Venezuelans comprise one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the US. It is estimated that 7.7 million Venezuelans have left their home country since 2014 to seek safer, more stable lives. Many have restarted their lives in countries throughout South America like Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina, but as of 2021, well over half a million Venezuelans have found solace here in the United States.  Florida, Texas, and Georgia are havens for those fleeing VZ for fresh starts, and Gwinnett County welcomes thousands of them.

Souhaila Perez-Fuentes is among those. Born and raised in Venezuela, Souhaila grew up with middle-class privileges, as her father was an accountant and her mother a doctor. She was fortunate to travel worldwide with her parents, gaining many unique cultural experiences early on. With a desire to “know what they were saying” in her translated American cartoon theme songs, Souhaila began studying English in middle school. She attended University in Venezuela and graduated with a degree in psychology.

Souhaila began working in several different capacities related to youth, first as a school counselor and a special educator, then transitioning into an autism organization and a health services conglomerate. Through her positions, she cultivated her burning passion for youth psychology and evaluation, working to find students’ strengths by creating proper treatment plans to utilize and help them develop.

Early in her professional career, Souhaila married her husband, Alejandro, and gave birth to a son, Sebastian in 2012. Though things in her personal and professional life were flourishing, the political and societal climate in Venezuela was crumbling. In a “political dark era” following Chavez’s socialist regime, turmoil boiled under President Maduro. With a population stricken by poverty and crime, people were forced to operate in a black-market-barter system to get necessities like toilet paper or food.

In this heightened time, Souhaila suffered a traumatic experience after being mugged and robbed at gunpoint. It was after this event that the couple decided they had to react. “For us, this changed everything. We had been contemplating other options, though ultimately we were resistant to leaving – I had family and built a life here.” Souhaila explained.

The couple considered countries within South America but knew that many would follow into a similar fate with the spreading of socialism. Europe was far away, and they didn’t have any connections there. With several family relatives having lived in Georgia for twenty years, they decided the States was the best option. “It just made sense. We had lots of family who could help us navigate the system and get us on our feet.” Continued Souhaila.

The trio made the move in 2017 as refugees and settled into their new life in the States. Initially working various jobs as a cashier, delivery driver, and Zumba instructor, Souhaila worked diligently to complete her master’s in special education, and endeavor that was put on pause to raise her son. She then transitioned into work that was more fitting with her training and experiences teaching Pre-K, substitute teaching, and online tutoring. It was through her educational work that she met someone from View Point Health.

View Point Health, established in 1994 as a community service board, operates in Gwinnett, Rockdale, and Newton Counties, serving over 18,000 individuals annually with more than 50 different programs. These programs include outpatient behavioral health clinics, offering services ranging from psychiatric treatment to family therapy. Souhaila shared her story and work experience and was presented with an opportunity to join the team in 2021.

Serving as a case manager, Souhaila worked at the Nest Clubhouse, an afterschool program that provides kids K-12 with mental and behavioral health services. A majority of the people that View Point Health serves are Hispanic, creating a personal connection to Souhaila’s hard work. “Much like how my relatives helped me and my family when we first came to the States, I provided that same assistance and outreach to the children and families at Nest, helping them register for food stamps, find doctors and other health care, and just acclimate to life in the US.” Recalled Souhaila.

After a year at Nest, Souhaila’s hard work was recognized and she was promoted to Program Manager at another View Point “Clubhouse,” called Mixtura. This branch is an after-school prevention program that provides programs and services to children between the ages of 11 – 17 that address risky activities, such as gang violence, drug and substance abuse, difficulty meeting academic standards, and health-related issues from the prevention perspective. “I’ve worked within youth education for years, and for the first time in my life, I can confidently say I am doing exactly what I want to do here. Here, I can utilize all my education and training while honoring my mother in providing health care services to those in need.” Souhaila said.

Though Souhaila has lots of extended family here in Gwinnett County, her parents decided to stay with their careers in Venezuela when many left. The pandemic was a tough time for everyone, but especially for refugees. Unable to leave/reenter the US, Souhaila was forced to miss her mother’s funeral, when she passed in 2021.

Souhaila grew up hearing about the American Dream, but never quite understood its meaning. Her story is a poignant reminder of the limitless possibilities available to immigrants within the vibrant community of Gateway85 in Gwinnett County. Amidst the flourishing Latino population, Souhaila is actively shaping a more inclusive and healthier tomorrow for all residents of Gwinnett County.