A Lawyer in Venezuela, She Started From Scratch in the U.S.

As a lawyer in Venezuela, Yolanda Molina handled family court and adoption cases for the federal government.

“I wanted to do my work,” she said of her two decades working in the legal system. “I was committed to what I was doing.”

But three years ago, she left Venezuela amid an economic crisis. When she arrived in New York, Ms. Molina never imagined that she was going to stay. As conditions in Venezuela worsened, though, she realized she needed to learn English and begin a new path for her life.

This spring, she took on a fresh challenge, working in a bakery.

“When I put the pastry in the oven I thought, oh my God, I hope it turns out well,” Ms. Molina, 44, said in Spanish in an interview last month. “But little by little, and once I learned the basics, there are things that got easier.”

Like that pastry experience, Ms. Molina’s life in America is gradually becoming more manageable.

When she departed Caracas, she left behind a house, her extended family and an established career. “Everything stayed there,” she said.

She arrived in the United States in late 2016 on a tourist visa, speaking little English and with no plans to stay. Ms. Molina chose New York because she had visited in March 2015 and liked the city. “I thought that everything was going to settle, and in six months or a year, I would return to my country,” she said.

Ms. Molina’s two children, who came with her to New York, adjusted quickly to their new life. Her daughter, now 22, left Caracas partway through her university studies. She found work first as an assistant in a physical therapy clinic in Queens, then as a dog walker in Manhattan. Her son, 17, recently finished high school and is looking for work. Both learned English at a quick clip.

“For me it was difficult,” said Ms. Molina, whose qualifications as a lawyer were not transferable in America. “I started at zero.”

In March 2018, after a year and a half of living off her savings, Ms. Molina found work at Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem through an employment agency. She worked the afternoon shift, packing loaves of bread into bags. After eight months, though, she learned that her job was being eliminated. Hot Bread Kitchen gave Ms. Molina the option to train as a baker.

“I learned the basics of the kitchen: the bakery, the movement, all of it,” Ms. Molina said. “What I like is learning.”

To help Ms. Molina get to the training program from her apartment in Queens, the Community Service Society, one of seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, gave her a $121 monthly MetroCard in April.

Ms. Molina also started taking English classes. When the skills training was complete in June, she found work making pastries at a bakery in Manhattan.

Her pastry mixes of butter and flour turned to liquid from the summer heat. She learned to leave all the ingredients in the refrigerator and to take them out of the cold quickly to mix them.

In Caracas, Ms. Molina said, she knew how to cook meals for her family, but she wasn’t a chef or a baker. Still, the diligence and care she demonstrated in the courtroom are visible in her work in the kitchen.

Ms. Molina is now a confident pastry chef who is also finding fulfillment in the work.

“I have a feeling of belonging to what I am doing,” she said. “I have always worked like this.”

She bakes each chocolate cupcake and cranberry muffin as if she were making it for herself. “I try to make it beautiful so that the customer is going to like it,” she said.

This month, she is starting work at another bakery, where she will learn how to make bread.

Amid a backlog, Ms. Molina and her children are waiting for their political asylum cases to be heard. In the meantime, she encourages her children to continue improving their English. “I want them to take advantage of this time in every way that they can,” she said.

Ms. Molina’s main focus is on learning English, but later, if possible, she would like to study to become a paralegal in the United States.

With the exception of the MetroCard in April, Ms. Molina has not relied on public assistance.

“Not all immigrants arrive here to be a burden,” Ms. Molina said. “People have told me that I can opt into food stamps or ask for help. But I don’t want any of that. I want to keep working.”

As an immigrant, “one can contribute positive things for everyone,” she added.

In the future, she and her daughter have dreams of starting a bakery or cafe of their own that features arepas, a Venezuelan pocket-style dish made of corn meal and stuffed with fillings and a homemade specialty of her daughter’s.

“I believe that this is a country of many opportunities, truly,” Ms. Molina said. “At first I said, ‘What am I going to do here?’ I believed that I was going to die. But now that things are moving, I feel that I can do it.”

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