Ecumenical Collaboration for Colombians and Venezuelans in a Colombian border town

Martin Coria | August 7, 2018

Venezuelan and Colombian women participate in a workshop about micro-enterprise development and marketing. Photo: courtesy Lutheran World Federation

Dichosos los compasivos, porque serán tratados con compasión.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Matthew 5:7

It is commonly referred to as the largest humanitarian crisis and exodus in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela is in crisis; more than 1.5 million people have left since 2014, so nations across Latin America are now hosting large and growing Venezuelan migrant populations.

Venezuela shares a border with Colombia, and Saravena is one border town on the Colombian side. It’s a couple of hours’ drive from an official checkpoint, but it sits just minutes away from the river that divides the two countries. Border crossing here is a longstanding custom. Whether it is for work, family ties or to escape violence, Colombians and Venezuelans have crossed this river for generations. Now, some Venezuelans are choosing to live permanently in Saravena.

These families live in informal settlements at the outskirts of the town. Their neighbors are Colombian families, most of whom were originally from other parts of Colombia but who fled from war and violence and came to Saravena. Whether Venezuelan or Colombian, these families are impoverished and have suffered.

With generous support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Church of the Brethren, Disciples of Christ’s Week of Compassion, United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, we are providing humanitarian assistance to 500 families – about 2,000 people – in Saravena. This seven-month program is implemented by the committed staff team of Lutheran World Federation and is done in partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I went to Saravena in June and met with many of the people here. In the homes of Venezuelan families, I heard countless stories of solidarity and compassion between Colombian and Venezuelan neighbors. However, they also expressed growing concern about the discrimination, stigmatization and exploitation of Venezuelans in the area. I heard comments along the lines of, “Venezuelans have to work twice as hard for half the pay.”

Programs like this one, which support people who have been uprooted by conflict or crisis and are now living among host communities, often provide support for both the displaced families and vulnerable members of the local community. This can be particularly important to help combat the resentment and stigmatization of migrants that I heard about. Of the 500 families we’re reaching in Saravena, 200 are Venezuelan and 300 are Colombian.

We’re using a cash-based program here. Families receive vouchers for supplies that they can use at local hardware stores and supermarkets. All families will receive vouchers for tools and supplies to start or expand businesses. As these enterprises develop, families will be able to feed themselves and meet their basic needs without extra assistance. Of course, the program will also provide information sessions on business plan development, financial literacy and marketing.

Venezuelan families may also receive food and hygiene vouchers to prevent hunger as they get settled into their new lives. There will be three distributions of these, and each one is enough for the family to cover their food needs for a month. The LWF team is engaged and monitoring every step of the way, from initial orientation to the voucher system to helping families plan their spending to making sure that they can get good quality food.

Saravena is also experiencing a growing and more visible number of young women engaging in sex work. This is partially fueled by stereotypes and of women in general and Venezuelan women in particular. In response, the program will provide special sessions to migrant women and girls that focus on their rights and preventing gender-based violence and exploitation.

I am humbly grateful for the opportunity to bring dignity and opportunity to the families of Saravena. I am grateful have met the Venezuelan families, who are working tirelessly both for themselves and to send vital money back to extended family in Venezuela. I am grateful for the Colombian host families, most of whom were displaced themselves, whose countless acts of kindness towards their new neighbors inspire me. I’m grateful for the wonderful and tireless LWF team, who are the strong partners we need in this response. And I’m grateful for the supporting members of CWS who – once again! – responded quickly and compassionately to an invitation to join this ecumenical response.

In a world and region increasingly polarized and divided, we are united in putting dignity and compassion first.

Martin Coria is CWS’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.