Venezuela: Reaching for their dreams in La Cota 905
La Cota 905, in Caracas, is one of the places where the ICRC has been working to help those most affected by the violence to get the assistance and protection they deserve, even in the most difficult times, such as in June and August 2021.
Ronald grew up in La Cota 905, in a family that tried to shield him from the violence. He graduated and played basketball in a semi-professional league but couldn't escape entirely: he knows what it's like to lose a loved one to violence. He told us his story of dedication, overcoming obstacles, and love for his community:
My whole life I've heard gunshots outside my window. The sound is hard to forget and the feeling never leaves your mind and body. I remember that when I was an adolescent you couldn't go alone from place to place. If they didn't know you somewhere, they'd threaten you. Luckily I never had problems with anyone here because I was always considered a "good kid".
My parents instilled values in me to keep me away from the violence, and I always liked playing basketball, so that's where I put my energy. As an adolescent I was even able to play in a semi-professional league and travel around the country competing. I learned the value of teamwork, discipline and respect. When I was 14, I started giving basketball lessons in the community; I wanted to share what I'd learned. But too soon I had to give up that dream to pursue other goals. I studied hard, graduated and started working.
Looking back on my years in La Cota 905, I think fondly of one of my friends. Like me, he loved basketball, but he died in an armed confrontation. It was a time of great sadness and pain for me. He wasn't just an acquaintance or a neighbour; he was a good friend. My life went on, but I've always wanted to find ways to keep young people from heading down the path of violence. I want to show that in La Cota 905 and other neighbourhoods there are young people with talent, especially for sports.
Crisis creating big opportunities
In June 2021, when the intense armed violence put La Cota 905 back in the public eye, I returned to the dream I'd left behind when I was 14. I wanted to offer kids an alternative, to show them paths other than violence. Amidst all the chaos, I started a sports school in La Cota 905 and began giving free classes on a court in the area.
Now I offer the kids, big and small, all my basketball know-how to get them to fall in love with the sport. Since I started, help has been coming from around the community, in the form of balls, cones and other sports equipment. We were really motivated but we were missing an important piece – the court. The one in the area didn't have a floor, the walls leaked, and it hadn't been repaired in more than a decade.
Ronald continued: In December 2021, we received help from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to renovate the court. It was the only space in the area where all the children could play, so it was perfect for my sports school.
When the materials for the renovation arrived, it was an amazing sight. The community rallied together: some people brought the materials up the stairs from the street to the court. Others made food for the workers. In just nine days the renovation work was finished.
The first day we practiced on the renovated court, the difference was striking: it felt bigger and much more welcoming. The emotional energy of the 57 children of all ages was incredible. Now they come every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to practice.
I am not alone in this. Other friends are giving basketball classes in the area too. There's Jhon on the other court renovated by the ICRC. There's Saray, who has helped many young people with baking classes. We're all helping each other. It's a way to foster belonging and self-respect.
This space had been abandoned for many years. Seeing it renovated and the kids playing sports there is a dream come true.
Training for trainers
I'm also getting training as a coach so that I can better teach my students. I'm also receiving mental health training from the ICRC. It's helping me better understand the kids and encourage them to change their way of thinking, little by little. Sometimes it's hard to work with the kids because most of them have grown up amidst the violence. They hear swearing and see bad behaviour. But they understand that what we do is based on respect, on and off the court.
I trust that if you raise children right – especially adolescents – and if you give them opportunities, they can choose not to go down the path of violence. They all have the potential to fulfil their dream to become professional players. Not everything in La Cota 905 is violence.
Since 2019, we have maintained a confidential dialogue with all weapon bearers in order to decrease the effects of their actions on people's lives. At the same time, we have been working with communities to help get them what they need and strengthen their resilience in the face of armed violence.
We have supported training for young people to run small businesses like bakeries and hair salons and have set up community gardens to help restore people's livelihoods.
We have also been renovating health centres so that health workers can provide care in dignified conditions to people who have been wounded or severely injured.
Recently we have also been working on a pilot project to train community leaders to provide basic mental health support.
Every day we hear stories of resilience like Ronald's – stories of people who keep moving forward and creating opportunities to improve the situation for those around them.