…high rent, lack of jobs access force remigrants to begin squatting at Ruby Backdam
…appeal for electricity, water or permanent place to settle
By Lakhram Bhagirat
For over a decade, the economic situation in neighbouring Venezuela has been actively worsening and has since catapulted into a full humanitarian crisis.
Over the years, there have been thousands of Guyanese, particularly from the Essequibo County, that migrated to the Spanish-speaking nation in an effort to find better opportunities. Many have settled, built families and lost some of their Guyanese roots. However, the crisis in Venezuela has forced many of those Guyanese to return “home” and restart their lives.
Many of them would have packed up whatever they could have and sold the rest for the bare minimum in order to leave Venezuela. They took gruelling boat journeys to get back to Guyana and now that they are here, settling is another challenge.
For many of the re-migrants, they speak very little English and persons are actively “taking advantage” of that fact.
As a result of the economic realities in Venezuela and the challenges in Guyana, at least 10 families have taken the drastic step to begin squatting on the Government reserves at Ruby Backdam on the East Bank of Essequibo. The families, occupying an area called Bamboo Dam, are calling on the relative authorities to hear their cries and either grant them some utilities to continue living on the Dam or provide them with permanent housing solutions.
They are contending that while, generally, the access to employment opportunities is scarce, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has only made their lives much harder. The pandemic restricted their movements and caused them to lose their jobs which resulted in them being kicked out of their rented homes.
Many of the families say that they have no option than to squat since they cannot afford rent anymore and the landlords are no longer being considerate.
“We really need the help right now. All ah we here punishing really bad and we really hope somebody can look into we situation. We is Guyanese people too and people got to remember that we get the same rights too,” Carlos Alejandro Latchman said.
When Guyana Times visited the Ruby Backdam area, Latchman was home with his wife and children. He related that he has been out of employment for quite some time and would usually work odd jobs for farmers in an effort to support his family of 9.
The father of seven said that his wife, a Venezuelan, cannot go out to work now because she has very little understanding of the English language and as a result, persons have attempted to take “advantage” of her. He has been back in Guyana just over three years now and has been actively searching for a permanent settlement for his family as well as a job but to date, he has been unsuccessful.
The 36-year-old said life back in Venezuela, prior to the economic downturn, was one where he and his family enjoyed the comforts. He was a boat operator and worked enough to provide his family with the necessities and while he understood returning to Guyana would have been a challenge, he certainly did not expect it to be this difficult.
“The situation in Venezuela force me to come back. My mother is from Affiance Essequibo (Coast) and when me come back me go spend a couple days with she but me get too much kids so me had to find house and rent. Rent is plenty and me nah get wuk and then people ah chase me from them house,” he said.
The struggling father said that while he was being kicked out from his rented home about eight months ago, he learned of Bamboo Dam and was told that he can go and squat there until he finds permanent housing. Latchman took whatever savings he had and began clearing the bamboo from the dam and he constructed a small bamboo house, with the help of neighbours and relatives and now he and his family live there.
He is hopeful of finding a job that would allow him to take his family out of the situation they are currently in but for now, all he can get is perhaps one day or two days’ work per week with farmers, which gives him an average income of $2000 per week to maintain his wife and 7 children.
For now, the family does not have access to potable water nor electricity. They depend on rainfall for water to drink and utilise water from the drains for cooking, washing and cleaning.
Meanwhile, another squatter, Carlennys Marchan, said she has been back in Guyana for about five years now. She along with her husband, two children, mother and grandfather have been living in Bamboo Dam for just over a week now.
Children need help
“In Guyana right now I was renting house and light bill and water bill was too much. My husband wasn’t working too much because he is a barber and they only get work one one time. My mother, grandmother and mother-in-law would help me and so…Me husband been a cut hair one day and somebody what know the people them he tell me husband that them can squat because first the rent money and the light bill and water bill too much. Abee nah been can mek it no more. The rent money is $15,000 every month but the light bill been got one problem, the meter abee been pay $24,000, $20,000, $11,000 in the light bill and the water bill $10,000, $11,000, $14,000 and so. Them tell him about this place and somebody tell him about this place and he work lil bit lil bit and build out this place and we come,” she explained.
Marchan is mother to an 11 and 6-year-old who are both attending the Vergenoegen Primary School. With the COVID-19 pandemic and learning moving to online, Marchan is concerned about her children’s education since that is one of the primary reasons she left Venezuela and returned to Guyana.
She is hoping that the authorities can at least provide them with temporary electricity solutions since the infrastructure is already there. She is okay with not having potable water, but in the interest of educating her children, she is choosing to have the light instead.
“We need the light for the children because they making the school for the online so we need the light and not so much the water because we can use the water from the drain for now but the light, we need the light much. I moved out here about a week here…My children them going to school and I have to go to grandmother house every day, every two day to get the internet to get the work and then go back to get the internet to send back the work,” she said.
Additionally, Marchan’s mother, Pauline Basdeo, said that she had been living in Venezuela almost her entire adult life. However, as the situation took a toll for the worst there, she came back home. She had been living with her mother when she returned about seven years ago but needed to get her own place.
She was also worried about her daughter in Venezuela since the reports of thefts and violence were worsening. She then encouraged Marchan to come to Guyana with her family. The process to get to Guyana was far from smooth, according to the mother, since she had to finance the family’s return.
“Every day I calling she, she telling me mommy Venezuela getting more bad and bad and the children them ain’t getting good school and them ain’t getting them education and there is no work. I tell she we go see how fuh try and let she come over and when them come we try and get a house fuh rent and we went renting all this time till we get this place,” she related.
Double expenses, little income
Ramnarine Dukhi started clearing and construction in Bamboo Dam just over four months ago. He has almost completed building the house but is somewhat sceptical about moving in since the area has no electricity. While he understands the challenges of squatting, the father of two remains hopeful.
“I get me wife and me children – 2 daughters – and we decide fuh come and squat. We applied for land in the past Government because me come back about 4 years now. In Venezuela, me had everything but that is not me country. Me come back and start living back again, well whatsoever you can sell cheap and me come back with just passage and try to build.
“We applied for land and it get many people in front of we so we got to pay rent and mind you kids them and you make much with whatsoever. We trying fuh develop we self because we knocking door and nobody doing anything fuh we. All ah we is born Guyanese,” he said.
Currently, he rents an apartment in Orangestein, EBE, for $30,000 for his family but is finding it hard to make ends meet. The rental fee does not cater for utilities.
According to the residents, during the election season, persons would have visited the area, promising to help but that has not yet materialised.
Pains and solution
Bibi Persaud, 64, and her 68-year-old husband, Muniraj Sharma, have been living in the area for just about 6 months. Prior to that, they used to rent but being elderly meant they had very little means of income so they started squatting on the Conservancy Dam at Canal Number 1, West Bank Demerara.
“We go up at the conservancy and we build a small house and me turn sickly and can’t walk because the place ah flood out and me nah able. The coldness ah mek me get pain and me nah able move. This side here me nah get flooding. Me a use the lil blackwater and me get a drum that me does put the lil rainwater. Me go be happy if we can get lil current and some water because all we a live on is me husband pension,” she related.
Jagranie has been living in Ruby Backdam for three years after she would have visited her daughter there. She also returned from Venezuela about five years ago and used to rent.
Collectively, the residents there signalled their intention of approaching the Government for relief.
During his recent visit to Guyana, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the US Government has allocated US$5 million to assist Venezuelans in Guyana who were forced to flee their country due to severe economic hardships and other political issues which have gripped the nation in recent years.