Noriadnys Gomez Bybee was only 4 years old when her family of five boarded a Venezuelan military plane with hard, seatbelt-less seats and flew to the United States on July 1, 2001.
“My dad is a retired air force officer in Venezuela, and so he had a lot of connections to the military,” Bybee said. “That was the fastest and easiest way we could get out.”
Today families around the state celebrate Pioneer Day, the state-wide holiday commemorating the arrival of Brigham Young and other Latter-day Saint settlers to Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. For the Gomez family, their immigration story parallels many of the experiences those early pioneers faced as they traveled to and settled in Utah. “I think God is very mindful of the people that He brings and that He moves,” Bybee said.
Bybee’s family left Venezuela as the country was undergoing many political changes. New President Hugo Chavez pushed to change the constitution and institute social reforms. The new laws made many Venezuelan businesses and political leaders worried Chavez was moving to a more authoritarian rule.
Bybee, however, said her family was doing fine in Venezuela, but her parents decided to leave to seek better opportunities for her and her two older brothers. “We definitely left right before things got really nasty, but I like to think that my parents were forewarned in a way that things were going to get worse.”
Just under a year after they arrived in Utah, Chavez was removed from power after anti- and pro-Chavez supporters clashed on April 12, 2002. The new government worked quickly to repeal many of Chavez’s policies, but its efforts didn’t last long. Chavez was restored to power on April 14, 2002.
In the years since then, Venezuela has experienced multiple economic and political crises. The country ranks 179th on the 2020 Index of Economic Freedom. The only ranked country lower than Venezuela is North Korea. Venezuela’s ranking reflects the hyperinflation, government corruption and decimation of the private sector in the country.
Last year Venezuela made international news when opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the legitimate president and was recognized as such by many countries around the world, including the United States.
Bybee and her family arrived safely in the U.S., but some of their relatives were not as lucky. Some have applied for political asylum in the U.S., and others traveled through Central America and Mexico to cross the southern border. “I have cousins who have been kidnapped by the Mexican mafia and held for ransom,” she said.
Gathering with the Saints
The family moved to Utah to be around other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “(My parents thought) if we’re going to be in any state, then we want to be somewhere where the Church is in abundance, where we know that our children can grow up in Zion,” Bybee said.
Her parents converted to the Church in Venezuela two years before Bybee was born. Many of their family members didn’t approve of their decision and turned their backs on the family. “Coming to Utah where they knew that they would always be welcome was a safe haven for them.”
Similarly, early pioneers traveled to Utah to gather with the Saints and escape persecution based on their beliefs. After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, Church leaders decided to relocate from Nauvoo to Utah — which was then outside of the borders of the U.S. — as mobs moved in on the city.
When the early pioneers and Brigham Young arrived in Salt Lake City after the trek across the country, Young famously declared, “It is enough. This is the right place.” They also named a peak in the foothills Ensign Peak because the valley is where “the dispersed of Judah would assemble,” or where Church members would gather.
Bybee’s family received help getting established in Utah from Church members when they first arrived, much like the later pioneers did. “(The pioneers) came having just trekked across the country starving and with nothing but the clothes on their backs and being welcomed by other saints who had been there for a while,” she said. “My parents can attribute all the help that they received when they arrived here to the Church.”
While the family has received help from Church members, their immigration status has often prevented them from fully enjoying the blessings of living in Utah. Bybee’s family arrived in Utah with visas, but because they overstayed those visas, her parents and oldest brother are now undocumented. Bybee and her middle brother now qualify for DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Being undocumented meant the family didn’t have health insurance and jobs were hard to come by. Bybee’s oldest brother, Antonio, is now starting a business because no one would hire him. The family also can’t leave the country without risking not being able to return.
For a long time, Bybee tried to excel in school because she didn’t want to play sports without having health insurance. However, as an undocumented teenager before the creation of DACA, she realized her hard work in school might be for nothing because her immigration status might bar her from going to college.
When DACA was introduced in 2012 by Barack Obama, everything changed for Bybee. The program allowed her to remain in the U.S., receive work permits and, in some states, receive financial aid for college. Although BYU doesn’t keep track of a student’s legal status, DACA opened the door for her to attend college.
Bybee is now studying sociology at BYU with the goal to go to law school and eventually become an immigration attorney.
“Being at BYU for me is a dream come true,” she said. “It’s a really big blessing for my parents. (It’s) a fulfillment of their dreams.”
Miracles and hurdles
In addition to dealing with their immigration status, Bybee’s family has faced other challenges in Utah. “There tends to be a specific culture in Utah, and although it is very welcoming on the surface, it doesn’t always work out that way,” she said.
She remembers sometimes feeling like an outsider growing up because her family attended a Spanish ward. “It always felt like we belonged, but there were those few people who still made us feel like it wasn’t quite there yet.”
Bybee said they didn’t experience miracles of manna coming down from heaven, but occasionally some of their trials would end in miracles. She recalls a time in 2009 or 2010 when her family was considering moving back to Venezuela where they could have citizenship, insurance and stable jobs. Her dad even moved to Venezuela to pursue jobs and find a house for the family.
When the time came to decide whether or not they should leave the U.S., Bybee began reading the scriptures to try and find an answer for herself. She read 2 Nephi 1:6, which says, “There shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord,” and she felt that was her answer.
“I remember sharing those verses with my parents and saying ‘No, I don’t think we should leave,’ and so we didn’t,” she said. “Had we not (stayed) we would have gone back to Venezuela to a quickly deteriorating situation.”
Bybee acknowledges that being a modern-day pioneer has its own trials, but those trials have shaped her into who she is now. “It has given me a fire and a passion to help people, to talk to people about how important all of God’s children are regardless of where they are from.”