The trunk of a white Chrysler Pacifica pops open, the rental minivan sitting alone in the parking lot at East Aurora Country Club shortly before 7 p.m. Thursday night. Three teenage boys each wearing matching grey Lagunita Country Club polos, Jorge Abreu, Mauro Stanchieri and Juan Aroujo, load their golf bags into the back before jumping past the sliding side doors, animated and carefree, seemingly without worry for what awaits them back home. Clouds dot the sky as sun filters through on a day earlier threatened by heavy rain, now only intermittent gusts of wind disrupting an otherwise picturesque evening for golf. Aroujo's father hops in the driver's seat and the boys' coach, former LPGA player Chela Quintana, occupies the passenger's side.
Stanchieri was the last of 77 golfers to leave the course here at the International Junior Masters on Thursday, sinking a five-foot putt and gently raising his hand to acknowledge the seven spectators surrounding the ninth green, some of them lightly applauding. Stanchieri lost his consolation bracket match-play tilt Thursday evening to Rochester's Jason Lohwater, and both Abreu and Aroujo did too to their opponents. To them, none of that really matters.
None of the boys have played in a tournament since February. They've only attended about 10 days of school since the beginning of April. There are two places they go on the off chance they leave their homes in Caracas, Venezuela: school or the country club. Most likely, they're confined to their houses, trapped behind the walls that shield them from violence in their home country.
"They're kids," Quintana said, "being in jail in their own homes."
Right now in Venezuela, there is widespread violence stemming from political unrest. Protests against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro's regime started almost three months ago. Many believe the authoritarian style of rule by Maduro demands a new constitution. Recently, Maduro proposed a re-drafting of the Venezuelan constitution that deceased former president Hugo Chávez enforced, which incited heavy criticism from Maduro's own side since the proposal itself was thought to be unconstitutional, much like how many Venezuelans view their own government.
This week, a helicopter reportedly flown by a former police intelligence officer dropped grenades on government buildings in Caracas. Around 80 people have died from the protests and another 1,000 injured. All three boys live in Caracas, and they're scared. Aroujo's family so much, that when he and his father return from America, they're moving to Colombia.
"It's impossible to live there in Venezuela," the 16-year-old Aroujo said.
All three boys live relatively close to Lagunita Country Club, where Quintana also belongs. It's the only country club in Caracas somewhat sheltered from streets and highways filled with protestors. Despite lacking sufficient machines to tend to greens and fairways, it's the only one the boys can play at. That was until a month ago, Quintana said, when a "colectivo" (a member of a pro-Venezuelan government organization that supports the country's United Socialist Party) rode up to the country club on a motorcycle, demanding the closing of the course because "it's for oligarchs, and if you're not working, you're not playing golf." "How long that's going to last, we don't know," Quintana said.
Quintana's house only receives running water twice a week, from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. Sometimes, the water emerges from the faucet dark brown. Some homes have tanks of clean water, but she does not, so she showers every day at Lagunita. All the boys' tournaments in the last four months have been cancelled. Oftentimes when they want to practice, it's raining, the country club is closed due to protests or it's open but instructors are protesting. Abreu, 15, hasn't taken a lesson in two months because his instructor is protesting, Quintana said.
On the few days in the past three months that the boys have been able to sneak by barricades in the streets to reach school, they don't stay long. Excessive violence outside, involving protestors, colectivos and the Bolivarian National Guard of Venezuela, forces them back home. School days normally supposed to last from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. end at 10:30 a.m. instead.
"There's nothing you can do," Quintana said. "... The richest country in South America, that’s what we’re fighting for. This is an anarchy. We don’t want that … we want freedom, we want education, we want medicine, we want everything for everybody, we want to work. It is bad."
Stanchieri, 15, said his cousin was held at gunpoint and forced to give over money. Abreu lives in "a bubble," only going to school and the country club, so he hasn't seen anything drastic with his own eyes. Aroujo described a scene that his father and friends have warned him of: "You can be followed by two big cars … one of them just pass you and makes like a barricade in the front of you and the other one just stays behind you," the 16-year-old said. "All the people in the car just get out with weapons, big weapons."
When the teenagers boarded the plane in Venezuela, they felt relieved. They flew first to Miami, then Buffalo, staying in a Hampton Inn and Suites in East Aurora. But even a world away from home, there's constant checking of their phones, scrolling through Twitter and reminders of the violence that is tearing apart their home city. In 2016, inflation in Venezuela spiked to 800 percent, while its GDP plummeted 19 percent. Food and medicine and everyday necessities are scarce. Here in Western New York, the boys are exposed to a whole different life, if only for a week.
"I feel really good here because there’s no insecurity," Abreu said. "I can be in the streets walking without watching my back."
"Here is like paradise," Stanchieri said. "You have security and it's the best way you can live life."
"Being here in maybe one of the best countries in the world and doing something you love, like playing golf," Aroujo said, "… is a pleasure."
When Stanchieri finished his round, the four members of this week's Team Venezuela gave their hugs and handshakes goodbye to the tournament staff. They stood tall, polos tucked into their white pants secured by white belts, smiles beaming from their faces. None of the boys advanced to the tournament's final day, hardly a shock since they've barely practiced back home, so they'll try and leave Friday.
Abreu flies back to Miami, then to Monterrey, Mexico, where his dad lives. His parents are divorced, his mom still living in Caracas, and it won't be another 2-3 months until he returns there to see her.
"It’s really hard to know that my mom is in Caracas," he said.
Aroujo returns to Caracas for 15 days before leaving for Colombia with his mom, dad and little sister. Stanchieri returns home on July 2, just for a week, before flying back to Miami. Quintana will return to Venezuela, the place the 54-year-old has called home for so long, hoping it gets better for the constituents demanding change.
"This is now or never," she said.
Finally, after everyone lugs their belongings into the minivan, it rolls out of the parking lot, down a hill cutting through the 16th fairway with its rear Illinois license plate facing the course. Tournament staffers express their desire to have Team Venezuela back, and they certainly hope to return, too. But right now, as the minivan pulls out of the country club entrance and past the small green welcome sign one last time, there's more than that on their minds.