Colombia: Restoring hope for a future in the midst of crisis
Villa del Sur is a refugee settlement on the outskirts of Riohacha in northern Colombia. The settlement was built on a former garbage dumping ground and is now home to an estimated 1,000 people living in makeshift shelters of wood, clay, corrugated iron and plastic canvas. A majority of them are from Venezuela and have been forced to flee their country's economic meltdown which started in 2015. Ana, Iris and Carlos are all seeking help and a better future in Colombia.
Fleeing hunger with 3 children
26-year-old Venezuelan refugee Ana Yibi is reliant on our help. Two years ago Ana and her husband were able to occupy a piece of land in Villa del Sur and build a hut from corrugated iron and plastic tarpaulins. They have three children, eight-year-old Keiner, two-year-old Keinlis and two-month-old Keinerly. "Venezuela was hell for young mothers. None of them had anything to eat. It is terrible when your child cries of hunger and you simply have nothing. Our fridge was almost always empty, we only had one jug of water in it," she remembers. "I woke up every morning hoping that my husband would find work and that we would have something to eat in the evening. I was completely desperate and cried and prayed a lot. I couldn't sleep because of all the worries."
While Ana's son Keiner has in the meantime managed to recover from the effects of malnutrition, Keinli's current condition is still bad. We provide the girl with medical care. "Keinlis suffers from anemia but the free vitamins and food supplements we received from Malteser International has been helping. I wouldn't know what to do were Malteser International not here," says Ana. "The hospitals are congested and we Venezuelans are only admitted and treated in urgent cases. But thank God for Malteser International who have opened up a new health department for Venezuelas."
Free medical care for refugees in Colombia
Malteser International's refugee support center is situated within the building of the public hospital Virgen de los Remedios in Riohacha. Two doctors and a nurse are employed to provide free health services to the refugees and have a daily shift from 8 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 6 pm. On a regular basis we also organize consultation sessions in the refugee camps. During these sessions, our health staff examine patients and give them medicines and hygiene packs free of charge. Since the start of the project in September 2018, we have been able to provide medical care to around 2,000 patients. We intend to increase this number to 12,000 patients in the first year.
"The health system in this very poor region of Colombia has always been poor even before the refugee crisis," says Faver Morales, doctor and project coordinator for the humanitarian response for refugees in Colombia. "On its own, Colombia would not have been able to meet the immense challenges arising from providing medical care from the refugees." Malteser International is working with the Colombian Order of Malta in Riohacha to bring urgent emergency aid to Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. This aid includes medical care and food security measures.
A life in health and dignity - Key to a better future
Iris Pinto is 36 years old and a single mother to seven year old Monica. She has suffered a similarly difficult plight as Ana. When life in Venezuela was still fine, Iris was earning a living by selling handicrafts. As the economic crisis deepened, she sold less and less, and food became more and more expensive.
She recounts the terrible ordeal that forced her into exile: "Monica often begged me for food and would cry. That's very hard to bear as a mother. On many occasions, I would give up my food for my daughter and would lay awake at night listening to my stomach growl. I became weaker and more restless, Monica grew thinner by the day and it was certain we were going to starve. That was when I sold my washing machine and fridge to buy the bus tickets to Colombia."
"I am very grateful for the support provided by the Malteser International," she says. "Especially for the medical care we are recieving. Monica is asthmatic and often suffers from diarrhoea. If I had to pay for a doctor and medication, we would have nothing to eat. Malteser International is helping us to get back on our feet. I arrived here completely emaciated, but I have been able to gain some 10 kilograms."
Iris is now learning the craft of weaving from a neighbour. One day she hopes to be able to earn her living from making handicrafts again. "Thanks to the loving support we have found here, I can see a future for us now. Monica has started to laugh again. I found some toys for her among the garbage."
Carlos: "Having to leave one's home is difficult for everyone, especially for us people with physical disabilities."
42-year-old Carlos Garcia is also forced to rely on medical care. The former cook from Maracaibo is hard of hearing and suffers from a severe inflammation in his leg. When he underwent surgery in Venezuela for circulatory problems, his leg started swelling all over. His leg became fat and was constantly inflamed. Carlos had to walk long distances while fleeing to Colombia, and this led to further inflammation. "There was nothing left for me in Venezuela. I worked as a cook in Venezuela, but was dismissed because there was no food left and hardly anyone went to restaurants anymore. I don't have papers here and can't find work because of my disability but the care I have received from Malteser International has given me new hope for survival," he says. "I rely on constant medical treatment and medication. I probably wouldn't be able to walk if it wasn't for Malteser International."
Having to leave one's home is difficult for everyone, especially for us people with physical disabilities. "Many people don't want to know anything about us and some even make fun of us," Carlos laments. "The Malteser International staff welcomed me with open arms and I will not forget that."
Venezuela is currently facing an economic crisis, with prices soaring uncontrollably each day. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has announce that the country's inflation could reach one million percent by the year's end. Political repression and an economy of scarcity and hyperinflation which have caused widespread food and medicine shortages is driving people from their home country. Everyday about 5,000 Venezuelans are fleeing the economic hardship and leaving for Colombia in what is now the worst migration crisis in recent Latin American history.
Around one million Venezuelans are now stranded in Colombia. " The Colombian health system would have collapsed long ago had it not been for the external assistance of Malteser International. We are treating Venezuelans here and relieving the burden on the health system to a large extent. We only refer emergencies and operations to our colleagues. Colombians also benefit from this," Morales explains.
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Our mission is to empower people in need to lead a life of health and dignity.
Many Venezuelan refugees have lost everything they have.
Our daily commitment is to give them hope for a better future.
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