They killed my uncle and set fire to our house: woman survives gang violence, seeks refuge in Canada

I woke up to heavy smoke surrounding the room. Quickly, I covered my children with a blanket and ran out as fast as I could, paying no mind to the debris around us.

  • 10 months ago
  • July 28, 2023
7 min read
In the middle of the night, while she slept soundly with her children, gang members finally carried out their threats and set fire to the house, leaving them for dead. In the middle of the night, while she slept soundly with her children, gang members finally carried out their threats and set fire to the house, leaving them for dead. | Photo courtesy of Jen Theodore from Unsplash
Woman in the shadows. Anonymous photo.
For safety reasons, we have granted this subject anonymity and have withheld the city in which she lives. Emma* was born in Venezuela to Syrian parents, before attending school in Damascus. She met her husband shortly after graduating, and moved to Venezuela with him. She is currently living in Canada with her two children after she sought refuge from the violent gangs that murdered her uncle and burned down her house.
Venezuela is home to an estimated 50 mega-gangs, large hierarchical criminal groups, each comprising at least 50 members. As well as the mega-gangs, a number of smaller criminal groups also engage in drug trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping countrywide. In 2012, the Venezuelan government developed a “peace zones” policy by negotiating with hundreds of gangs from all over the country, offering a truce in which police would stay out of designated neighborhoods if the gangs ceased criminal activity, in addition to providing financial incentives for gangsters to disarm.
The policy backfired, when gangs like El Koki’s gang began using the money to acquire heavier weaponry. El Koki and other gang leaders also took advantage of Venezuela’s criminal organizations gathering for negotiations to bolster the size of their gangs. Merging with these other groups, they formed the numerous mega-gangs of Venezuela that followed the implementation of peace zones.

CANADA — When my husband walked out on me and our children, I vowed to protect them the best I could. Finding a sustainable job proved extremely difficult, as I lived in a country that was not my own, far from everything I knew. Determined to provide for them any way I could, I began selling sweets and Arabic cuisine I made in my kitchen. 

Upon hearing of my troubles, my uncle Basem came to help me. He took care of my children as if they were his own, and offered us emotional and financial support. He quickly became my rock, the only person I felt I could count on. His presence took some of the weight off my shoulders. For the first time in a long time, I was able to sleep at night without crippling anxiety standing in the way. Little did I know the nightmare was only beginning. 

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Threatened by local gangs, we lived in constant fear that every day would be our last 

In May 2020, my uncle and I decided to open a mini market together so we could help each other during difficult times. In Venezuela, we struggled to feel safe in our own neighborhoods. We witnessed theft, crime, human rights violations, abductions, and chaos reign over the country, with little help from the authorities. They barely knew how to contain the gangs. Most of the crimes remain unpunished. The situation worsened more recently due to hunger, poverty, unemployment, and political corruption.

Our shop got robbed several times. In November 2020, a group of armed men came into our shop and threatened us. They said they would kill my children if we failed to give them a certain sum of money. As they began to destroy the shop, my body felt numb, paralyzed with fear. It felt like I had forgotten how to breathe. Once they exited the shop, I stood in the same spot for a few minutes, unable to process what had happened. I knew there wasn’t much I could do. We lacked the money to pay them, and we knew their threats were serious. 

Suddenly, that crippling fear began to return every night, and I struggled with insomnia and panic attacks. For weeks, we lived in constant terror, not knowing what action to take. We knew the police would not do anything due to the corruption. We felt truly helpless and alone. Months passed, and we heard nothing from the gangs. However, I refused to believe we were safe. It felt like a never-ending waiting game. 

They murdered my uncle, and I knew they were coming for me next

On December 12, 2020, they carried out their threat and killed my uncle in his house. I came to visit him, and I found his door wide open, his broken furniture laying on the floor. Upon seeing his cold body, I felt my heart break in a thousand pieces. The sadness felt so unbearable, I could not bring myself to cry at first. It took a while to fully hit me. The sight of the incident traumatized me, but I had to stay strong for my kids. My uncle was such a big part of our lives. He was like a father to us all and had helped us through so much. Losing him felt like the end of the world. 

For months after, I struggled to take care of the shop on my own. Every time someone walked through the door, I feared for my life. The nightmare continued on March 5, 2021, when the gang members killed my friend and neighbor Carolina. They murdered her while she was in her car with her cousin. A few weeks after hearing the news, I packed our belongings and ran away to another area with my kids. I hoped we would get away from danger once and for all.

They burned my house down while my children and I were sound asleep

I went to my friend’s house in Marida and stayed there for a while, hidden away. During that time, I focused on grieving and being there for my children. Eventually, we knew we had to return to our normal life, and we went back home on May 1, 2022. The threats immediately followed. Every night, it seemed like someone was watching my house. Every passing hour felt like an eternity. On May 7, 2022, while I slept with my children in our bed, they set fire to my house. 

I woke up to heavy smoke surrounding the room. Quickly, I covered my children with a blanket and ran out as fast as I could, paying no mind to the debris around us. Fear and adrenaline took over and I no longer cared for my own safety at that moment. I just wanted to get my kids out. By some miracle, we made it out safe and I noticed they had stolen my car to keep me there. Traumatized and panicked, we ran to my sister’s house. I carried my children in my arms, making sure to run as fast as possible in case they were still around. 

Fleeing the country once and for all and finding safety in Canada

Once we arrived at my sister’s house, I laid on the floor, trying to catch my breath. I told her what happened, and we decided we had to flee the country. I could not go home to Syria due to the war and destruction there. Leaving one dangerous place for another seemed ill advised. For nights, I pondered where to go, considering every possible option carefully. So much had happened already that I still had not fully accepted. Every day felt like a nightmare. I knew the only place that would offer me safety was Canada. I submitted an asylum application and prayed for its acceptance. 

Once we finally landed there, I embraced my children and assured them we would finally be free. For the longest time, we lived in complete fear and agony. For the first time in a long time, we could breathe. Everything that happened in the past years continues to haunt me every night. Not a minute goes by that I don’t think of the people we lost, or the things we went through. 

Today, I do my best to rebuild my life for the sake of my children. I want them to have a place to call home, somewhere they can safely exist without any looming threats. What saddens me is knowing that my story is not unique. Unfortunately, gang violence reached an all-time high in Venezuela. I can only pray for the people in similar situations and hope they make it out like I did. I long for justice to prevail in a country I dearly miss. However, all I can do now is feel grateful for every moment we get to be alive. 

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Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.


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