Meet Luz Tamara, the school janitor who saves lives

Saving Lives Mental Health - Action Against Hunger Canada

Photo: Lys Arango for Action Against Hunger.

Luz Tamara Angulo was cleaning toilets in the Mi Pequeño Sol de Lima school when she heard screams coming from the classroom. She ran toward the noise and found a five-year-old boy named Thiago on the floor. As his teacher watched in panic, Thiago was having a series of seizures.

Luz Tamara knew what to do. First, she made sure that the boy was stable. Then, she wrote down the length of the seizures and how much time there was between them. She also jotted down a note that Thiago should have his valproic acid levels checked and his medication dose assessed. Once the seizures were over and Thiago was taken home, Luz Tamara returned to the bathrooms to finish her work.

Two days later, Thiago’s parents came to the school asking for the doctor. The caretaker replied that the school didn’t have a doctor.

“Of course you do,” said Thiago’s father. “The one who wrote the note.”

“No…,” said the caretaker. “That’s the lady who cleans the bathrooms.”

Tamara was called, and Thiago’s parents hugged her and thanked her.

“What are you doing cleaning bathrooms?” they asked.

“I’ve just arrived from Venezuela,” Luz Tamara said. “I was hungry.”

Luz Tamara’s story

By training, Luz Tamara is a psychotherapist with a specialization in forensic psychology. Back in Venezuela, she was a director in the forensic criminal court and a single mother who raised four successful children. But when the economic and political climate of her country collapsed, so did her life.

On November 28, 2016, her son Victor disappeared. Luz Tamara searched for him in prisons, in hospitals, and even in the morgue, but she found nothing. Nothing, that is, until Victor called her a month later. He had participated in the guarimbas, the protests against Nicolás Maduro’s government, and was now being held as a political prisoner.

Luz Tamara knew then that she needed to flee. She sold everything she owned to get her other children out of Venezuela. Almost 18 months later, once her children were safely out of the country, it was Luz Tamara’s turn to leave.

On May 12, 2018, Luz Tamara slung a backpack over her shoulder, hid $400 in her shoes, and started out for Colombia. To shield herself from notice, she used the “green roads,” following a jungle trail and crossing a waist-deep river to reach the border. After hours of trudging over rough terrain, she arrived in Colombia.

“It was a very emotional moment,” Luz Tamara recalls. “There were hugs, a plate of food, and the people that I met, they told me: ‘You’re safe now.’ At that moment, I let go of the backpack, looked back and realized that I was leaving one life to start another.”

Luz Tamara did not stay in Colombia for long. For five days, she travelled by bus across Colombia and Ecuador. Then, on May 17, she reached Peru. She had just enough money to stay in a hostel for one week, limiting herself to one meal of rice every day. When her money ran out, she knew she had to find work. She steeled herself and sent out dozens of CVs, but she was met by rejection after rejection. She kept hearing the same answer: not only was she too old, but she was also Venezuelan.

Feeling humiliated, Luz Tamara took the only job that would have her and so she started her new life of cleaning bathrooms. For eight months now, Luz Tamara has been cleaning toilets in Peru. And every day for those eight months, she struggles against a deep depression.

Mental health and Venezuelan migrants

Sadly, Luz Tamara’s experience is not unique. It is so common, in fact, that Action Against Hunger runs a psychological support program for Venezuelan migrants in Lima. América Arias, Director of Action Against Hunger Peru, has heard many stories like Luz Tamara’s. Arias has also seen how deeply these struggles impact a person’s mental health.

“Leaving your country, your family and facing a hard race to survive in foreign places, in addition to problems such as xenophobia and discrimination, can cause a variety of mental consequences,” says Arias, “[…] such as psychosocial stress, social isolation, low self-esteem, psychological pain, depression and anxiety, phobias, domestic violence, etc.”

Half a million Venezuelan migrants live in Peru, and their stories frequently appear in the news: cases of suicide, murder within families, and other heartbreaking realities.

According to Luz Tamara, these tragedies arise from a lack of hope. “Things have got so bad that they don’t see another way out,” she says.

Luz Tamara couldn’t watch idly as her fellow migrants suffered. She started working in shelters, running group and individual therapy sessions for newcomers to Lima. She says that many of her clients are anxious about the unknown. They have lost their community, their friends, and their homes. Many of them have lost successful professional careers. To survive, doctors, lawyers, professors and engineers must sell food on the street.

Luz Tamara has seen what happens when people are forced to choose between success and safety. Their professional identity is shattered. Their self-esteem crumbles. They become desperate and they resort to extreme measures. Once, a client phoned Luz Tamara from the edge of a bridge. Luz Tamara rushed to him and convinced him not to jump. The man’s life was saved, but his hopelessness remained.

América Arias knows that mental health support is key to solving this crisis. “The immigrant’s mental health is vital for their integration in the society taking them in,” she says, “and for them to recover their identity in this new chapter of their life.”