THE JOURNEY FROM CUCUTA
For decades, the border town of Cucuta was a departure point for people escaping Colombia’s instability towards a new life in their eastern neighbour. Now the situation has reversed and each month over 50,000 migrants cross the border from Venezuela to Colombia, many carrying their last possessions on their back. With no money even for a bus ticket most are forced to embark on a perilous high-altitude trek on foot for days through twisting mountain passes, sleeping under the stars in bitterly cold temperatures before reaching the city of Bucamaranga. Here are their stories.
Safety in numbers
Eighteen year-old Yusmil arrived in Colombia with her brother, and the two joined a larger group on the road for security. As a young female, Yusmil is usually chosen to seek a ride in a car or truck and take the group’s luggage further up the route while the rest of them walk, though without a phone between them, communication is difficult. Yusmil sheepishly explains that she has already spent the last of her money, the $10 she got from selling most of her hair to a barber in Cucuta. With the little she has left, she has made into a braid.
“I sold my phone back in Venezuela just before I left, which gave me money for a day or two and when I arrived in Colombia, I sold my hair. The hair cutters gave me 30,000 Pesos ($9) and I have spent it already on rent and food.” she continues: “We don’t know where we’ll sleep tonight, we’ll keep on walking until we can’t walk any more.”
“I met Jose and the others at the Divina Providencia shelter in Cucuta and thought it would be a good idea to stick together when travelling. I’m a bit worried because I heard some gangs assault migrants on the road, and I’m not looking forward to the cold weather of the mountains. We don’t have the right type of clothes.
We left Cucuta in a group of about twenty-five and tried to help each other out as people fell behind. In the evening, we found a kiosk where a woman gave us some cookies and water to keep us going. We walked for an hour more until we found an improvised shelter and the next morning we got up and just started walking again.”
Weaving their way in a new land
By the toll booth on the main highway stretching out of Cucuta, the sunlight glints off the yellow and green handbags dangling from the neck and arms of Jesus and Gabriela Campos. But these are no ordinary handbags. Rather than being made of leather, the raw material for these colourful and sturdy apparel is the currency from their native Venezuela.
Due to hyperinflation and government devaluations, the small amount of money that Jesus and Gabriela brought to Colombia could not buy anything, so they decided to convert it into a tradeable product.
The bags are composed of folded, interlinking rectangles (with denominations ranging from 1,000 to 100,000), all intricately woven by the artisan couple from the coastal city of Valencia. “We take the old bills and turn them into bags, wallets, chequebook holders and purses,” Gabriela explains over the rumble of passing cars and trucks. The Campos’ sell in different areas of town but the toll stop, with the nearby hot dog grill and roaming coffee vendors, attracts a ready supply of cars.
“Eight hundred bills make up one bag, which can almost buy you a sweet back home. Two years ago, you could do something with this money but now it’s not possible.”
Gabriela has a sick father in the Cucuta hospital, which sometimes takes her away from her day job, but she says that her young children are also learning the family trade from their small home in Villa del Rosario. At the moment it takes a whole day for them to make one bag.
A car slows down as a potential customer peers out of his window. Gabriela walks over holding the bags aloft so Jesus continues with his part of the story.
“When I arrived here, I was selling arroz con leche (a traditional rice pudding) that would pay our rent of 20,000COP ($6) per day. Venezuelans wanted to pay me with our currency, one time someone even they gave me 90,000 Bolivares in denominations of 1,000, so I had a lot. I thought that these were going to be worthless shortly, so I might as well try to do something productive with them.”
“Back home I used to make ornaments with cigarette packs and paper from magazines and I thought if I can do it with those things, I can do it with the bills,” Jesus adds. “My first customers were some guys doing a charity bike ride, who bought two bags and ordered some more. We can tailor make [these products] depending on what size and style you want. Yesterday I woke up at six in the morning to come to sell the bags at the toll and didn’t finish until late at night.”
A medical migration
For five-year-old Samuel Garcia, growing up in Le Tigre, eastern Venezuela wasn’t easy, particularly because he suffers from West Syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy. At first, Samuel’s mother Emily took him each month to the Colombian Red Cross’ health centre in Cucuta for medicine and later for appointments with a paediatrician. Now, Emily is on the road to Medellin where a foundation is offering specialized support.
“When Samuel was one year old, he had a lack of oxygen supply to the brain, creating a lesion which led to this condition.” Emily says: “He can’t control his sphincter, and specialist diapers are not available in the country, so Samuel wasn’t accepted into school due to the complexity of his condition.”
Scampering around the shelter wearing a Spiderman t-shirt on a warm November afternoon, Samuel seems oblivious that he is in the middle of a lifechanging journey. But Emily explains that their decision to leave became urgent.
“As well as autism and problems with movement, he has convulsions and goes into shock. If the convulsions are not treated, they can leave him a vegetative state.”
Women sit in a circle in the courtyard as a nurse is splayed on the ground to demonstrate first aid techniques. Suddenly a man is carried through the front door in the middle of a violent seizure and the staff flock to his side.
Despite an impressive crowdfunding campaign by Emily (Samuel has an Instagram account) to raise money to import medication from Spain and the United States, this ultimately wasn’t sustainable so the two fled.
