New York City, United States – On Jackson Heights’s bustling main street, red brick buildings give way to colourful shopfronts boasting signs in Spanish, Tibetan and Bengali, evidence of the immigrant communities who have made this Queens district their home over the years.
But among the bakeries and lawyers’ offices of the Latino area, new notices have been springing up.
Papered to the windows of the courier companies that pepper 37th Avenue, posters in red, yellow and blue scream out: “We ship to Venezuela“.
Small Miami-based couriers have long catered to the neighbourhood’s Latino community, helping residents send packages home to loved ones in Colombia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. Now, for New York’s growing Venezuelan population, this service is a lifeline.
“What has made some families [in Venezuela] survive is the fact that there are millions now living outside of the country and most of them manage to send something,” Hector Arguinzones tells Al Jazeera.
A slim man cocooned in a maroon tracksuit bearing the logo of Venezuela’s national football team, Hector listens as his wife Niurka lists the items she regularly ships to friends and family back home.
“We send shampoo, conditioner, things for shaving, and clothes, because it’s really expensive in Venezuela. And, of course, food. Food in cans, food that lasts longer,” Niurka says, adding that the country’s sky-high inflation rate means there’s little point sending money.
“You cannot believe your eyes when you see the box,” she says. “It’s so sad when you’re thinking that this is a country that is just three hours away from Florida – you cannot believe it – but these are people who are praying for toothbrushes and toothpaste”.
Forced to flee
That was the year that the major-oil-producing country plunged into an economic crisis sparked by plummeting oil prices. Critics say that government mismanagement has exacerbated the crisis, while President Nicolas Maduro blames the situation an “economic war” waged against Venezuela by the US and others.
After economy, Venezuela’s waste collection system collapses
Although Latin American countries are supporting most of the migrants and refugees fleeing the crisis, Venezuelans’ numbers have also ballooned in the US.
Nearly 14,000 Venezuelans were living in New York as of 2010, the year of the most recent census, but the current total is likely much higher.
In 2013, Venezuela entered the list of the top 10 countries generating the most claims for asylum in the US. In 2017, the crises-torn country overtook China for the top spot, where it has remained, according to the latest data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Through their group, Venezuelans Immigrants Aid (VIA), Niurka and Hector are supporting New York’s newly-arrived Venezuelans, offering advice on everything from finding accommodation to applying for asylum and sending packages homes.
Along with the smaller, Miami-based couriers, international logistics companies including FedEx and DHL continue to ship to Venezuela despite instability in the country. The process, however, is often far from simple.
Shipping times from New York City to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, can range from 12 days to a month, depending on the means of delivery, says Maria Fernanda Mejia, manager of the Jackson Heights branch of Servientrega, a courier company catering to Latin America.
Waiting for confirmation that a package has arrived safely is a source of anxiety for Venezuelans whose family members depend on a supply of goods from outside the country.
Many Venezuelans cannot afford to send a steady stream of packages home, and any delay can mean leaving loved ones without essential items like food and medicine.
“When you are thinking ‘Should I send a box?’, time is passing,” Hector says.
‘Infuriating and demoralising’
Depending on the weight, sending a package from New York to Caracas can cost anywhere from $60 to a few hundred dollars – often considerably more than the US value of the canned food, rice or flour that may be inside.
Niurka and Hector often have their boxes packed and ready to go long before they have saved enough money to send them.
Once their 11-year-old son Samuel outgrows his clothes and toys, they carefully pack his shirts and Legos in boxes so these can go to his cousins in Venezuela, and, when summer in the city comes to an end, the family send their shorts and tee-shirts too, knowing they won’t be needing these items for several months.
In many cases, the cost of shipping to Venezuela is more than double that of sending goods to other popular destinations like Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
That can get expensive for newly-arrived Venezuelans, many of whom only have access to unofficial, low-paying “survival jobs” while their asylum requests are being considered – a process that can take years.
Niurka says most people she knows can only afford to send one box every other month.
“I’ve heard complaints of the total cost,” says Eduardo Lugo, a student and cofounder of SOSVenezuelaNY, a human rights group.
While ome Venezuelans consider it “infuriating and demoralising” to have to send essentials to their once-thriving and still oil-rich country, he says.
“The humanitarian notion of it impedes most people from talking of it as a burden,” Lugo tells Al Jazeera.
Although wealthier Venezuelans can afford to send goods home more regularly, uncertainty over whether the packages will arrive securely is a major concern regardless of income.
“They [couriers] don’t have any kind of insurance because they cannot guarantee [to] you that this thing is going to be door-to-door, as you’re asking for,” Niurka says.
Mejia insists that the majority of packages her company sends do reach their destinations safely, but does acknowledge that there can be setbacks.
“Sometimes there have been delays in isolated situations where ships can’t be there [in Venezuela] or the air routes have been closed, but in general, we deliver without any problem,” she tells Al Jazeera.
Other couriers were reluctant to explain what security measures they have in place in Venezuela when contacted by Al Jazeera.
But, in a country where everyone is suffering from the shortages of basic goods, the problems don’t end when the goods arrive in Venezuela.
“Twice last year we lost the things we sent because at the other end, who is delivering them? A Venezuelan,” says Hector, who believes his packages were stolen by a desperate delivery man.
He and Niurka sent one of the boxes in March, but it wasn’t until November that they discovered that the medicine and toys inside had never reached their destination.
“Beyond the money we spent and the time we spent preparing the boxes, was all the energy and the hope we knew were behind those boxes,” Niurka says.
Despite the high costs and uncertainty, not sending goods home is simply not an option for the Venezuelans queuing up at post offices and courier companies in Jackson Heights and elsewhere around the world.
“You only have one choice,” Hector says, “Stop sending it, or trying again.”
“It’s a roulette,” Niurka agrees. “My people are starving and they’re trying to survive”.
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