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  • Writer's pictureAlina Stehle

"I'm tired of being treated like a number and not a person"

The life of 31-year-old Johan Galea Oliveros has been anything but easy. After fleeing Venezuela and leaving his home behind, he is still fighting for his happiness every day.

"When they tried to kidnap my aunt and me, they tried to drag us into the car. Suddenly they started shooting. In that second, I thought I was going to die. I simply gave up on life.” This is just one of the many things that happened to Johan Oliveros.

It’s 2019 and Johan Oliveros is living with his family in Venezuela. It was the first attempted kidnapping, but not the last. The two escaped, but it's too dangerous for him to stay in their home and so he and his mother flee to his uncle's house. Then the phone calls start, demanding 2 million Bolívars to ensure the family's safety. "It feels like you're in a movie, but it's your real life”, Johan says sitting at his kitchen table in Antwerp.

Johan explains at that time, you could buy a big house with 2 million Bolívars. His uncle pays, too afraid of the possible consequences for his family if he refuses. Johan's life in Venezuela is marred by these constant threats and challenges because of the crime that rose in the last years all over the country.

When he is 27, people break into his house in Punta de Mata. They tie him and his mother together, put pillow bags on their heads and steal everything of value. His aunt finds them the next day, still tied together. "It was horrible, I was terrified," Johan recalls.

The moment he realises that he has to leave his home is the 31st of December 2019. As he walks down the street, a man hits him twice and tries to drag him into his car. A replay of the nightmare of a few months ago. Johan is robbed, but he escapes and runs to a neighbour's house with his nose fully bleeding. When he reports the crime to the police, they just laugh at him and say: "Isn't this a funny way to end the year?".

His family splits up, everyone flees the country and goes to different places to start all over again. "I didn't even have time to say goodbye to all my family and friends. When I held my 3-day-old nephew in my arms for the last time, it was so painful because I knew I was going to miss so many moments of his life", Johan recalls.

That was all three years ago. Johan now lives with his mother, Yalile, in a one-room flat in Antwerp. She is busy doing chores while he shows me his collection of comic and manga figues. Above the wooden shelf of his collection is Johan's favourite figure: a man with brown hair, dressed in orange trousers and a blue sweater with a large "M" across his chest.

"My friend gave me this Action Man in 1998, and it's the only figure I brought back from Venezuela, and if I ever have children, they won't get it because they'll probably break it", says Johan, laughing.

Johan and Yalile have been living in Antwerp since March 2022. Their first flat was shared and now thez are very happy to have more privacy. To get more out of the one room apartment, a black partition separates the table from the small wooden bed in the corner. Every night Johan takes the mattress out from under his mother's bed and puts it on the floor next to her.

In Venezuela, he studied mechanical engineering and now he has a job as a warehouse worker. "Sometimes when I get tired, I remember how much I cried and prayed for a job and a place to live. This reminds me how grateful I am to have a job", he tells. It is not easy for him to pay for everything for himself and his mother: "The bills come every month. At the end of the month, I have to cut back. Right now, I only have 6 euros in my bank account.”

Johan closes the window while he is talking excitedly about his passion for science fiction and his love for writing and painting: “I would like to work for a newspaper one day”.

Johan's expression and voice suddenly change when he starts talking about his arrival in Belgium in 2020: "I thought I could finally enjoy my life, and then life slapped me again". After spending two weeks with his aunt, who is already living in Belgium, he and his mother move to the Petit-Château in Brussels. It's a government-run refugee centre, and the three months Johan spends there were terrible for him.

"The psychological damage it does to you is irreparable. I wasn't treated like a human being and I was afraid every day that I would have to go back. The worst thing was to know that I couldn't do anything about it and that my life depends on the decision of some strangers."

Johan takes another big bite out of his tuna arepa and goes on to say that the social workers are not empathic, they don't care about the people in the shelter. This makes it impossible for him to feel welcome, to feel that he belongs there. Even outside the shelter he feels judged: "People would stare at me when I passed them because they judge me because I am not from Belgium".

For the next two years, he lives with his mother in a refugee center in the tiny village of Herbeumont, on the border with Luxembourg. He receives a scholarship to study journalism at a university in Brussels, leaving his home every day at 3 a.m. and returning at 11 p.m. because of the long journey. He still believes: "Studying journalism at a university in Brussels was one of the best things I have ever done because it gave me other opportunities for my future”.

One of the biggest challenges Johan has faced since his arrival is the fight for his residence permit. The first time he applied, it’s rejected on the grounds that he doesn’t have enough proof. "I had 3 folders of evidence, but that wasn't enough for them", Johan says. Covid slows down the process considerably and he has to wait 2 years for an answer after his interview with the migration office. "Waiting so long felt like hell. I am tired of the bureaucracy, it makes me feel like I am just a number and not a human being." His application was rejected. 

With the help of another pro-bono lawyer, he filed a new case centered on the personal trauma he experienced as a homosexual. "Going back to that situation made me even more suicidal", Johan tells. In order to be able to open up in court and talk about the traumatic things he has experienced, Johan starts seeing a psychologist. At first, he can't speak out loud: "I wrote everything down on a piece of paper and gave it to her. I could see the pity in her eyes when she read it". It was almost impossible for him to dig out and open the boxes of traumatic experiences he is hiding for years.

In January 2022, Johan has his second interview at the migration office. "On the train to the interview I had my first panic attack in the toilet. But I told myself I can do it, I have to do it.” When Johan enters the courtroom and sees the same judge who heard his case last time, he breaks down: "I felt defeated, I felt like my soul was leaving me, I felt like I was going to die. I thought, 'Why her? I can't go through this again”.

Although Johan files a completely new case, it is the same judge who rejected his case the last time. During the interview Johan has two more panic attacks and feels completely exposed to share his personal experiences with a bunch of strangers. "I went through hell that day", he recounts. Through all this, God is giving him the strength to never give up.

One of the worst things for him was when they started asking questions to prove his sexuality: "They asked me how do you know you are gay, what positions do you like, are you bottom or top?".

A month after the interrogation, Johan receives a call from his lawyer on his way to work in the water taxi. "My lawyer asked me to sit down and I had to remind myself to keep breathing. Then she said, 'Johan, your asylum request has been accepted.’ I go down on my knees and start crying like a baby. I hug my colleague Evelyn, who was sitting next to me, and stuttered: 'I, I, I got... my documents.'"

The first person he calls is his mother, and after 8 hours of impatient waiting at work, he finally gets to hold her in his arms and they both cry together. "It was such a good day, I was so happy." Although she hasn't yet been granted a residence permit, with his approval the chances of them living together in Belgium in the future are much higher.

"Sometimes I still feel homeless because my mother doesn't have her residence yet."

To feel at home, Johan needs a peaceful place where he can be with his mother, he says with a wistful smile.

To this day, every day he is thinking back to his time in Venezuela, when he didn't have existential problems. "Even though I know what it means to come here, I would do it again because I had no other choice."

For the future Johan has only one wish: “I just want to be generally happy”.



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