Yeraldine Cabrera fled her native Venezuela for many of the same reasons that have driven millions of her compatriots to flee in recent years. She suffers from a health problem, and widespread medicine shortages made it impossible for her to get the treatment she needed back home. But there was another reason. Yeraldine is a lesbian, and she and her partner, Zailet, faced discrimination due to their sexual orientation.
Although being gay made their journey to safety much harder and riskier, the couple eventually found community in Ecuador. Yeraldine is now working with an outreach group to help make her host country a more inclusive place for LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers like herself.
“I want people to see beyond the symbols – beyond the rainbow flag and the LGBTQI+ acronym – and recognize that we are human beings… and we want to help and to belong,” said Yeraldine, after having just finished interviewing a transgender woman as part of a series of podcasts she helps produce.
“I’ve always felt I had to build up walls around myself.”
A 39-year-old mother of two, Yeraldine was in a long and tumultuous marriage to a man before she met Zailet some five years ago. After the two clicked, Yeraldine says the decision to come out was an easy one, despite the challenges LGBTQI+ people face throughout much of Latin America.
“I practically jumped out of the closet,” she said. “It didn’t matter what anyone said. Once my children accepted me, that was more than enough.”
Still, while the couple enjoyed Yeraldine’s teenage children’s full support, they faced a series of other difficulties in Venezuela that included being laid off – the two worked as salespeople at the same store – as well as sexual harassment from a landlord that was so intense they ended up having to give up the apartment they shared.
“We didn’t have food. We didn’t have jobs. We didn’t have a place to live,” Yeraldine said.
To make matters worse, she was no longer able to get the medications she needed to treat a chronic medical condition. And so, she and Zailet sought safety in Ecuador, leaving Yeraldine’s children – ages 15 and 17 – behind with relatives so they would be spared the difficult journey.
In the nearly three years since the couple settled in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, they have found the stability they needed to rebuild their lives.
However, they also endured not only many of the same obstacles that people forced to flee often encounter – such as being paid substandard wages for inordinately long working hours – but also, at times, discrimination similar to what they had faced back home. Yeraldine said that she and Zailet had to resort to pretending to be cousins in order to sign a lease on an apartment.
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“The LGBTQI+ community often has a difficult time finding spaces where they can feel safe throughout the cycle of displacement,” said Giovanni Bassu, Representative for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Ecuador. “They face greater barriers in accessing basic rights and services, such as education, health care, housing or employment.”
But Yeraldine is determined to help change that. As a participant in Redes Comunitarias, a UNHCR project aimed at giving refugees and migrants the tools they need to become community leaders, Yeraldine has become an unofficial spokesperson for the LGBTQI+ cause. She has helped produce podcasts, videos and events aimed not only at teaching displaced LBGTQI+ people about their rights but also making their host country a more accepting place for all refugees and migrants, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“I want people to see we are human beings, and we want to belong.”
As home to more than 500,000 of the 6.1 million people who have fled Venezuela, Ecuador has the world’s third-largest Venezuelan refugee and migrant population. An estimated 10,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the Andean country identify as LGBTQI+, according to estimates by UNHCR and its partners.
Yeraldine’s activism has even made a difference in her own home. Seeing Yeraldine take a public stand has helped Zailet, her partner, feel more comfortable in her own identity as a lesbian.
“I’ve always been a lesbian, but I come from a very conservative family and have always felt I had to contain myself and build up walls around myself,” said Zailet. “It used to be hard for me to show my partner affection in public, but Yeraldine has given me the confidence to hold her hand in front of other people.
“It’s very nice to be able to show your love in a public place,” Zailet said with a smile.