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The other border crisis

At the border with Colombia, hungry Venezuelans seek out supplies to survive their country’s harrowing economic collapse—while Christians try their best to help

The other border crisis

Venezuelans cross the Simón Bolívar International Bridge into Cúcuta, Colombia. (Schneyder Mendoza/EFE/Newscom)

Each morning, as the hot sun rises over the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, thousands of Venezuelans lift their eyes to the hills of neighboring Colombia, and ask a simple question: From where will our help come?

Over the course of the day, as many as 30,000 Venezuelans will cross this bridge into northeast Colombia by foot, looking for food or medicine or other supplies they can’t get in their home country.

Some push or pull suitcases filled with a few items they hope to sell to Colombians. By nightfall, many return to Venezuela with whatever supplies they’ve managed to find. Colombians call the migrants pendulums—as they swing back and forth between the two nations each day.

Others stay—perhaps hiring a young man from among the crowds of them waiting on the Colombian side with hand trucks to transport the possessions of Venezuelans who don’t plan to go back.

Nearly five years into Venezuela’s catastrophic downfall from the once-richest nation in Latin America to a failed state with bare grocery shelves, crumbling hospitals, and an astronomical inflation rate, help isn’t easy to find.

Venezuela’s socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro denies his country’s collapse and refuses international aid, so border towns like Cúcuta, Colombia, have become ground zero for Venezuelans fleeing for survival—and for churches grappling with how to help those struggling on both sides of the border.

While relief agencies are at work here, there are no refugee camps or a highly visible aid presence set up at the border. Sometimes the efforts are far simpler—like on this warm July morning, as a Colombian pastor makes his way toward the dusty border crossing to meet a Venezuelan minister already trekking across the bridge.

Jamie Dean

Barbosa (right) leads a Bible study for Venezuelans in Cúcuta. (Jamie Dean)

IT’S EARLY ON THIS WEEKDAY MORNING, but Pastor Samuel Barbosa is already thinking about the 30 names the Red Cross has asked him to submit for a food distribution the group is planning for needy Venezuelans.

Here in Cúcuta, aid workers often depend on local church leaders to help them know who most needs help in a city where thousands could easily show up for limited supplies—and where Colombians in the overcrowded border town often need help too. The influx of Venezuelans has squeezed resources in Cúcuta, and residents say they often lose jobs to migrants willing to work for less pay.

Making a list is hard for Barbosa, who knows far more than 30 families who need assistance.

As he drives through early-morning traffic, the pastor contemplates the countries’ striking reversal: For years, Venezuelans received millions of Colombian migrants fleeing economic hardship, drug trafficking, and guerilla wars.

But years of socialist rule by President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have sent Venezuela into an economic tailspin. Chávez won the presidency in 1998, promising to improve conditions for the country’s poorest citizens. He launched vast social welfare programs, and paid for them with the country’s oil profits. He also seized land from private owners. Farms languished, production plummeted, and the country grew dependent on imports. In 2014, the system imploded: Oil prices sank, and the government couldn’t pay for unsustainable subsidies and welfare programs.

Nicolás Maduro doubled down. The country’s new president printed more money, and the value of currency plummeted. Basic goods became unaffordable.

The country’s paper currency is so worthless, Venezuelans use it to weave bags and wallets. The souvenirs sell for the equivalent of around $5 in Colombia.

Barbosa holds up a 3-inch stack of 100-bolivar notes he says wouldn’t buy a bottle of water: “It’s meaningless.” Bloomberg News reported in June that to buy a cup of coffee in Venezuela with the 100-bolivar note, you’d need 10,000 of the bills.

Jim Wyss/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

Souvenirs made out of Venezuelan currency for sale in Cúcuta (Jim Wyss/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)

The International Monetary Fund warned inflation in Venezuela could reach 1 million percent by December, a crisis that would be on par with the economic chaos in Germany after World War I. Even in the capital city of Caracas, residents often barter for basic services—perhaps an egg or two for a cab ride. As hospitals started running out of basic medicines—and sometimes running water and soap—food supplies also dwindled, and Venezuelans now stand in hourslong lines at grocery stores, often to find bare shelves. Items are available on the black market, but the prices are out of reach for many.

