Union scheme, one of the ESF’s core aims is to “promote social enterprise and the jobs it brings”. Perreira’s business also received funding from Portugal 2020 and Madeira 14-20, localized schemes with similar goals.
Perreira learned about such opportunities through Venecom, the Association for the Venezuelan Immigrant Community of Madeira. Venecom is a voluntary organization that provides information and support to Luso-Venezuelans.
“We offer professional help, but with the benefit of our personal experience,” says Ana Cristina Monteiro, Venecom’s president.
Venecom primarily assists new arrivals, but also provides online advice to Venezuelans thinking about making the move. “People used to plan ahead, but lately they’ve been coming more spontaneously, meaning they’re unprepared and don’t have the right documents,” says Monteiro.
Many have passports themselves, but do not have the correct paperwork to prove that spouses qualify for residency or children for nationality. Another problem is transferring academic and professional qualifications.
“Finding work can be hard,” says Monteiro. “Younger people tend to manage, but those in their 40s and 50s struggle. If they have savings, they might open a restaurant or a cafe, but others just focus on acclimatizing.”
A key part of acclimatizing is learning the language, for most Luso-Venezuelans know a smattering of Portuguese at best. “We approached the regional government with a list of two hundred people needing language tuition and the Education Department set up free classes,” says Monteiro.
Thanks largely to Venecom’s lobbying, the regional government has also founded a Venezuelan Immigrant Support Office (GAEV). The GAEV has a telephone helpline and a welcome desk is to be established at the airport.
Maritza Fuentes hopes her son will soon be walking up to that desk. “He applied for a (Venezuelan) passport two years ago, but he’s still waiting. Until he gets one, he can’t leave Caracas.”
Fuentes qualified for residency through her husband, whose father was born in Madeira, although he left aged three. Fuentes has now been in Madeira for five years and she misses her boy. “Communication gets harder every day because of phone and internet restrictions over there,” she says. “I can’t even send him money because the likes of Western Union have pulled out of Venezuela.”
But Fuentes has been able to bring her mother over. Maria Isabel, 76, arrived in November 2016. “I have asthma and there’s no medicine in Venezuela,” she says, “my brother died through lack of medicine and I didn’t want to suffer the same fate.”
With scarcity still a problem in Venezuela, the flow of migrants to Madeira looks likely to continue. Indeed Portugal’s central government recently pledged 1 million euros to help Madeira manage its Venezuelan influx.
For the most part, Madeirans remain welcoming too.
Joao Perreira (no relation to Javier) is 21, Portuguese and Madeira born and bred. “A few Venezuelans have joined our college and one has become a friend. He tries hard to fit in, but I tell him to just be himself,” says Joao. “Madeirans are migrant people too. I might like to move to London one day and I’d hope to be made welcome, so we have to do the same for others.”