UPDATE: We have a great news to share about our work in the Darién Gap! Thanks to a recent institutional donor award from the United States Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migrants, Medical Teams is doubling our program size in Colombia. As a result of that funding, we’re setting up clinics in 2 new locations near the Darién Gap. The first will be located at a storefront in a major terminal that will equip families with free hygiene items. The second will be a vaccine clinic on a beach. Both are intended to help prepare families who are considering making the dangerous journey through the jungle.

Read our original post from September 8 below. Our country director in Colombia, Steve Cooke, shares his experience of witnessing the incredible courage of people near the Darién Gap.

In late July, our country director in Colombia, Steve Cooke, spent a week in a town very close to the border between Colombia and Panama. The border between the countries is covered by one of the toughest jungles on the planet, the Darién Gap.

In 2022 alone, more than 250,000 people walked into this jungle with the hope of successfully entering Panama. From there, they’ll continue northward. That’s almost double the number of people who attempted the journey in the entirety of 2021. Although the Darién Gap has been an unofficial crossing for smugglers and cartels for decades,  the recent influx of people is a humanitarian emergency.

Never before have so many people tried to cross, and never before have so many people not made it. Many perish in the jungle because of injury, disease, or violence. Recently, between 1,500 and 2,000 people have started the journey every day.

Steve shared his thoughts as he observed people beginning this treacherous journey. Read on to find out how you can help!

Steve’s reflection on the Darién Gap

I watched as dozens of people lined up and quietly walked onto the boats that would take them across the bay where they would meet the mouth of the jungle. I watched as parents, some single mothers, bundled up children and babies (some only a few months old) slowly walking onto the boats. They carry everything they can for a week-long trek in the jungle: water, food, documents, and phones in small waterproof bags. You could see the fear in their eyes — rightly so.

Most have been journeying for months. Crossing the Tapon de Darién was always a possibility. But now, they have reached a “point of no return.”

Getting onto this boat and crossing this water makes it final, and turning back is not really an easy option (in part due to the money they already put forward to pay for the boat, and the guide to help them to cross the jungle).

Crossing the Darién Gap

I wouldn’t do it; I couldn’t do it. As I watched them, I could not help but imagine having my own children there, ages 1 and 4, and leading them on such a treacherous journey.

I wouldn’t do it; but I am not them. I haven’t been journeying for months on end, walking across a foreign country seeking opportunities for work, income, food, safety. Home.

I have not gone without all the things they so desperately need. My children are fine where they are — theirs were not.

My job here is to lead a humanitarian program that saves lives, and I am painfully aware that saving lives would really include stopping people from making this treacherous journey. But that’s easier said than done. Even now, actively dissuading people from crossing here would see us threatened and forced to leave by the gangs and armed groups who are profiting from the desperation of these families.

Thankfully, we’ve planned how we can help. We’re excited to get started as we continue to secure the funds needed to do so.

At night, as the sun went down and darkness fell while I ate my dinner, I couldn’t help but think of those families I saw climbing into the boats settling in for their first night in the jungle…

Helping families in Colombia

A mother and her young daughter smiling
Daylimar (right) received help from a community health worker in Colombia when preparing to have her second baby.

In Colombia, we work alongside the people we serve to connect them to health care. Many made difficult journeys, just like this one. It’s important to remember, as Steve does, that people don’t make the decision to leave their homes lightly. They make the difficult decision to leave home out necessity and a hope for opportunity. They go for the chance to work, live, and raise their families safely.

You can make sure that a person in Colombia — someone who left their home behind dreaming of something better — is cared for and listened to after a challenging journey to safety. 

Your gift sends loving, life-saving medical care to people in Colombia today. Thank you for sharing your blessings with the courageous communities we serve alongside in Colombia!

This post has been updated. It was originally published on September 8, 2023.