For the majority of her life in Venezuela, Nirvana lived what she considers “the perfect life.” She loved going to school, spending time with her parents, playing with her cats and dogs and going on long runs outside while listening to Ed Sheeran. Thinking back to how her life once was, she said, “I look back and I think, ‘wow what a life!’ and I wish it would have stayed that way.”
Nirvana loves nature, and as she shared her story with us, her memories were often linked to animals and the nature around her. She can pinpoint when things took a turn for the worse because it was at the same time one of her dogs died. She remembered, “Life was tough. Sometimes we didn’t have any food and we were in constant danger. The town I lived in was very dangerous. Politics started to really affect our lives: at home, at school, in the parks and in the plaza.” The political and economic state of Venezuela became too dangerous for Nirvana and her family, so they made the decision to split up. In search of safety and a better life, Nirvana and her older brother, Bryan, decided to make the long journey to the United States.
The two left almost everything behind, but they brought someone very important to them: their little schnauzer Estrella. In Spanish, “Estrella” means “star,” which is exactly what Estrella would become for Nirvana and Bryan during their treacherous journey: a guiding star and a light within the darkness.
Nirvana and Bryan made their way to the United States through the dangerous path known as the Darien Gap, in which they spent multiple days walking through the dense rainforest. “The nature there really wasn’t helpful for me,” Nirvana joked as she told us about how they saw crocodiles, lizards and giant snakes. In order to protect Estrella from getting taken away from them, Nirvana and her brother disguised her as a baby and carried her in a baby carrier. After seven days of walking with barely any food, Nirvana, Bryan and Estrella made it out.
In the subsequent months, their journey continued through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. They continued to hide Estrella in the carrier, in their arms or underneath their seats. In Guatemala, Nirvana shared with a smile on her face that a little dog fell in love with Estrella and that she fell in love with him. That day they allowed her to be free and run around with her new four-legged friend. Despite the danger and difficulties Nirvana faced on her journey, she told us she feels they were “blessed” because they always found help along the way.
While remembering her last few days in Mexico, Nirvana’s eyes filled up with tears because she knows something now that she did not know then: these would be her last days with Estrella. She shared, “We always think back to those days in that home in Mexico because even though they weren’t easy- we didn’t have a lot of food and we slept on the floor- Estrella was always there having fun, running around and being a little crazy.”
After making it to the United States, Nirvana and Bryan encountered a group of U.S. border security officers who began implying that they were going to take Estrella away. “We had all her documents but they asked us about her and what breed she was because she was a very nice dog. One of the officers in charge said that he had a male dog of the same breed and said that Estrella’s breed was expensive,” Nirvana explained. The officers took Estrella away and forced Nirvana and her brother onto a bus. Nirvana recalls seeing Estrella from the window for the last time and waving goodbye.
Throughout their journey, Estrella was always there to lift up Nirvana and Bryan’s spirits. Nirvana told us, “Estrella helped us a lot. There were some days we were very down but we would look at her running around and would laugh and say, ‘just look at her being so silly while we’re over here worried.’ She was like a light for us throughout the entire journey.”
In her new home in New Jersey, Nirvana was connected to CWS and invited to be a part of the Youth Wellbeing program. Through this program, Nirvana received new clothing, case management and psychological and financial support. Nirvana explained that arriving to the United States as a person seeking asylum feels like, “falling and having nothing to grab onto” but added, “CWS is the support we need to be able to stand.” Nirvana’s therapist and case manager are helping her process everything that occurred during her journey and giving her the tools she needs to realize her greatest potential.
Through the help of CWS, Nirvana was also connected to a civil rights group in Texas that launched an investigation into what occurred at the border and to try to locate Estrella. Unfortunately Estrella has not been located, but Nirvana is thankful for the support she has been provided. She shared, “It feels very special to have someone give you time and come see you and check up on you. I don’t have any friends here yet so it feels like having the support of a friend.”
By sharing her story Nirvana wants to inspire people to be grateful for what they have, and challenge the stereotypes people might have of immigrants like herself. She said, “I didn’t come here to cause any harm. I came here to move forward and grow from this experience. I want to study, develop a career and continue to push myself.” Nirvana added that she wants to use her voice to “help people and make them feel happy.” She loves both medicine and art and dreams of pursuing a career in one of these fields while using her voice to advocate for immigrants and women.
At CWS, we are grateful to be a space where we can lift up Nirvana and help her achieve her dreams. Although she may have lost her guiding star, Estrella, it is clear to us that Estrella’s bright light lives on in her heart, inspiring hope and encouraging her to continue moving forward.
To support youth like Nirvana and learn more about our Children Services Program, click here.