Smiling through even the most difficult of topics, Victor Parra, 19, talked openly about his life in Catia, a barrio (informal urban settlement) in West Caracas, Venezuela, that is home to over 1.5 million people. Speaking openly about your background is one thing, letting it define you is another.
“Where you come from does not determine where you’re going,” Victor said. “Like with everything, it’s your drive that matters.”
The economic crisis in Venezuela began in 2010, with the health crisis following two years later, and the situation climaxed in January of 2017 through protests and a constitutional crisis. But as Victor reflects on the time period that would drastically change his and his family’s lives forever, he called it “the start of the adventure.”
“I call it an adventure because it has brought me to where I am today,” Victor said. “In 2017 I was presented with the opportunity to compete in a public speaking competition sponsored by the United States embassy.” But when Victor told his friends about it, they all echoed that those opportunities were for the rich, not for people like him from Catia.
Nonetheless, Victor believed he could write a strong enough essay to make it into the competition, and that was before he knew that the essay topic was on one of his heroes: Martin Luther King, Jr. To everyone's surprise, Victor was selected as one of five finalists. As his smile grew from end to end, Victor described the moment as the one in which his family finally realized that even though they come from a barrio, these unique experiences are still possible.
“Imagine the shock when my family went from counting Bolivares for bread, a new binder for school, a pair of shoes,” Victor mused, “and then all of a sudden I am a finalist and we’re all on our way to see me compete in this incredible competition.”
It took place at a famous private university in Venezuela, and the other four contestants were all "high-class" students, studying at the best private schools in the country.
“When I said I was from Catia you could see their eyes get big,” Victor said. “People don’t understand the notion that those from a low socioeconomic class can also accomplish these amazing things. Not all of us are thieves or people that want to do bad things.”
He ended up placing second and winning a scholarship, but that was just the beginning for Victor, who embarked on unique educational journeys from there on out, even landing a full scholarship to live in Germany for a full year to learn the language.
“After I finished school, I felt that I was falling into a routine and I wanted to break out of it, and that’s when I found LALA in December,” Victor said. “I applied for the Brazil Leadership Bootcamp, and was so, so happy when LALA admitted me!"
At the LALA Bootcamp, Victor felt like he belonged. His background added to his story; it was not something to be justified. He felt especially motivated after visiting Favela da Paz in São Paulo, and learning how its community members were effectuating change. That is when Victor’s future became more clear than ever, as he felt the need to go back home and try to do the same thing for his barrio. "I just felt like LALA was this light illuminating my path,” Victor remembers.
“Meeting all these young people that were so passionate about social impact and becoming leaders in their countries was incredible, it was so incredible,” Victor said. “It was like an emotional recharge that I needed so much, and it helped me have a clearer vision of what I wanted to do in the future.”
But while he was studying at a public university back home, the school had to close down due to lack of funds. Eventually, through difficult family circumstances, the need to leave Venezuela as the situation worsened, as well as Brazil being more welcoming to Venezuelans, Victor moved to São Paulo.
Victor is now a refugee in Brazil. He aspires to study international relations and continue doing social work to ensure that he is having a positive and direct impact on people and their communities. "Upon my arrival, I felt called to help my Venezuelan brothers and sisters find better opportunities in Brazil," he remembers. Within two weeks of his arrival, Victor found Refugio 343 and started volunteering with them to help other refugees navigate Brazil and its culture, and to learn how to find resources and opportunities. "But the most important thing is to motivate them, to convince them to keep going and to not give up, so they know they have people they can count on and so they don't feel so lonely," Victor explains, "although, if I'm being honest, I think my biggest impact is on my family. I found a job and now I'm paying my cousins' studies, covering medical bills, and more. I am really grateful to have found an opportunity to help them, who were in so much need."
It all sounds like so much to carry, especially for someone so young. But Victor, who somehow became fluent in Portuguese in two months, has a rare shine in his eye. “There are no barriers. When someone wants something and puts all their effort into it, everything is possible. Just like me, if you really want something, you can do it.”