'We didn't have food,' say Venezuelan families at Colombian shelter

IMAGE: CNS photo/Barbara Fraser

By Barbara J. Fraser

BOGOTA, Colombia (CNS) — Asiangelis
Guevara sat at the dining room table at a shelter for migrants, sipping hot
chocolate, holding her year-old son and encouraging him to eat a piece of

He gripped the food, but just stared
back at her while her two daughters, ages 3 and 5, sat at a child-size table
nearby, devouring their snacks and giggling at a visitor.

Tiny, curly haired Ruben Dario is
the reason Guevara, 21, and her husband, Ruben Dario Cazar, 28, left their home
in Venezuela, with three children and only the bags they could carry, in hopes
of starting over in Colombia.

“The situation was
terrible,” Cazar said. “The children were malnourished. We didn’t
have food.”

That was a common refrain among the
steady stream of Venezuelans who arrived at a shelter run by Scalabrinian sisters July 23, the same day as
Cazar and his family.

Most had been traveling for several
days on foot, in trucks and by bus, sometimes sleeping under bridges. At the
Bogota bus terminal, the migrant ministry staffs a small office that offers
assistance and sometimes referrals to the shelter, where people can stay for a
few days while they look for housing or make arrangements to continue traveling
to another city or country.

All are fleeing a situation that is
growing increasingly desperate, said Scalabrinian Sister Teresinha Monteiro, who welcomes new arrivals at
the shelter with basics such as towels and soap.

She recalled one woman who was
especially grateful for a toothbrush and toothpaste.

“She’d gone four months without
brushing her teeth,” Sister Monteiro said.

Venezuela’s spiraling economic and
political crisis has left shelves bare in stores, including supermarkets and
pharmacies. Sister Monteiro has heard stories about fistfights over food scraps
in garbage piles in Venezuelan cities.

With the International Monetary Fund predicting the inflation rate will top 1 million percent this year, the monthly minimum wage will not buy enough flour for a batch of arepas, the corn bread that is a Venezuelan staple.

“You can’t get food or
medicines,” says 14-year-old Eliezer Rojas, who had arrived with his
mother after crossing the border on foot and spending three nights in the bus
terminal. “People use natural remedies, because there’s no medicine.”

The Scalabrinian sisters started
their bus-station ministry in 1989 and opened the shelter in 1995. In those
years, they mainly served Colombians displaced by the decades-long war
involving government forces, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries.

That flow tapered off in recent
years, as the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the
country’s largest guerrilla force, moved toward peace accords signed in
November 2016.

Migration from Venezuela has
increased as the crisis worsened, but the sisters noticed a surge in mid-2017,
Sister Monteiro said. And while most Venezuelan migrants in the past were men
or single women who left the country alone to seek work and send money home,
now many of the new arrivals are senior citizens or entire families with

One 74-year-old woman arrived with
two adult daughters, hoping eventually to join another daughter living in

For the newcomers, leaving their
homes and most of their possessions and starting all over again is not the only

“Many are malnourished when
they arrive,” Sister Monteiro said, and some have medical problems that
have gone untreated for lack of medicine in their home country.

That can be especially dangerous for
children and for older adults who have chronic illnesses that require ongoing
treatment, she said. Some infectious diseases are also following migration

Venezuelan migrants have been
diagnosed with measles in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, as well as in Brazil,
according to the Pan-American Health Organization.

For Venezuelans with health
problems, getting care in Colombia is not easy. Migrants often are afraid to
seek help, for fear of being deported, Sister Monteiro said. Those who go to
the hospital may spend hours in a waiting room or be turned away unless the
shelter staff steps in.

That’s one example of the
discrimination the migrants encounter, Sister Monteiro said. Others range from
comments in the street to anti-Venezuelan messages circulating on the internet
in various Latin American countries, with accusations ranging from criminal
behavior to illegal voting.

Employment is a flash point. Without
work visas, migrants end up working in what economists call the “informal
sector” of the economy. Those jobs range from selling candy on street
corners to off-the-books restaurant jobs, where they receive no benefits and
are likely to be willing to work for less than their Colombian peers, which can
depress wages for everyone.

Some women end up trapped in
prostitution. A taxi driver once told Sister Monteiro that two young women
asked him for a ride to an area where they said they were to start work in a
restaurant. Because of the neighborhood, however, he feared that they were
being lured into prostitution.

Despite the hazards and hardships of
leaving home with only the belongings that will fit into a gym bag, not knowing
if they will ever return, migrants in the shelter said they encountered bright
spots along the way.

Luis Eduardo Vasquez Vallenilla
turned 21 the day before he arrived at the shelter. Vasquez, who said he had
been a law student in Venezuela, was on a Bogota street with three other young
migrants when a woman struck up a conversation with them.

Upon learning it was his birthday,
she treated the four to cake and coffee.

Staying at the shelter can also be
life-changing for migrants, Sister Monteiro said. She often prays in the
first-floor chapel with people who are facing difficulties.

One man sought her out to ask,
“Who is that ‘Senor’ you were talking to in the chapel?'” she said.
“Senor,” which means “mister” in Spanish, is also the word
for “Lord,” but the man had never heard of God.

He began religious instruction and
will soon be baptized — an unexpected but welcome fruit of the migrant

Besides the shelter and the bus
station outreach, the migrant ministry includes a workshop where people learn
skills that they can parlay into work. Asked what kind of assistance the staff
needs most, Sister Monteiro responded without hesitation.

“Help us with prayer,” she
said, “so we have the energy and strength to go on.”

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