Kelvis migrated from Caracas to Chicago. He wants to attend college in the U.S.

Kelvis used to be a police officer in Venezuela. Now he’s studying math and English so he can pursue a new career in the United States.

Kelvis sits on his bed at Starting Point Community Church
Kelvis sits on his bed at Starting Point Community Church, where he has been temporarily living since November. He hopes to find more permanent housing soon. Max Lubbers / WBEZ
Kelvis sits on his bed at Starting Point Community Church
Kelvis sits on his bed at Starting Point Community Church, where he has been temporarily living since November. He hopes to find more permanent housing soon. Max Lubbers / WBEZ

Kelvis migrated from Caracas to Chicago. He wants to attend college in the U.S.

Kelvis used to be a police officer in Venezuela. Now he’s studying math and English so he can pursue a new career in the United States.

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You can listen to a translated version of this interview above, or listen to Kelvis tell his story in Spanish below.

Conversación en español

This winter the Johnson administration has twice delayed a plan to limit how many days migrants can spend in city-run shelters. The new deadline for when the first wave will be forced to move out is March 16, putting tremendous pressure on people to find housing.

Around 12,500 migrants are currently staying in shelters run by Chicago, Illinois and O’Hare, the lowest number since November, according to city data.

In total, more than 35,000 people have come to the city since August 2022, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending migrants to so-called sanctuary cities, including New York City, Denver and Chicago.

But people’s individual stories can get lost in the statistics.

Reset recently sat down with two migrants — Kelvis and Victor — who shared their experiences of migration, arriving in Chicago and finding housing. We’re using only first names at their request. Both are temporarily staying at the Starting Point Community Church in Belmont Cragin, one of 17 churches partnering with the city to shelter migrants.

Meet Kelvis

Kelvis bracelet
Kelvis has very few possessions from his life before Chicago. This red thread is a tie back to his time in Peru. Max Lubbers / WBEZ

Wrapped around Kelvis’s wrist is a reminder of his past life. The red bracelet is one of the only things to survive his journey to Chicago. It acts as a thread to a time before sleeping on city streets, before boarding a bus in Texas, before crossing the border into the United States.

Kelvis fled his home country of Venezuela in 2016 — first to the Dominican Republic, where he lived for more than a year, then to Peru, where he spent five years. More than 7 million people have fled Venezuela since 2014. It’s the largest exodus in Latin America’s recent history, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, driven by a complex humanitarian and economic crisis.

Kelvis grew up in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Since September, he has lived in Chicago, at first in tents outside of a police station. Kelvis then moved to Starting Point.

Reset host Sasha-Ann Simons spoke with Kelvis. His pastor, Jonathan de la O, provided translation. Here are highlights from their conversation.

You arrived five months ago. Tell me about your journey.

The first part that was tough was the jungle that goes between Colombia and Panama — the jungle of Darién is exhausting, physically and mentally. We had to walk through the jungle for days sometimes without food. And so we would depend on sometimes just water and small, little snacks that we picked up on the way there.

The second part that was difficult for me, for many of us, is our time in Mexico, where we would have to be on the train to get over the United States border. The nights there are very cold and during the day, it’s very hot. There’s no way to have access to food. And so we just depend on people from the neighboring towns, tossing water or bags of food over onto the train.

How did you decide to come to Chicago?

When I got to the border, and I turned myself into immigration, they put us into a place that looked similar to a jail cell. I spent two days there. I had an address to go to in Texas — a person that I could connect with.

But once I got there, we never connected. And those of us who were in this jail cell situation, we were talking amongst ourselves about going to Chicago. Word spread, and there was a nearby church that was able to pay the bill to bus a group of us to Chicago.

When we arrived, it was during the time where they were receiving people at the (police) stations. We didn’t know where to go; they just dropped us off at the station. And I started living in the tents outside the stations.

What was it like for you, living in the tents?

It was difficult for me at the beginning, because I wasn’t accustomed to that. In the beginning, they provided a very thin mat and a blanket. And that’s all.

The station wasn’t set up for us to shower. So we weren’t able to do that. We were able to use the restroom from time to time. And little by little, volunteer groups (and) people were donating things, like a sturdier mattress, more blankets.

When did you join the pastor’s shelter?

Some of the guys who were already living at the church came down one night to give out arepas — which is a Venezuelan cuisine — and some personal hygiene products.

One of the guys told me what the pastor was doing — the setup at the church — and obviously it interested me, and a couple others, because it’s living under a roof and not in a tent. And so Pastor Jonathan began to take us to church. And about three weeks into it, he opened up the doors for me, and I have a couple of months now staying with him.

What did it feel like to move into the church?

When I got there, the first few things I felt were peace and tranquility and security. When I first attended the church, I felt there was a different energy — a different feel. I felt at home.

It’s interesting to hear you say you felt tranquility and peace. When was the last time you felt that, before that day at the church?

Wow. The last time I felt that kind of peace and tranquility was years ago in Venezuela, where I was able to share time with my family, and when there was no crisis in Venezuela.

But in Venezuela, you had a life — growing up, working…what was your job?

For five years, I was a police officer in Venezuela. And then the last three years, I served as security personnel for diplomatic individuals.

Did you like that job?

I loved my job. The courses, the training, they were really fun for me. It made me feel like I was doing something good. When I was a child, I grew up thinking about being a firefighter or pilot or an officer. So I was able to do that.

Now we’re in Chicago. You’re taking classes now. What do you most like to learn about?

Right now I’m currently taking some math classes, and I’ll be taking English classes, which I’m looking forward to because I know it’s important to learn. I know how to translate words, but I have a difficult time to speak it.

What else do you like to do in your spare time? Hobbies?

I like to sightsee, to travel. I would love to get to know the United States. But just recently, what we’ve been doing with the pastor is that every Thursday — we can not miss it — we will go out and play basketball together.

Kelvis with basketball
Kelvis holds a basketball while sitting on a staircase outside Starting Point Community Church. He plays the sport every week with Pastor Jonathan de la O and a group of men staying at the church. Max Lubbers / WBEZ

You want to see more of the United States. Tell me more about your hopes for the future and what is next for you, Kelvis.

One of the things that I hope to fulfill, is obviously finishing my GED classes, so I can go to a university level and get a career from what I study.

And your family? Any chance of bringing them to the United States with you?

Yeah, I would love that to happen. If that opportunity made itself available, I would definitely take it. I have friendships forming — and good people around me — but it just brings another level of warmth in having family around. Siblings, cousins, mother, father, kids. Kids are the motor that pushes us to continue on.

What else can you tell me about your kids?

I have four children. The firstborn is Rances. And then the two that follow, are twins – a boy and girl. And then a little one.

When I would come home from work, it was like a roller coaster ride. They would just jump on me. They would try to fight over who’s gonna play with me or sleep on top of me. Unfortunately, their mother and I separated. But I miss them.

I think they miss you too.

A lot.

What would you like to see from the city, state and federal government?

What’s important for us is the documentations we need in order to work.

With a job, we could become independent, we could live life. The help that we’ve received, it’s been great, but what matters mostly is the work permits.

For the government, it actually would be a good thing, if that was able to be sped up a little bit. Because you’re talking about hands of labor that will be poured into the country, and us paying taxes, which would also bring income and economy into the government.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Reset producer Brenda Ruiz verified part of the translation done by Pastor Jonathan de la O.