Asylum-seeking cousins who fled Venezuela find home on Texas soccer team

  • People
  • Tuesday, 23 Apr 2024

Joel (left) with his cousin and manager Jose at Workman Junior High School in Arlington, Texas. Photos: Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS

Joel Romero opened a text from his cousin Jose in March 2022 that gave him a glimpse into what his life could be.

The then-16-year-old watched a video clip of Arlington Martin’s boys soccer team celebrating after capturing the District 8-6A title. Jose was a part of that programme and wanted to share the moment with his cousin, who loved soccer as much as he did.

Living in Venezuela at the time, Joel was used to a different normal – being pulled over by corrupt police, feeling unsafe to walk on the streets in his hometown and wondering if his soccer dreams would fizzle out due to a lack of opportunity in his native country.

He watched his cousin Jose, who had left Venezuela three years prior, celebrating district titles, learning English and adapting to a new life in the United States.

“I never thought about coming to the United States to live,” Joel said. “I was playing soccer in Venezuela. I was doing good. I was living the dream. But then when you get older, you have to see the reality. I had some friends that were older than me. They were all leaving the country to look for more opportunities.

“Jose sent me the video, and I was like, ‘I want to be there too’.”

By the end of the year, he was. Joel sought political asylum and moved in with Jose and his family in Arlington, Texas by December. After winning an eligibility battle with UIL (University Interscholastic League), he’s become an integral part of Martin’s playoff push this year as one of the best players in District 8-6A in his first varsity season.

The two cousins have been able to live out their soccer dream together – while living the American dream and experiencing all the opportunities that can come with it.

“There’s a lot of things there like, ‘I don’t want to go through that. I don’t want to be 25 years old, trying to grow as a person and going through that. I don’t want to have a son that grows in that country’,” Joel said. “This is where I saw there’s more opportunity.”

Seeking a better life

Joel and Jose both want to remember the good when they think about Venezuela. They remember how friendly the people were. They remember making the hour trip between Acarigua and Barinas each weekend to visit each other and play soccer outside for hours. They remember being close to Joel’s parents, who still live there.

But as they grew up in a nation impacted by a humanitarian crisis and a dictatorship, some of their memories aren’t as fond, especially after learning how different life is elsewhere.

The cousins remember losing access to electricity and water for days at a time when the government shut it off. They remember their fathers coming home from work, detailing how they had just been robbed at gunpoint.Joel during a soccer game at Workman Junior High School.Joel during a soccer game at Workman Junior High School.

They remember all of their friends from elementary school moving away one by one to seek a better life in another country.

“Sometimes you can’t have a normal life,” Joel said.

The unprecedented social and humanitarian collapse began when Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998 and dismantled the democratic institutions of Venezuela to consolidate power. Before he died, Chavez appointed Nicolas Maduro as his successor, who used brute force to hold power.

A drop in oil production in the mid-2010s due to a lack of maintenance and investment ultimately led to the crisis marked by hyperinflation, escalating starvation, crime, extrajudicial killings by the government and massive emigration from the country. Many left for Texas, as the state has the second-largest concentration of Venezuelans in the nation, behind Florida, according to the 2022 US census.

In the span of a few decades, the nation turned from an oil-rich land to one defined by the worst inequality rate in the Americas.

“How can I hear my mum saying, ‘We were one of the best countries in the world?’” Jose said.

“I hope we can see that again,” Joel added.

‘Soccer is my life’

Jose and his family were a part of the mass emigration, moving to Arlington where his aunt lived five years ago to seek a better life and better education for Jose and his brother.

He described the transition as challenging, as he spoke no English at the time.

But when he entered high school one year later, he joined Martin’s soccer programme.

Jose’s freshman year was heavily impacted by Covid-19, so he did his classes virtually, including soccer class, but came to know his teammates and coaches over Zoom. Six weeks into his sophomore year on junior varsity (JV), he tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and missed that season, too.

Even with a challenging start to his time at Martin and in its soccer programme, Jose spoke highly of it to Joel.

“We spent two hours talking every weekend about him coming here,” Jose said. “Every single time I told him, ‘You should come here. We can play soccer. We can do it together’.”

By December 2022 after the soccer season had started, Joel officially made the move. He knew the United States would offer better opportunities for his education, college and soccer.

The Martin programme welcomed him instantly, especially after developing a relationship with Jose for over two years.

But like most move-ins, Joel dealt with delays in the UIL eligibility process.

Martin wasn’t able to get him cleared during the 2022-23 season, so he had to play his first year on JV.

“It was just proving that Joel was here for reasons that were non-athletic related,” Martin head coach Joey Lockart said.

“It’s a difficult thing to do. We started at the district level with the DEC (district executive committees) and that required a waiver, and the waiver got processed all the way to the state level. That was a series of just getting documents in order.

“We’re accepting him as a country. Why would we not accept him as a player?”

The state executive committee heard Joel’s case and unanimously approved his waiver. He was able to play his first varsity season this year as a senior and has scored 11 goals and six assists, as Martin ranks third in its district and secured a playoff spot.

Jose took a step back from playing and transitioned to a role as a manager for the varsity team. But after a long process, the cousins have been able to experience soccer together like they did on weekends in Venezuela as kids.

“I thought Jose was already one of the most positive people I’ve met, and then you put Joel around him, and man, he glows,” Lockart said. “They really do bring the best out of each other. Even on the worst of days, they’re finding silver linings.”

The cousins haven’t gone back to Venezuela since leaving, but Jose might go for the first time this year.

Joel still speaks with his parents often, and they visited for his first three varsity games and watched him score in the 3-1 win over South Grand Prairie in January.

“Since I was a little kid, every time I looked up in the stands my parents were there supporting me,” Joel said. “Looking up and my parents were not there, it was really different. On the first game on varsity, they were there, and it was so good.”

Now the two are closing out their high school careers with one last playoff run that began late March and both hope to get on college coaches’ radars before next fall. Joel even has aspirations to play professionally one day.

“It’s a great experience. I’ve been learning a lot of things – a different culture, a different way to play,” Joel said.

“I couldn’t live without soccer. Soccer is my life.”

But whether soccer pans out or not, the two will move on from high school with bright hopes for their future – and a vision for how to achieve them that may not have existed without coming to Arlington. – The Dallas Morning News/Tribune News Service

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