Stories of Venezuelans searching for shelter and safety

credit: Carolina Celi / IOM

On 28-29 October in Brussels, the European Union, together with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and UN Migration Agency (IOM), will host the International Solidarity Conference on the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis.

Over 4 million Venezuelans have left their country because of insecurity, political crisis, socio-economic instability or humanitarian needs. This has become the largest displacement in Latin America’s recent history and, after Syria, the biggest external displacement crisis in the world.

Any help can be critical for people who have lost nearly everything and are in need not only of shelter and food, but also of access to education, health care, job, or basic documentation.

In addition to the support already delivered, the European Union is partnering with UNHCR and IOM to bring to the world’s attention the scale of the crisis, and demonstrate commitment and solidarity with the Venezuelan refugees and migrants and those welcoming them across the region.

Ahead of the Conference, we want to put people at the centre and let them tell their stories.

Isabel and Darlys are two of the 1.4 million Venezuelans who have crossed into Colombia. They do not know each other. They made their ways to leave separately, but there is something that unites them: they are both mothers of sick children who needed urgent medical assistance.

“At first I came here alone from Venezuela because of my son’s health”, Darlys explains. He has a kidney disease. “Later I decided to bring my children because his situation was critical and you couldn’t get medicines or medical care in Venezuela”, Darlys continues, who lives with her two children in Maicao’s Integrated Assistance Centre, opened by UNHCR to cater to the urgent needs. Maicao, near the Venezuelan border, is a city that has seen more than 30.000 new arrivals in 2019.

Isabel crossed the bridge between Venezuela and the Colombian city of Cucuta. As she could not afford transportation, she walked for days with her four children. One of them, Jeremías, had to be hospitalized with malnutrition. “My children went an entire day without eating. He weighed 7 kilos at age 3. He was going to die”, she remembers. Isabel has found a temporary haven in a municipal shelter supported by UNHCR, but she still longs for a home. “If things were to get better in my country, I would like to go back home. To be there with my children, so that they can go to school, and live their lives and have a normal childhood, like the one I had”.

When Ana Mayora first came to Ecuador along with her son she was not able to bring her father along. Ana would send him what little money that she could save to help pay for his medicine but knew that he would not live long if he stayed in Venezuela due to a lack of access to medical care. “I feared the day I would get a phone call telling me to stop sending money for his medicine and instead send money for his urn”, she tearfully says. Thankfully, with IOM assistance, Ana was reunited with her father in Quito.

Carmen runs a hostel in El Juncal, a little town in north Ecuador. The Venezuelan crisis knocked on her door, with hundreds of Venezuelans passing by Carmen´s village every day, so she decided to help. She is giving shelter to dozens of migrants every night, so they can have a rest before they continue their journey. “They can have a shower or a meal, or a place to sleep”, Carmen explains.

“She’s become like a mom to us”, says Daniel, one of the Venezuelans who stays over at her hostel. Carmen does not only offer the people in need food and accommodation, but also refers them for local jobs and provides info on asylum procedures and other services in Ecuador. In exchange, most of them are happy to help her serving the meals, and sit down to talk and listen to other newcomers. “I may not have money, but I have a heart for those who come”, Carmen says.

Niurka Ramírez, a Venezuelan teacher working in southern Peru, feels at home at the school “Al aire libre”. The school is leading the way for the integration of Venezuelan teachers and children, who often find difficulties to resume their jobs and studies in their places of exile. It counts already 60 students and 3 teachers coming from Venezuela. One of them is Guillermo, a 10 year-old who has learned to play the trumpet in only four months and became one of the stars in the school band.

Jose left Venezuela in September 2019, saying that the situation forced him to take this decision. It was the first time that he left his family and home. Jose was waking on foot with one of his closest friends and he remembers the strength and support that came from the group spirit. “When we laugh, we laugh together. When we cry, we cry together.” “If one gets sick, we all get sick.” During his journey the strain on his body was huge and he and his friends were grateful to receive medical support at one of IOM’s humanitarian tents near Pamplona.

Johan is one of an estimated 7,700 refugees and migrants living with HIV and he remembers that “crossing Colombia on foot is both beautiful and sad”. In search for medicine he needed to survive,he had to leave Venezuela. He emotionally remembers the difficulty of the journey but gratefully looks back to the life-saving help he got from UN staff. After 8 months living and working in Peru, he was able to pay a visit to his mother in Venezuela.

Main photo credit: Carolina Celi / IOM

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