Yolanda Carolina Ortiz was born in a small town in the state of Táchira on the western border of Venezuela, just south of the Colombian border. She grew up surrounded by an abundance of agriculture and livestock, as well as a strong industrial sector that employed many. Everyone knew each other and helped each other. Yolanda graduated from a small Catholic school in the area founded by a group of Spanish sisters called “Adoratrices Esclavas del Santísimo Sacramento,” and has beautiful memories of learning the faith and forming her personal relationship with the Lord. She graduated a “Maestra Integral,” which is known as a comprehensive teacher in the United States, and taught many subjects at once. Life was full of neighborly smiles and dreams.
However, in recent years, the hometown Yolanda knew and loved was no longer recognizable as such. The government deprived the citizens of Táchira of its local resources. Only what you were given was yours. Government officials could take whatever they wanted and people had to stay quiet. Their freedom of speech was taken away and anyone who went against the state’s political views was punished. Citizens were required to attend political “meetings” and those who did not participate would be sanctioned - their families would pay a price, too. In her town, everyone began to fear hunger and death.
At the same time, Yolanda’s partner became abusive to her, her teenage son, and her young daughter. Fear grew in Yolanda’s heart - fear of verbal and physical abuse, fear that her children were being harmed, fear of being alone, of not providing. Fear occupied her heart and mind everyday from sunrise to sunset. She no longer felt “free to choose whether to migrate or to stay.” Yolanda was forced to make a decision - to either embrace tyranny or leave to find peace.
In 2022 after much prayer and planning, Yolanda and her 4-year-old daughter, Camila, left on foot headed to the United States by way of Chile. Yolanda worked for 9 months in a restaurant earning enough money to pay for a guide and trip expenses while Camila played in the daycare. Continuing on by bus and mostly on-foot, the two stopped in 12 different countries, including the Darién Gap, a stretch of remote mountainous rainforest connecting South and Central America considered to be one of the most popular and perilous walks on earth. Sleep deprived, with little money, with strangers at times, cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, carrying only a few personal belongings in her bag, her daughter holding her hand and God in her heart.
In every country, Camila would ask for one thing only - to take pictures of her next to "the most beautiful lady,” the Virgin Mary. She was always able to find her face in storefronts, statues at parks, Churches, pedestals, and signs. A specific bright spot in their journey was when they passed by the North Terminal of Mexico City and took a photo with that Marian statue. Despite the daily hardships, seeking Mother Mary kept Yolanda moving forward with her eyes set on God.
She initially planned to go to the refugee camp in New York, however that plan changed when a friend’s sister offered her plane tickets and a place to stay in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Yolanda accepted, boarded a plane from San Antonio, and immediately felt a sense of safety and peace.
Two months after arriving, Yolanda and Camila visited a friend in a home across the street from San Juan Diego Academy (SJDA). Camila immediately saw the statue of Mary in front of the school and asked for a photo (see photo gallery below). Yolanda recalls that moment, “It was the last picture she took of the Virgin Mary in a new place. We made it by God's grace and God's mother who never left our side.” Her next step was clear. Yolanda needed to enroll Camila at the school.
Camila started kindergarten in August 2023 and in that short time, when asked what her favorite class is in school, she screams, “Music and Mass.” Yolanda feels like SJDA is an extension of their family, a second home. It provides stability they have not known in a long time. “She's excelling and I am proud of her and thankful for every staff member,” Yolanda said.
Yolanda is excelling too, even while experiencing great culture shock. She cleans houses and cares for elders to make money after dropping Camila off at SJDA. This includes a commute where she has to navigate a large, unfamiliar city while not speaking English. She is currently attending Kent ISD three nights a week to learn the language and says the schedule is hard - waking up very early in the mornings and coming back late at night. Even on weekends, but, “It's all worth it,” she says. “The country asks much of me and gives much and I feel productive in return.”
Even better, her son, Yericson, has joined them in Grand Rapids and has entered the same intensive English class. Yolanda is overjoyed that he took her advice. She said, “Son, when you open the doors and leave, say, ‘In the name of The Lord, I take the first steps on this journey and He will guide me in the right direction for I am never alone, not even if the roads make me feel so.’”
Yolanda’s story is the story of many immigrants and refugees. She ran away from violence, persecution, oppression, dictatorship, being ignored and told where to go, what she could have and what was out of reach. Her bravery, determination, and unwavering faith in God are to be admired. “I came from a country and a town that has absolutely every natural resource for people to thrive and to succeed. Yet only very few are allowed access and are chosen to have power, money, land and rights. In my case, dictatorship takes away even your self love. However, don't give yourself a sad end. Dreams can come true without trampling on anyone. Be a thankful person to God first and your neighbor. Live everyday intrigued about the joy you will find around the corner. You have problems, God has solutions.”
Around the world, 26.4 million refugees have fled their homes due to persecution, human rights violations, and various forms of conflict. Many children in these situations travel alone, or are separated from their parents. In 2022, fifty-five million people were living in an internally displaced situation, and 800 migrants died along the U.S./Mexico border.
To raise awareness and encourage Catholics in the call of “Welcoming the stranger among us,” the Catholic Church in the United States annually celebrates National Migration Week. This celebration aligns with the observance of World Day of Migrants and Refugees, this year on Sept. 24. This time is set aside to reflect on the circumstances confronting migrants including immigrants, refugees, children, and victims and survivors of human trafficking and to engage migrants as community members, neighbors, and friends.
- To read more about National Migration Week and the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, visit https://grdiocese.org/national-migration-week/.