Emily says she’s been advised that she claim asylum in Colombia on medical grounds.
“We have passports but not residency in Colombia, so I want to regularise our status so Samuel can get into special school and get access to specialised healthcare. I was a chef back in Venezuela, but I can’t work legally while applying for asylum.”
The doctor across the border
Near the Colombian Red Cross health station in Cucuta, a constant flow of people passes over the Simon Bolivar bridge from Venezuela into Colombia. But not everybody plans to stay in Colombia.
Bianca Rodrigues’ son Alejandro is the last patient of the day to be checked by exhausted doctors and, after that, the family will make the hours-long journey back to their hometown of San Cristobal, Venezuela. Every week, Bianca takes her children over the border to receive healthcare and medicine that is unavailable back home.
“My son Alejandro is just ten months old and today he has a fever. He suffers constantly from allergies that block his bronchi and that leads to respiratory infections. When he was two and half months old, I first brought him to Cucuta and he was hospitalised for 15 days.
I live in San Cristobal, just over the border in Venezuela but there are no paediatricians in my town, so I need to travel to Colombia every week. It’s a hopeless situation – there are no antibiotics, and a shortage of doctors to the point that they only attend emergencies. It’s only 40km away but the transport is very unreliable, and it takes a long time to cross the Colombian border as the police check everybody’s suitcases.
It’s my dream to move here but I don’t have any place to stay and day care is expensive. I also have two other children aged 5 and 3. At least in San Cristobal I have my mother who can sometimes take care of Alejandro and the kids while I work. I sometimes come to Cucuta to work as a street vendor selling cookies and that allowed me to save up a bit of money. But since Alejandro got sick that has become more difficult.”
“I never thought I would be in this kind of situation”
Behind Bogota’s main bus terminal, an informal tented settlement in the woods has spilled over into the nearby roads. Here, Brihan and his family have made their temporary home. Hundreds of migrants have constructed improvised shelters from scavenged materials and line them precariously alongside the roadside. The encampments are divided by train tracks so, occassionaly, a one-carriage locomotive chugs through interrupting people gathered around around small campfires.
“I’ve been here for five days with my family, but I don’t know if I want to stay in Bogota. I’m not sure what to do next. I heard Ecuador might be good but if I find work here, I’ll stay.
Back home I worked as gardener and cleaned swimming pools. I have three kids aged 8, 3 and eight months and we are giving them a few days to recover after the journey. It took us five days from the border. We only saw one shelter on the way but sometimes Colombians in their cars gave us a ride and handed out food.
My son has a fever. When we arrived in Bogota, we went to the hospital and they gave him an injection to boost his defences but in general, they only give emergency treatment for free, and the follow ups cost money. I came here with 2000 pesos (75c) so I can’t afford that.
I never thought I would be in this kind of situation and my children would have to see this, but there’s no other alternative. I heard that Ecuador offers free day-care, so we can leave the kids somewhere while we work, and maybe there is a better chance of access to healthcare.
I built this shelter last night with the materials our neighbours gave to us. Before that we slept next to the wall with a bit of tarpaulin. This is not a good environment for kids, there are rats here, people here fight all the time and some use drugs. I hope I can get better connected somehow and get a construction job and get them out of here.”
Luimer and Itza spent months pounding the streets for work and accommodation to set themselves up in Bucamaranga before they went back home to bring their two sons. Luimer is now teaching music at a church and Itza a domestic worker for a Colombian lady. After participating in the census, they have their residency papers, are in the process of enrolling their sons in school and hoping to gain nationality through Itza’s Colombian mother. Her experience reflects the overlapping patterns of migration in the region – Itza’s grandmother went to Venezuela decades ago to flee instability, and now her granddaughter is making the return journey.
LUIMER: We are from San Cristobal, Venezuela, near the Colombian border. In my previous life I was a music teacher with 160 students. But then the economy took a downturn.
There wasn’t as much work as I was promised so when we arrived, we had to hit the streets, selling chocolates, washing cars, doing construction etc. I have done lots of things I never thought I would do. I could barely use a hammer before. Now I have a job at the Free Life Church teaching keyboards, drums and guitar.
In the beginning we were living in a room only about a metre wide. Now I feel that this is our family home, we decorated and set ourselves up, and we have a dog.
Every week the local Red Cross organises a social gathering for migrants. A lot of Venezuelans go into their own survival mode when they arrive and don’t always interact with each other so it’s nice to meet up to share stories and make friends.
ITSA: I used to work at a café, on the minimum wage. Then, two years ago, this became not enough to survive.
A lot of people have left. My father is in Peru. My brother-in-law and sister are in Chile; friends in Ecuador, cousin in Panama…but my mother and sister are back in San Cristobal [Venezuela] and we left the kids with them while we set ourselves up here, which required a lot of strong will.
We like it here because it’s close enough for us to visit our family once in a while. My father has said that he can arrange some work in Peru, but I don’t know if I want to go through the process of moving again.
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Juan walked into Colombia with his son Santiago in late October. After leaving the border town of Cúcuta, the pair walked miles to Pamplona, then through mountain passes and valleys before getting a ride across the freezing Paramo de Berlin – the most challenging section of the road to Bucamaranga.
This post is also available in: Spanish