Daniuschka Rengifo wanted to send a direct message to classmates at Blue Valley North High with her commencement speech: Be brave in the face of fear.
Rengifo’s nearly nine-minute speech was wrought with personal details about how her family fled the socialist authoritarian regime of Venezuela three years ago after her mother, Veruschka Anez, was kidnapped by government-backed forces.
But the 18-year-old used her wrenching experience to relate to the fears of any teenager graduating from high school.
“We fear that we might not be good enough for the world that waits for us out there,” Rengifo told her classmates. “We fear that we will not be smart enough, pretty enough or happy enough. We fear we night never find a real passion, we fear we might not find a person that really loves us.
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“We must be brave and overcome whatever life decides to throw at us,” she said. “We will always be full of fears, but it is up to us to not let those fears stop us from doing greater things.”
For six hours in July 2014, Anez and about 20 other employees of the privately owned export business where she worked were held against their will by police for the regime.
It is a story that Anez rarely discusses among family. They still don’t know what she and the others went through during the ordeal.
“She doesn’t like to talk about it,” Rengifo said in an interview with The Star.
Anez was proud of her daughter’s speech.
“I never imagined that she would use my story,” Anez said.
In a packed house at Municipal Auditorium on May 14, Rengifo recounted how her family was affected by corruption in the South American country, a beautiful place with beautiful people but today a “country of broken dreams and dying people.”
The country, unsettled by President Nicolás Maduro’s heavy-handed authoritarian style, has been rife with civil unrest, strikes, famine and protest since his election in 2013 after Hugo Chavez’s death.
“My family and I strongly protested in favor of democracy, which made us a victim of the government organized crime,” Rengifo told the crowd.
For three months, the family worried about repercussions from protesting the government.
As a member of the Social Christian Party, an anti-government political party better known as Copei, Anez, 46, was a target.
Her management position with the export company did not help. She was on the radar of government-backed officials wanting to silence those in opposition of Maduro.
The family’s fears were realized in July 2014 when Anez was kidnapped. After her release, Anez and her family prepared to flee.
Anez, her husband, Charles Rengifo, 45; Daniuschka; and Daniuschka’s younger sister, Andrea Rengifo, now 14, would have to leave behind family, friends and most of their belongings.
“We only had a few suitcases,” Rengifo said.
The escape from Venezuela was tense. For two days, the family traveled from Venezuela to Colombia, then to Houston.
Part of the trip included a 45-minute walk along the Venezuela-Colombia border with suitcases in tow. They entered Colombia, then flew to Houston.
From there, the group settled in Kansas, joining Anez’s mother, Aleixi Martinez, 66, and her husband, Jesus, 56, in Overland Park.
Their escape was not guaranteed, and neither was their safety. For them to get out alive, Aleixi Martinez said, it took a miracle.
Anez was a known protester in their country, so the family sought and was granted political asylum in the United States.
“They were lucky,” Martinez said.
The danger in Venezuela was real, Rengifo said.
“It’s a lawless country, she said. “They can kill with impunity.”
Aleixi and Jesus had been in the United States 20 years before Anez and family joined them.
“I didn’t want to come,” said Rengifo, an accomplished cellist and guitarist in Venezuela. “I had my friends, my life and my music. I wanted to stay and be a professional musician and represent my country.”
She told the graduation crowd about the difficult transition.
“Every day I had to wake up and face my own personal fears by adapting to a foreign country,” she said.
Rengifo could not speak English when she enrolled at Blue Valley North three years ago. The language barrier was difficult.
“A lot of people will underestimate you because they can’t understand you,” Rengifo said.
Three years later she was chosen from a group of 20 students who auditioned to present the commencement speech.
Nacole Boan, an assistant principal at Blue Valley North, said the five-teacher panel that selected Dani to speak was moved by her story.
“And the way she used her experience to create a universal message of being brave in the face of fear,” Boan said.
Boan added that outside of herself, no one on the administrative team had heard the speech before graduation.
They were floored by the message, she said.
“Like numerous others have expressed, we admired her courage,” Boan said, adding the school is proud to call Rengifo a Blue Valley North graduate. “Her positivity, determination, and perseverance will lead her to find continued success.”
That positively flowed from the speech. Rengifo challenged students to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them. She urged them to find peace in adverse situations. She implored them to press forward in the face of fear.
“We will always be full of fears, but it is up to us to not let those fears stop us from doing greater things,” she said. “We are graduating from the best high school in Kansas, which means we are not only prepared for college but we are ready for all of the challenges that life has for us.”
Rengifo, who will attend Kansas State University in the fall and plans to major in architecture, believed students needed to hear a different perceptive on life. She’s hopeful her point was made.
“I feel like I needed to let them know, ‘Hey, you live here (in Overland Park), this is great,’ ” Dani said. “There are other places in the U.S. that’s not as great as it is here.
“They don’t know anyone outside of the (Blue) Valley bubble. I wanted them to realize it’s not so bad.”