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For Many Venezuelan Asylum Seekers, This South Florida Ballet School Is A Lifeline

Lily Oppenheimer
Students from the Arts Ballet Theater of Florida rehearse before their concert dedicated to Venezuela in North Miami Beach on Thursday, July 25, 2019.

Thousands of Venezuelans seeking political asylum continue to live in South Florida as a bill that would grant them Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, stalls in Congress.The U.S. House attempted to fast-track the bill to pass last month, but those efforts ultimately failed before the Senate left for a six-week break.

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN

As the country's humanitarian crisis worsens, one North Miami Beach ballet school has given displaced Venezuelan students a chance to keep pursuing a dance career in South Florida.  

Ruby Romero-Issaev is executive director of the Arts Ballet Theater of Florida. She came to the U.S. from Venezuela with her husband in 1997, years before the humanitarian crisis escalated and President Nicolas Maduro’s regime forced a mass exodus of families to flee the country. 

Since the Arts Ballet Theater of Florida was founded 20 years ago, Venezuelan dancers and their families began to contact Romero-Issaev about scholarships, or ways to pursue dancing while also applying for asylum in the U.S. She estimated that over the years, the theater has given scholarships to nearly 85 students who escaped Venezuela. 

One of those dancers who fled three years ago with her family is Maylen Rodriguez. She just graduated high school, and is navigating her future as a dancer and student-teacher under the Arts Ballet Theater of Florida. 

Yet, because of her status, her opportunities for college financial aid are limited — despite her merits and academic achievements in high school, seeking political asylum she must pay the tuition of an international student.

Both women spoke with Luis Hernandez on Sundial about how the Arts Ballet Theater continues to intersect with the lives of Venezuelan asylum seekers and their families.

This has been edited lightly for clarity. 

WLRN: Ruby, when did you start bringing in kids like Maylen? To connect with Maylen you were going through ballet teacher in Venezuela. Is that how you’re finding a lot of these kids? 

What happens is, Maylen’s ballet teacher back in Venezuela contacted us, so she could come to the U.S. We said, well, there’s a summer program starting now. It was a week after she started with us that I learned she was living in a hotel with her family. So it was pretty difficult. 

Do you know, over the years, how many different kids you’ve helped? 

I was going through the list with the help of others, because when you do these things, you don’t really make up a chart. You don’t just write it down. You do it because it comes from the bottom of your heart. We calculated about 85 over the last 10 years. And right now, we have about 20 in the school, from Venezuela. 

For some students, it’s harder than others. Some have their resources. They come, they have no problems, their parents have working visas. But there are some that are just coming to ask for asylum. And that’s when things get really rough. The idea is, from the parents: I want her to have the same things she had in Venezuela so she doesn’t feel the impact. They want to protect their children. They want to continue ballet. 

Maylen, it was your ballet teacher in Venezuela who told you about this school here, and that’s how you knew to get to Miami so you would have this opportunity. What was it like those first few months? 

The first day that I came in, I actually came in on the 4th of July. The day after that, I was in the intensive ballet classes all day. I didn’t have the time to think about it, what was going on. I’m here, I’m not going back. I just blocked that part of my mind, and I just went everyday to dance, and that’s it. 

Right now, there's a debate in Congress over Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans, and they're waiting to see if the Senate will vote on it. What's it like for you right now? 

It's very frustrating. You just have to wait, there's no answer. I have friends who have been here for up to eight years, and I'm just in my third year. 

Things have gotten so much worse since I left. Every time that someone new comes and they tell me the prices back home, or the people from that company left, or that store closed ... everyone went through something really bad. My family that is still there, some days they cannot eat. It's not enough. 

The Venezuela that I knew is not there anymore. The people I know are not living there. And the people are still there, we don't know if we'll be able to see them again. I never got the chance to know and experience the Venezuela that Ms. Ruby knew. I know a whole different Venezuela.