By Frank Giustra // March 28, 2020
Just over a week ago I was standing at the epicentre of what is the most underfunded refugee crisis in the world. And I have to say, witnessing the relentless human flow across the Simon Bolivar bridge connecting Venezuela and Colombia felt surreal.
I am no stranger to the experience of refugees, having stood on the beaches of Lesvos, Greece, in 2015 at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. But as much as my previous interactions with refugees might have prepared me, I couldn’t escape the initial shock at the scene on the bridge: An endless stream of humanity walking, including parents with kids in tow, everyone with only the personal belongings they could carry.
Thirty thousand Venezuelan people cross this bridge daily. Two thirds are shoppers, coming to Colombia to buy food, medicine and other items not available in Venezuela or too expensive due to hyperinflation. The rest are leaving for good in search of a better life elsewhere. In just six years, over 4.9 million desperate people have fled Venezuela, with 1.8 million settling in Colombia.
The reasons Venezuela has fallen into chaos are complex and include hyperinflation, political conflict, high levels of violence, crumbling public services and severe poverty. The end result is a society in complete collapse, where more than half of children under five suffer from malnutrition in seven of the largest states. Last April, my organization Acceso came up with a plan to help feed refugees in Colombian towns bordering Venezuela.
I came here to see our work for the first time. What interests me most on these trips is talking extensively with migrant families. I am interested in their stories because that’s how I learn how to improve our work. One of my stops was at our partner ABACO Casa de Paso facility, which has been feeding 4,500 Venezuelans daily, using produce grown by our local farmer network.
It was here I met a Venezuelan named Giovanna. With little access to food, electricity or medicine, she had fled her home. Her husband stayed behind to fight for the opposition led by Juan Guaidó, who is recognized as acting president by 59 countries and insists that a credible presidential election be held and that President Nicolás Maduro steps down.
Giovanna told her husband, “You can stay and fight all you want, but I need to save my kids.” She said, “I came to Colombia to fight for them.” As we spoke, two of her youngest kids, ages three and four years old, sat next to her, having just finished their only meal for the day. She was recently robbed of all her money, which was approximately US$300. She had nothing to pay the refugio (refuge centre) where she was staying and was asked to leave. For two nights, she slept on the streets. As she spoke she began crying, so we took a moment to wipe the tears. She was currently living in a room where she and her kids all slept on one mattress. She provides housecleaning in lieu of rent.
She said she was thankful that at least her kids were eating now. They were getting carbohydrates, protein, fat and milk, which is tough to get back home. Our conversation made me realize that women bear the brunt of the suffering during this crisis. Many have children to care for and without school options for them, they are unable to find work.
With me was Patricia Velasquez, whose foundation Wayuu Taya feeds children at 29 schools in Venezuela with produce from Acceso. She acted as both my translator and a source of inspiration to everyone we spoke to. During this trip, I came to admire Patricia greatly. Her words of reassurance and compassion made Giovanna feel better.
Our next stop was our partner World Central Kitchen (WCK) operations at Nueva Illusión Foundation, which also receives weekly produce donations from our business. They serve 2,800 meals per day to 1,500 people, 500 of whom are children. Chef Deiver Pulido was also a Venezuelan migrant. While there, I especially enjoyed interacting with the children — I find that kids are generally always happy, no matter their circumstances.
It was there that I met the most extraordinary woman, Patricia Salguero. A few years ago, Salguero saw the plight of themochileros (“backpackers”) and created a kitchen and rooming facility to care for them. She told me she works 12 hours every day. WCK provides the meals and cooking equipment and she covers the cost of everything else, including legal aid, provided by a young woman named Vanessa who has legal training.
Patricia and I asked Mrs. Salguero many questions. I was touched by the authenticity and compassion in her answers. She has seen and heard many tragic stories, including children dying from the cold during the trek through mountainous regions in Colombia. I asked her what she wished for. She said, “Only to keep this place going and help Venezuelans.” She told me the most difficult thing was seeing migrants crying when they received their food because they were thinking of their relatives back home who didn’t have food to eat. Her biggest joy was watching the kids enjoy their meals.
Although I left Cúcuta with a heavy heart, I am thankful there are selfless people like Patricia Salguero, Patricia Velasquez, and all of the volunteers, including many Venezuelans, who are working with them. I was humbled to witness the courage and strength of migrants like Giovanna. I know we are doing great work, but it’s hard to come home without that gnawing feeling that I should be doing more.
We all should be.
The day after I left, COVID-19 forced a short-term closure of Casa de Paso and other nearby kitchens due to restrictions on gatherings, leaving thousands of vulnerable Venezuelan migrants without their main source of daily meals. Many of these migrants have been redirected to another kitchen, Nueva Illusión, which we support in partnership with World Central Kitchen. Venezuelans are walking nearly two hours to reach this new location. Nueva Illusión began handing out boxed lunches last week and has seen a huge increase in Venezuelans coming for food. In response to their increased food needs, Acceso has quadrupled the amount of weekly produce we deliver.
If you’d like to support our work, particularly during this time when COVID-19 restrictions have made it even more difficult for Venezuelans to access food, please contact us at email@example.com
Frank Giustra is a Canadian businessman, global philanthropist, founder of Acceso, and Co-Chair of International Crisis Group.
What interests me most on these trips is talking extensively with migrant families. I am interested in their stories because that’s how I learn how to improve our work.”– Frank Giustra, founder of Acceso.