Clairet Mata wakes up at 4am every day to cook chicken and rice empanadas, which she sells in the streets of Giron, Colombia for about US 30 cents.
By 6:30 am she’s on the streets with her three-year-old son Dominick, selling her empanadas at a bus depot and a loud street that is packed with small homes and car mechanic shops.
It’s hard work. But it gives the single mother a chance to have Dominick by her side. Mata was a government worker in Venezuela. She moved to Colombia last year in search of medical treatment for her child who suffers from an intestinal disease.
“I’ve been offered better jobs, like cleaning homes,” she says. “But I have nobody to leave my son with”. Public daycare centers will not accept Mata’s child, because she’s an undocumented immigrant.
There are thousands of people like Mata who are living in Giron and its larger, sister city of Bucaramanga after migrating from Venezuela in recent years. Their situation has always been tough, but the hardship has been compounded by Covid-19, which has hit informal workers hard, while also closing the borders, making it nearly impossible for migrants to travel back to see family during the holidays.
For 27-year-old Mata, who arrived in Colombia thirteen months ago with almost no money to spare, raising a child without the support of her parents or other relatives has been particularly tough. Being far from her loved ones has also taken an emotional toll.
“Some days I don’t feel like waking up,” Mata said. “My mother had her birthday on November 18 and I couldn’t stop crying that day. I’m not used to being separated from them.”
1) The empanadas Clairet Mata sells are always fresh. She has no fridge at home so she must buy ingredients and cook each day.
2) Clairet Mata sells her empanadas out of a white Styrofoam box in Giron, Colombia. She carries the box in her son’s former baby carriage. On her own with nobody to help her take care of her son, she takes little Dominick to work with her.
But Mata is also resilient. She has developed several strategies to cope with the stress and anxiety that come with being apart from her family, and she has also gotten some help along the way.
First, she found a way to communicate more frequently with her parents and her sister by using the family contact services at CASA, a center run by the Colombian Red Cross that helps migrants and other vulnerable people in Bucaramanga.
Then, after setting herself up as a street vendor, Mata began to save up to buy a smartphone so that she could keep in touch at any time, from the comfort of her own home. It was tough as Mata makes about $10 per day. She saved up for about 8 months to get the device.
“Having a smart phone has been a blessing,” said Mata, who also uses the phone to participate in a support group run by her church. “I speak to my mother almost every day now. And that helps me to keep up with what’s happening in Venezuela.”
Being without her family also takes an emotional toll. One of Clairet’s first coping strategies was to use the services at CASA a center for migrants and other vulnerable people run by the Colombian Red Cross. There, she got free wifi to contact her family.
“Being here on my own has shown me that I can be very resourceful. It has also taught me that no matter what happens to us, we have to keep moving forward. When you fall, you have to lift yourself up again.”
Clairet Mata, mother of Dominick, who is now living in northern Colombia after leaving Venezuela last year.
Mata says that while she saved up to buy a phone, she also began to use the free psychological consultations offered by CASA. During her one-on-one meetings with the center’s psychologist, she was able to discuss the feelings she was going through and also got tips on how to manage problems like depression and anxiety.
“The psychologist taught me breathing exercises,” to control anxiety Mata said. “She also taught me that when I am feeling bad to focus on what is immediately ahead of me. I try to do more activities with my son now, like going to the park, or watching movies together.”
Mata said that she was also told to read motivational books and keep a journal. Her faith has also helped her cope because it has provided a new a group of friends.
A space to feel
The psychology services at CASA are used by 5 to 7 migrants each day and are less well known than other services, like the free wifi connections or first-aid checkups. But they can be just as important.
“Some of the migrants who come here have been separate from their families,” said Daniela Torres, the lead psychologist at CASA. “Other are struggling to get by and others feel depressed because they have lost their previous way of life.”
“We give them a space to identify their emotions, that they might not have at home. And we help them to manage those feelings.”
Mata says she still has many obstacles to overcome in Colombia, like getting a residence permit, and then, enrolling her son in daycare. But she says that she is learning how to cope with the challenges ahead.
“Being here on my own has shown me that I can be very resourceful,” said Mata. “It has also taught me that no matter what happens to us, we have to keep moving forward. When you fall, you have to lift yourself up again.”
At CASA, Clairet also takes advantage of free consultations with a Red Cross psychologist. The psychologist suggested that Clairet focus on what was in front of her and do more activities with her son. The couple watches movies on a smartphone that Clairet bought to relax and to stay in touch with family.
Migrants and refugees know what it means to be cut off from society, and from their loved ones and cultures far away. At a time defined by separation, let’s listen to what they have to say about coping and connecting in the age of Covid-19.