Her family fled a country plagued by day-long food lines, empty grocery stores, rampant crime and personal death threats. Her mother was a professor and school principal who resisted government efforts to promote propaganda and change the textbooks used in school. Throughout the country, students and academics protested, and sometimes the military and police response was violent.

Englewood High recent graduate Genesis Pina-Pulido sometimes wears a gold necklace with a medallion in the shape of Venezuela.

Until about 18 months ago, that was her home.

Her family fled a country plagued by day-long food lines, empty grocery stores, rampant crime and personal death threats aimed at Genesis' mother.

She was a professor and school principal who resisted government efforts to promote propaganda and change the textbooks used in school, Genesis said. Throughout the country, students and academics protested, and sometimes the military and police response was violent.

"It was hard," Genesis said. "If you say something and do not agree with them they can shoot you, they can hit you. The human rights are lost."

The last straw came after someone painted "bad words" all over the family's home and her mother received telephone warnings.

The family of four sneaked out and through some checkpoints to the airport, where they flew first to Miami, then on to Jacksonville. There they met a man who is a cousin of a family friend. He hosted them for several weeks until they found a place to live.

Genesis' father was a music teacher in Venezuela, but in the United States he sells insurance. Her mother works in shipping at a warehouse. The whole family is learning English, although Genesis' 10-year-old sister has picked it up fastest.

The transition was a tough for Genesis, who at age 16 was in the middle of her high school career.

A shy but studious girl, she remembers her first day at Englewood, which at 1,100 students is many times the size of her old high school and where most people spoke English, not Spanish. Genesis cried after that first day.

"It was scary and sad," she said. "I had to leave my country. My whole [extended] family is there."

Genesis keeps an ear out on any news from her country. It sounds worse than when she left, she said.

A recent international survey showed Venezuelans believe their country is the most dangerous place on earth. The Global Law and Order Index by the Gallup organization polled 1,000 Venezuelans: 42 percent said they had been robbed in the last 12 months and 23 percent had been assaulted, a record high.

It wasn't always like that, Genesis said. She was born in 1999, the year Hugo Chavez became president. The country was optimistic and living well on oil production and exports.  

Genesis remembers fully stocked supermarkets and buying what they needed. Each year, though, items disappeared from shelves until the supermarkets were nearly empty, she said. The stores often sold only one commodity or good each day and "shoppers" were restricted to going only on certain days, based on their version of Social Security numbers.

Genesis remembers her mother leaving home at 3:30 a.m. to line up outside the supermarket, waiting 16 hours, only to be told that the butter being distributed had run out.

Another day her mother queued up for ham, but when she got home she found it was rotten. She returned to find the market closed and guarded by government soldiers. One took pity on her and let her swap out the ham for edible meat, Genesis said.

After the country's petroleum-heavy economy collapsed, the government took over private companies, and inflation soared 2000 percent, according to U.S. government reports.

"Even if both parents worked the whole day, seven days a week, it wasn't enough to buy food," Genesis said.

Genesis' family joined the 1.8 million people who have left the country since 2015, according to the Central University of Venezuela. They are applying for political asylum for safety reasons.

At Englewood, Genesis discovered she was one of many "newcomers." The high school is the hub of the district's English Speakers of Other Languages services, with students from more than 30 countries, speaking many languages and dialects. About a quarter of the students have limited English skills.

At Englewood, Genesis credits a Spanish-speaking guidance counselor and the director of the district's newcomer center with helping her feel at home and more confident in her speaking abilities. In 18 months she went from no English to fairly fluent but halting English.

"It is hard for you to need to ask someone to say this for me or ask that for me," she said. "When I came here I wasn't able to be as good as I wanted. It was shocking for me."

A former A student, she received an F on her research paper about a book she was assigned. And at first she refused to do presentations in class because she feared people would laugh at her English and her accent. 

But Genesis attended extra language classes after school and conversation circles at the district's Cultural Learning Center, which helps immigrants and refugee families.

Genesis also became a regular volunteer there, sharing her growing knowledge of English and of computer software with newcomers.  She also became a steady ambassador for the school, helping new students make the transition that she underwent 18 months ago.

She helped form and lead the Latino Rams, a high school service group. By the end of senior year, she was an A-student with a 4.0 GPA.  She also had a part-time job taking care of youngsters every day after school.

She was admitted to the University of North Florida, where she starts classes June 25. She will major in accounting. She won a small scholarship but can't take it or regular financial aid because her family's asylum application has not yet been approved.

She misses her home and talks to her relatives when she can.

"They're too skinny," she said. "That's shocking for you because they are starving. ... I don't want to go back. It's not safe there."



De'Vonte Jackson graduated from Oakleaf High in Clay County.

"De'Vonte understands the importance of being persistent and determined," says A. Natasha Sime, school counselor. As a youngster he was exposed to family substance abuse and domestic violence as well as financial struggles and homelessness. He lives now with a relative. "He is proactive and driven to achieve his goals," Sime said. "He is kind, humble, and respectful. ... De'Vonte is intelligent and creative." He earned a 3.5 GPA and earned a scholarship at St. Johns River State College. He also earned a JROTC purple heart for exemplary leadership. He plans to study electrical or mechanical engineering and to join the Air Force after college.


Jason Belvett graduated from Keystone Heights Junior/Senior High in Clay County.

Jason was exposed to many forms of abuse in his early years. He lived with his parents and when they would split, he would live with friends of the family and sometimes in foster care. His father, a truck driver, gained custody of Jason in eighth grade and in 2015 they moved to Keystone Heights. Jason was so shy he wouldn't look at people's faces and rarely spoke unless spoken to, said Diane W. Thompson, a guidance counselor. He talked very softly and rarely laughed. Over time he struggled to make social connections, eventually opening up and making friends. He lived his dream of playing on the football team and earned "most improved player." He also had perfect attendance, even though at times he walked home seven miles from practice or a game. He plans to attend J-Tech Institution in Jacksonville, training as a diesel engine technician.

Denise Smith Amos: (904) 359-4083