The average Venezuelan has lost more than 20 pounds in the last two years.

As Venezuela tottered, many Colombians welcomed those who had welcomed them for years. But as an estimated 1 million people have fled from Venezuela into Colombia to stay in the last two years (including Colombians returning back to their home country), resources and patience are wearing thin, and the government is placing more restrictions on who may come and how long they may stay.

“Not long ago, no one would want to be a Colombian,” says Barbosa. “Now a lot of Venezuelan people are trying to find a Colombian friend.”

Near the border, Barbosa navigates through a maze of street merchants, taxis, and people dragging piles of luggage across the broken pavement, as he pulls over to pick up a Venezuelan friend.

Ricardo Gomez is a pastor living just across the border in the Venezuelan town of San Antonio. Gomez is able to cross the border with a migratory card that allows Venezuelans to enter the country on short trips, but it doesn’t allow them to travel far into the country. (He’d need a passport for a longer journey—a process that takes lots of time or lots of money.)

The Colombian government stopped issuing the migratory cards in February, as a response to the swelling numbers entering the country, but those who already had the passes are still able to enter.

Up a steep side street in a nearby neighborhood, we tuck into an outdoor table at a small coffee shop, and Gomez describes life on the other side of the border. It’s easier in San Antonio than farther into the interior of Venezuela, he says, since crossing into Colombia for supplies is at least a possibility for those in need.

Still, it’s difficult to buy food in the crowded town, and many people take buses or walk for days across the Andes Mountains to reach the city in hopes of crossing into Colombia or finding local resources.

Barbosa’s church helps with efforts to send food packages back with Gomez to distribute to church members and the surrounding communities, though they have to be careful about quantities. Locals say border guards sometimes confiscate donated supplies or other substantial quantities of goods, since the Venezuelan government frowns on outside aid. Others say guards sometimes demand bribes or keep items for themselves.

Gomez has been willing to risk taking larger packages in order to help more people, and so far, he says, “God has given us grace for that.”

Gomez has about 100 people in the church he’s pastored for nearly three decades, but the congregation helps hundreds more in the community, as they’re able. He’s most concerned about children. Many don’t attend school because teachers have quit, or because they’re simply hungry: He says parents let their children sleep as long as possible so they might get by with eating fewer meals.

He’s also concerned for fellow pastors: Farther into the country, churches are emptying out as people leave. Pastors also face daily dilemmas on how to visit members of their congregation when local transportation is expensive and automobile parts aren’t available to keep their own cars running.

Some local churches in Colombia offer training so Venezuelan pastors can gain additional skills that could help them make money to sustain themselves and their families. For example, some have learned to make cleaning supplies or soap to sell near the border. But it’s still a challenge.

“Some pastors have to preach in front of people who haven’t eaten, including their own families,” says Gomez. “But they still have to give hope through the message of the gospel.”

He says that message is still going forward, even as people are suffering. Churches are banding together for prayer groups and to help one another with practical needs, he says: “We need strength. But the Lord’s work keeps going.”

BACK NEAR THE BORDER, the streets are packed with workers by midmorning.

The area just over the bridge is known as “La Parada”—or the stopping place. It’s the primary destination for many crossing from Venezuela and the spot where migrants try to find supplies they otherwise can’t buy.

Driving through the crowded streets, the items for sale give a glimpse of the shortages just a couple of miles away: Tables are piled high with cans of motor oil, while other vendors sell used, balding tires.

Some Venezuelans do grow small amounts of food in some areas, and some sell extra bananas or potatoes to buy items like toilet paper or cheap car parts. Others bring products they’re still able to get in Venezuela to sell for a profit in Colombia. Barbosa turns another corner and notes it’s a particularly dangerous section, where merchants sell medicines and gangs sometimes control what comes in and what goes out.

Nearby, throngs of Venezuelans are flowing across the international bridge into Colombia, stopping at checkpoints to show their papers to border guards. Some push elderly family members in wheelchairs. Others carry toddlers on their shoulders.

