On World Refugee Day, Become an Advocate for Every Day.

Refugees are resilient. We are met with this truth time and time again – whether it be Syrians, South Sudanese, or individuals from Latin America. Each person holds a certain determination to live. They have looked violence and poverty in the face. They have escaped with their lives and left everything behind. What does it take for a person to leave behind all they have known? To start over with nothing? 

This year, as we celebrate World Refugee Day, I do so in remembrance of the displaced Venezuelans I met last year in Colombia.  

The Collapse of the System

In early 2019, rapidly deteriorating economic and political conditions in Venezuela ignited instability and unrest. People’s lives were upended as health and education systems collapsed, food and medicine became scarce, and violence spilled into the streets. Because of this, many Venezuelans were forced to flee to neighboring countries—primarily Colombia. By the end of 2020, it is projected that there will be 2.4 million Venezuelans residing in Colombia. 

In response to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and the resulting influx of migrants into Colombia, Medical Teams is implementing a community health project focused on mothers and children in Santa Marta.  

When asked for a comparison of the severity of the Venezuelan crisis with similar responses for asylum-seeking people around the world, Medical Teams’ Global Health Advisor, Frank Tyler, responded by saying, “Many of our humanitarian responses in the past have dealt with the ‘sub-Saharan African paradigm’, where refugees come from extremely  poor livelihoods and then settle in poor areas with even less resources available. We see this change as a global trend with more refugee responses now occurring in urban settings where there are no camps and refugees settle within host communities.” He added that, 

“It was a significant shock to see Venezuelan refugees who – prior to the deterioration in Venezuela – had good jobs, owned property, had healthcare, they were educated and were considered ‘well off’. These people are now living in slum-like conditions and have minimal money, no jobs, and no support.” 

From Comfort to Crisis

In November 2019, I boarded my plane in Santa Marta, Colombia, to return home to Portland. The faces and voices of Venezuelan people I met during my brief time in the barrios (neighborhoods) of the coastal city flooded my mind. Though I spent no more than 30 minutes to an hour with each person — they were the most vulnerable experiences of people recalling their extreme and rapid fall from the comfortable life they knew not long ago. These were people whose lives sounded no different than mine and the people in my life.     

I sat on my plane and wondered if people in the U.S. would relate at all. Though the Venezuelans I met were mostly well educated, and had held professional jobs or came from considerable wealth, our country hadn’t experienced in recent years a crisis so widespread that no one was left exempt from its effects. 

But this was a time before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, in June 2020, despite everything that is happening with a global pandemic and the murder of a man named George Floyd, I have a hope in sharing these stories. Maybe now the timing is right. Maybe now, hearing what they shared will resonate so deeply that we are each moved to action. 

While it looks different for everyone, each of us has had to change our “normal” and find a new way to live. We have chosen groups of people we stay closest to. Children of elderly parents have had to find new ways to advocate for them from outside facility windows. Others have had to grieve the loss of loved ones feeling alone without the support of community. At some level, we have all considered that it might be us who ends up with COVID-19, fighting for our lives without someone by our side.

And yet, I can only think of the Venezuelans I met before the world changed and what they must now be experiencing. Mostly, I wonder about a woman named Iris, and her grandson Yohanker.  

Worsening Conditions

As my team made our way through the barrios of Santa Marta where Venezuelan migrants were settling, we heard stories of starvation—lining up for hours to buy food at highly inflated prices with almost no money.

One young mother described a desperate moment of cutting pieces of rice in half to make sure her children had something to eat the following day. Parents mentioned frequently forfeiting their own food for their children. 

There was no work, no medicine. They knew the pain of being separated from their families for months or years and having no sense of when or if they would see each other again. Each one had witnessed their country suffer through extreme economic collapse and were hit with the agonizing reality that the beautiful country they once loved might never be “home” again. 

Already met with struggle in the country they fled to pre-pandemic for survival, some now face even harsher circumstances than what I witnessed in November due to Colombia’s coronavirus lockdown.

Others have attempted a return to Venezuela, though the result may prove to be even more grim. In November, many had described their attempts to seek health care in this new country as a “journey of death.”

They shared with me the heartbreak over the lack of concern of the Colombian government for the well-being of Venezuelans. It was repeatedly explained that unless you show up to a hospital bleeding and visibly on the verge of death, a person’s repeated attempts at accessing services may leave them dead in the street. Even women in labor were turned away by hospitals and left to deliver on the dirt floors of their homes. 

A Fraction of Hope

Iris was one of the first to agree to speak with me after a community session held to find out about health needs of Venezuelans in one of the small neighborhoods. She shared without hesitation and as she described each detail, I could sense that there was a need for her truth of the heinous reality to be heard.

There was a fraction of hope in the way Iris spoke of her painful experience with me; that the woman who was listening would feel it too and broadcast it to the world. Through that, maybe a few people would hear the struggle of her people and be moved to respond.   

Colombia, Yohanker and Iris
Yohanker, age 5, and his Grandmother, Iris

When I met her, Iris had only been living in Bastidas, a barrio of Santa Marta, for three months. She lived with her daughter and her grandson, Yohanker. Iris was separated from two younger daughters still in Venezuela. There was no room for them in the house she shared with fellow asylum seekers. She shared that she was worried about them, knowing the lack of resources too well, “there is a shortage of everything in my country.”  

At the time, Iris expressed gratitude to have found a job at a restaurant in Bastidas – though the amount of money was still barely enough to buy food. “At least in Colombia we have a little food.” While the quantity and quality of food is still not enough, she acknowledged that it was far better than having nothing. 

Still, greater than her concerns of having food and clean water was the fear of being faced with another desperate moment in trying to access health services. 

“For Venezuelans, trying to access a hospital here…it’s a very bad situation.” 

Iris’ 5-year-old grandson Yohanker has terrible asthma. On a recent night after they had arrived in Colombia, Yohanker had an attack so bad that Iris rushed him to the hospital. She begged for someone on staff to help him. But without being documented and showing proof of registration in-country, they were denied treatment and sent away. Yohanker’s condition was only getting worse. 

Reliving that night, she explained what came next,

“I ran out into the streets, screaming for help. I went door to door pleading with anyone I could find to let me use their child’s registration card. Finally, someone came to our side and I was able to convince the hospital staff to help us.” 

Returning to the hospital, the medical staff admitted Yohanker, and he was then seen by a doctor who was able to get the asthma attack under control. The hospital staff, she said, barely looked at the registration card, and really didn’t care to examine it enough to see that it was a different child. All that mattered was that she had a document. 

The last few months, I’ve been forced to recognize that at a time when treatment for COVID-19 is uncertain and access to care is not guaranteed, should my loved ones get severely sick, I would need to be like Iris, pleading as an advocate to ensure they receive the best life-saving care. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every person in some way. It’s unescapable. But for the refugees around the world who are separated from family and friends who see the value of their lives, who advocates for them? 

Refugees are resilient, but they shouldn’t have to be in the fight to live, alone. On World Refugee Day, I urge each of us to consider ways that we can be those advocates and stand for people whose lives are worthy in the eyes of God.


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