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Venezuelan refugee graduates with Class of 2019

One year ago, Mariana Colmenares was forced to flee her home and abandon the country she loved as her family attempted to escape a destructive maelstrom of political turmoil.

Last week, the 19-year-old walked the stage of Denton Bible Church, diploma in hand, a proud graduate of Pilot Point High School.

The journey has been a whirlwind.

“Oh, it’s exciting,” Colmenares said. “It has been incredible – this experience, it really has.”

In 2018, Colmenares and her family uprooted their entire existence in Venezuela, their lifelong home, and came to the U.S. seeking asylum. The 2019 PPHS graduate said the decision to come to Pilot Point was not an easy one.

“Leaving was hard,” Colmenares said, her uncertain English nearing perfection. “Especially when I saw my whole house … empty. There was just my bag that I had to bring here, with the few clothes that I could bring. I had to leave all my memories – and my family – there.”

Colmenares said she can remember a time not so long ago when life was normal in Venezuela. In 2013 things took a turn, she said. Then, in 2015, everything changed.

“It’s hard to explain how difficult it is there,” she said. “There is no electricity, no gas. And the salary … it’s not even enough to buy food. Medicine is too expensive to have. So, to think about buying a house, or a car, or even just going to the movies – it’s impossible. Right now, it’s impossible.

But Colmenares said she isn’t scared. She’s frustrated.

“When we left a year ago, it was really difficult,” she said. “And now it’s worse, it’s 10 times worse. I don’t know how people find a way to be happy because it’s so frustrating. That’s how I think everyone feels. They are doing their best and things are not getting better.”

Colmenares grew up in the same house as her grandparents, cousins, aunt and uncles. The family is close-knit, she said, and leaving her relatives to come to the U.S. was nearly impossible. She wanted so badly to stay, but was forced to leave when the government began persecuting her parents, who worked in the oil industry.

Her family of five came to Pilot Point: Colmenares, her parents and her two younger brothers. They rented an apartment to share, furnished it with the few possessions they were able to bring and began the long process of adapting to their new home.

“The first, like, two months were really hard,” Colmenares said. “I was all by myself, alone. But you realize, okay, this is your life now. You have to move on. If you don’t make it worth it, it won’t be worth it.”

One of the first challenges Colmenares faced in Pilot Point was learning to transcend the language barrier.

She had taken classes in English and had a basic understanding of the language before leaving Venezuela, she said, but struggled with reading and vocabulary. At first, she couldn’t communicate fluently with her peers and had difficulties in class. During that time, it was easy for her to get upset, to feel like quitting and daydream about going back home.

Her mom encouraged her not to give up, she said, and eventually she found help from the bilingual teachers at Pilot Point Elementary.

“The teachers were really sweet with me,” Colmenares said. “They said, ‘OK, we can help you. Don’t worry.’”

Every day Colmenares encountered something different, unfamiliar, strange. And every day she told herself to keep moving forward. She reminded herself to push through.

Back home, the student said, her school was small. Each grade was about the size of the standard class size in the U.S., and all the grades were taught in the same building. The school day would begin at 7 a.m. and went until noon. There was no cafeteria in the building because kids typically were already home by lunchtime.

The way students learn is different there as well, Colmenares said.

Back home, teachers would not take late work. They did not give opportunities to raise grades. Zeros remained zeros, and failing to do assignments could lead to disaster. Here, teachers give students many chances to raise their grades, something Colmenares used to her advantage.

During PPHS’s graduation rehearsal, Colmenares said she was surprised to learn that she would graduate 13th in her class. In one year, she went from struggling with vocabulary to graduating with honors.

“The teachers complimented my grades and said I did so good,” she said, smiling. “I just did my best.”

Colmenares intends to further her education, she said — first at a junior college and later at the University of North Texas, where she’d like to get a degree in graphic design.

When she first came to the U.S., Colmenares said she didn’t realize just how much opportunity awaited her.

“We had an idea,” she said. “But I didn’t know how much you could do, all the possibilities you have, all the hope you receive here. It’s incredible. If you don’t make it possible here, you won’t make it anywhere.”

As her love for her new country grows, Colmenares remembers her home fondly.

“I would love to go back,” she said. “There are a lot of things that I miss. My family. The energy. People there are always happy. Even with the situation now, people are happy.

“I miss the places there. There was a place with mountains, a city with mountains, and it was cold, like, every day of the year. It was perfect. It was one of my favorite spots. I’d love to go back, but to visit. Not to stay.”

Just one year after saying goodbye to Venezuela, Colmenares is closing another chapter of her life: high school.

It’s a bittersweet farewell.

“The only thing I could get used to here was high school,” she said. “I’m not ready to go. But I know it’s what I have to do. I have a lot of thanks, and a lot of beautiful people to help me.”

The future is uncertain, and she’s not exactly thrilled about the cyclone of change that comes with graduation, but Colmenares said she is hopeful about her next adventure, adding that a positive outlook can get you anywhere in the land of opportunity.

“You do the best you can,” she said. “And I think that works in every time of your life. If you do the best you can, things will go through and you’ll make it.”

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