Midway across the bridge, pedestrian traffic is so thick in narrow passages, we stand for a moment with our backs to the wall. When I glance over the side to look at the rocky riverbed below, a face stares back at me. A boy—perhaps 12 or 13 years old—is crawling along the side of the bridge, balancing only on a beam running across the span.

For those without papers, treacherous and illegal crossings are commonplace here and elsewhere.

Within walking distance of the bridge, a Catholic church in Cúcuta serves more than 1,000 meals a day to those who show up early enough for a breakfast ticket. In an outdoor area behind a rented house, scores of men, women, and children line up around the block. Many are visibly thin.

Jamie Dean

Venezuelans wait in line for food at a Catholic church in Cúcuta. (Jamie Dean)

Some of the volunteers here are Colombians, but others are Venezuelans. A father and son say they left the country when they lost their jobs and couldn’t find enough food. Here they eat two meals a day, but they also do something they say they missed when they first left home: They work hard and try to help others in distress.

Finding a job elsewhere in Cúcuta can be tough. Venezuelans line medians, selling candy or trying to wash windshields for cash, but with an influx of migrants, steady work is hard to secure. Colombians know this too, and say the swelling population is squeezing them out of jobs.

In the streets of downtown Cúcuta, nefarious work is a growing problem. Locals point out parks that are now known as hot spots for drugs and prostitution. Adult prostitution is legal in designated zones in Colombia, but the sex trade spills over into other parts of town, and reportedly includes girls well below the age of 18.

At night, people sleep in large groups outside the bus station and in local parks.

For Barbosa, it can all be overwhelming. “This produces stress for us,” he says. “But we try to help and not be indifferent. Because as a church we can’t be indifferent. We can’t.”

Like many other Colombians, Barbosa experienced the chaos of his own country’s militant conflict and drug wars as he was growing up. “I heard the shots. I saw the dead people,” he says. “We got used to seeing it.”

His father faced death threats from guerillas persecuting pastors in rural areas, and Barbosa met his wife after she and her parents returned to Colombia from Venezuela a few years ago. They had fled conflict in Colombia years earlier.

(Though Colombia has reached a peace agreement with the largest guerilla group in the country, militants still roam the mountains, including in the areas around Cúcuta, making it a dangerous hotspot beyond the border concerns.)

Enduring suffering has cultivated Christian compassion in Barbosa and others, and he seems pained by the limits on the help he can offer: “We can’t do everything. But we try.”

Later in the afternoon, down the street from Casa de mi Señor, the church where Barbosa serves as a pastor, we drop by the offices of the Norwegian Refugee Council. The aid agency is helping with aid projects in the area, including trying to enroll refugee children in local schools.

In a side room, we meet Yanet Sanchez, a Venezuelan woman who arrived four days earlier with her 2-year-old grandson and a daughter who is seven months pregnant. The family members rode a bus for 14 hours over two days to arrive at the Colombian border. They’ve run out of food in their hometown, and they’re concerned about the daughter’s approaching childbirth.

Sanchez says she worked for the electoral commission in her hometown and is astonished Maduro won another six-year term in May. (The United States deemed the election a sham, and Vice President Mike Pence called it “neither free nor fair.”)

For now, Sanchez is focused on survival. She says she and her family have a few avocados and some cookies to sell, and are sleeping at the bus station until they can afford a place to stay. When she talks about the family they left back home, she looks down at the floor and begins to weep. The room grows quiet. Barbosa prays for her, while a colleague puts an arm around her thin shoulder.

In the hallway, Barbosa tells her where to go to find a food parcel for the family—he’s adding her name to the Red Cross list he’s still trying to assemble. He tells her his name and his church, and Sanchez repeats the information to herself like a lifeline: “Barbosa, Barbosa.”

Jamie Dean

Fourteen-year-old Helen (center) and her mother and two sisters fled from Venezuela to Colombia two years ago. (Jamie Dean)

As night falls, we make a final stop at a rented home off the streets of downtown Cúcuta. More than a dozen Venezuelans lived here at one point, sharing the rent before trying to find other places to go. A Colombian pastor met some of the residents in the streets and started an outreach to help with basic needs and a regular Bible study.

