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For almost two decades, Venezuela has been in crisis. The oppressiveness of the Chávez-Maduro regime has forced millions of Venezuelans to flee the country. Unfortunately, due to the poverty caused by the regime, the high cost of moving abroad, and difficulty finding suitable locations, this process has proved too difficult for many desperate Venezuelans still trapped in the country. However people still try to help and make a difference to improve the lives of Venezuelans.

The town of Serrastretta is a struggling rural village high in the Calabrian mountains of Southern Italy. For decades, it has seen its population and services decline as the town’s population continued to shrink, but with an influx of visitors coming to our community to learn about the culture, environment and opportunities and to look at our problems with a fresh point of view, this will create a unique cooperative project not only to give a break to Venezuelans from terror and oppression, but to help revitalize the town of Serrastretta. This effort is open to any Venezuelans looking to learn more about Southern Italian culture and learn Italian, regardless of their religion or beliefs, it’s not restricted to people of Jewish descent.

An Unlikely Duo 

An elderly woman rabbi and an atheist leatherman data scientist walk into a bar… but it’s no a joke. It’s an example of a unique cooperation to give a break from terror and poverty to families and to rescue a village by rejuvenating it economically, demographically and spiritually. From two very different places, with two very different stories, Rabbi Barbara Aiello and Guido Núñez-Mujica have come together to help others and create a bond between two places with complementary needs.

“No one would expect people like us to be working together. We didn’t expect it either”, says Núñez-Mujica who notes that, incredibly, that’s what happened. Thanks to Núñez-Mujica’s efforts to rescue Venezuelans from their chaotic and dangerous country and Rabbi Barbara’s initiative to revitalize Serrastretta, her struggling village high in the Calabrian mountains of Southern Italy, a unique international project was born.

Rabbi Barbara, as she likes to be called, was moved to act as she observed the drop in population of her beloved village. For years she wondered how the residents might bring new life to the village, increase the population and promote economic growth. “When I saw news reports of the civil unrest and economic devastation in Venezuela, it seemed that offering help to select Venezuelans to come to live in our town seemed like a perfect match”.

SALTO Serrastretta

Núñez-Mujica agrees. A native Venezuelan, Núñez-Mujica emigrated to Chile and then to the United States but could not ignore the suffering in his country, so much so that he created the SALTO Project (leap in Spanish) to bring individual Venezuelans out of their home country so that they could live peacefully and successfully, free from oppression, fear and for some, starvation.

The Italian arm of the project is called “SALTO Serrastretta” and it is a planto bring professional and technically proficient Venezuelan families to Serrastretta for a three month period. These families, many of whom are suffering terribly under the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, will have an opportunity to acclimate themselves to Italian small town life, to learn Italian, develop professional and technical skills  and to decide if they want to make a commitment to contribute to the growth of the town. They also will be helping to solve some of the town’s most urgent problems.

In addition, Rabbi Barbara knows that some of the Venezuelan families that will be selected will have “b’eni anusim” Jewish roots, meaning that during the time of the Inquisition their ancestors were once Jewish. These families will not only find potential work opportunities but a welcoming synagogue as well. And unlike vacationers and retirees, these Venezuelan families will help to grow Serrastretta.

The Tragedy That is Life in Venezuela

Almost daily the world reads about Venezuela and how families there live in oppressed circumstances, under terrible economic conditions, with very little health care and a terrible lack of medicines and medical supplies. Venezuelans are affected by crime and are desperately trying to survive. There is no hope for those who stay. Anti-semitism is rampant and many Jewish families have left the country. All in all the general situation in Venezuela has resulted in the largest migratory wave seen in South America. Almost 5 million Venezuelans have left the country, with several thousand more leaving every day.

Southern Italy is Suffering, Too

Rabbi Barbara says that “Meanwhile, citizens in Southern Italy (Calabria and Sicily) are aware of the population crisis that many of our small villages face. In our villages we find abandoned and crumbling houses. Many houses are for sale, but few people want to buy houses in towns that have a diminished economic future”.

In some areas local governments are selling abandoned houses for 1 Euro – an interesting idea but one that does not address the problem of how to grow a local population to make a healthy and thriving town. Often purchasers buy these houses to make a vacation home or a retirement get-away, but vacationers who come once a year and retirees whose children are adults will not bring a struggling Italian village back to life.

A Solution With Mutual Benefit

While Venezuelans are searching for a new peaceful place to live and settle, the residents of Serrastretta are looking for young families, professionals and tradespeople who will enrich and contribute to their beautiful town. Maybe there is a way they can help each other, but for that, we need to take the Venezuelan families to Serrastretta as tourists and introduce them to the town, as well as introduce the town to them.

Núñez-Mujica notes that “We are in the process of identifying and selecting a group of 15 to 20 people with key skills that Serrastretta needs, making this a reciprocal project where everybody benefits. Núñez-Mujica currently is interviewing medical professionals, a veterinarian, a baker, and a Spanish language teacher to determine their level of interest and skill and thanks to the support of Mayor Felice Molinaro and local authorities, we have the backing we need to legally bring these people to Italy for 3 months.”

How Can I Help?

As is taught in the Jewish holy books, “He who saves a life saves the world entire.” And Rabbi Barbara and Guido Núñez-Mujica are working to do just that. In order to make this happen we are currently attempting to raise $75,000 – an amount that will be used to buy plane tickets, rent houses and pay for food and utilities along with the services of an Italian teacher who will organize a “total immersion” language program while the new residents take the time they need to learn to speak Italian, organize their work experience and adjust to their new environment. You can pledge directly at the link below, or you can simply follow this story and share with your friends. Getting the word out is essential for the goal of helping Serrastretta and the Venezuelans who will visit there.

It’s a Mitzvah

Two people from extremely different backgrounds, with very different views of life have come together to do what really matters – to help others, Aiello and Núñez-Mujica are working together to offer kindness, support and love to those who need it, and to brainstorm realistic solutions for what seem like insurmountable problems. 

We are hopeful but we can’t do it alone. We need your help. Please consider making a generous donation of any amount knowing that you will be helping desperate Venezuelan families to explore life in a little village that desperately needs an influx of courageous and determined new residents. These are turbulent times and there is much to be done. Please help us to rescue Venezuelan families and help the people of Serrastretta. We are relying on you to make this happen. Please make a donation and help good people to improve a good place.

About us:

Rabbi Barbara is a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania where she received the Distinguished Alumni Award. She holds a MS from George Washington University in Washington DC and received rabbinic ordination from The Rabbinical Seminary International and the Rabbinical Academy in New York City. She is a founding board member of the International Federation of Rabbis, mentoring rabbi for the international Jewish Studies program, Darshan Yeshiva, and blogger for Times of Israel. 

Guido Núñez-Mujica: Guido is a computational biologist and data scientist, born and raised in Venezuela. Guido’s life work has been using science and reason to help people. He started by writing simulations of infectious microorganisms in order to make drug development cheaper. Then he moved on to a startup to provide DNA based diagnostics for neglected diseases. After his startup failed Guido retrained and changed his career to become a data scientist in Silicon Valley and using his salary to start Salto, an organization that helps Venezuelans to emigrate. Salto has directly helped more than 135 people directly to leave the country.