Alejandra Munoz Mondragon, a friend of the pastor, is here tonight, encouraging the residents and leading the singing before Barbosa offers a short Bible study. Four of the young men living here arrived by themselves a few months ago and work jobs when they can find them in the city.

There’s little furniture in the house, but now there’s enough room for everyone to sleep inside. We make our way down a steep concrete staircase to an outdoor area partially covered by a tin roof, and the young men join in singing: “We are the people of God / We are a special people / Called to announce the virtues of Him who called us to His light.”

On the dark street outside, the group lingers to talk and expresses gratitude for perhaps the simplest kind of aid: a personal visit. In the crush of physical needs of thousands of people, here was a piercing reminder of the even deeper needs of bodies and souls made in the image of God.

THOUGH THE FIRST DAYS AND MONTHS can be particularly hard for adjusting, other Venezuelans have begun to settle into regular rhythms.

On the following afternoon, I traveled with Colombian pastor John Peña to the hills outside Cúcuta to visit a large, informal settlement known as one of the “invasion” areas—places all over the country where Colombians displaced by violence or poverty have set up encampments. Some homes are made of scrap wood and tin roofs. Other residents have built with bricks and concrete.

Peña has a regular ministry to the residents at the top of a small mountain, where a concrete pad serves as a meeting place for their weekly church gatherings and youth meetings.

The Christian aid organization World Vision—which works with local churches to offer food aid and programs for children in Cúcuta—is gathering information to assist in this neighborhood as well. It hopes to help local residents start small, self-sustaining businesses for longer-term stability.

Peña’s wife tutors some of the children, and when we arrive on the windy hilltop, a little boy runs out with his notebook full of letters he’s practicing. The pair promptly sit down in plastic chairs on the dirt road and take up their lesson.

Jamie Dean

Peña’s wife tutoring a child (Jamie Dean)

The community now includes Venezuelans fleeing distress. While the wind whips across the hilltop, a mother and three daughters talk about their life here since they left hunger and chaos in Venezuela two years ago. They have a small wooden home, but are working to build a firmer structure. It’s hard to find work, but they’re thankful for a church and a pastor here in this hard-to-reach corner.

The three sisters, ages 16, 14, and 9, wake up before 5:00 a.m. to prepare for an hourlong walk to school. The mother says it’s important they be educated, and she insists on their attendance. Helen, the 14-year-old, is already tutoring other students at the top of the hill. Her favorite subjects are art and ethics, and she’s interested in other languages. “I want to learn English,” she says. “My teacher says I can travel anywhere in the world.”

For now, these family members say they’ll stay here and keep trying to be good neighbors. Like others here, their gratitude is simple. “We do like it here,” says Helen. “We like it because it’s quiet.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

Comments

  • NBrooks
    Posted: Fri, 08/03/2018 03:13 pm

    After reading these heart-breaking articles, I wish you could include a "How to Help" at the end.

  • Doane
    Posted: Sat, 08/04/2018 12:46 am

    I agree.  They may feel obliged by a journalistic position to not link to specific groups within the article, but perhaps there could be a separate section of the website that readers could visit with information on how to support organizations mentioned in the articles...  

    It would be good for the readers and for the ministries doing good work!

  • DavidinSLO's picture
    DavidinSLO
    Posted: Sun, 08/12/2018 12:10 am

    I agree with other commenters, does the reporter have any insight on effective ministries to support who are working in this area of the world?  

     

     

  • BosLarJazz's picture
    BosLarJazz
    Posted: Thu, 08/16/2018 10:59 am

    I just returned from Bogota, Colombia and saw the sort of stop light merchants washing windshields, selling candy, etc., all of them Venzuelans and my Colombian host said they are often treated rudely because many Colombians have forgotten that some of their own countrymen had to do the same thing years ago. I am thankful to read of the ministry going on to them in the northeast and agree with the other commentators about finding was to help.