Let me tell you about Luis.
I met Luis in Colombia, less than two weeks ago. He is a Venezuelan caminante, or walker, walking across the border from Venezuela into Colombia in search of work. He left behind a very pregnant wife and three children, not because he wanted to, but because he had to. Once a professional in the energy industry, he saw that job disappear, so he began selling miscellaneous items until that, too, dried up, so he began doing odd jobs for literally pennies a day.
He told us he would work six long days a week and only make enough money for three days worth of food — at one meal a day. When he saw children eating grass and dog poop to have something — anything — in their tummies, he knew he had to leave.
Once the wealthiest country in South America, with the most stable democracy, Venezuela now tops the list of the world’s most miserable countries, just as it has every year since 2015. (Hanke’s Annual Misery Index is the sum of the unemployment, inflation and bank‐lending rates, minus the percentage change in real GDP per capita.)
Pre-COVID-19, some 5,000 Venezuelans left the country every day, resulting in 4.6 million Venezuelans now in other countries. Colombia has the most, with 1.4 million, followed by Peru with almost a million and then Ecuador, with 385,000. Many of the refugees coming into Colombia do so via the border town of Cúcuta, but then face a daunting 125-mile trek that climbs more than 9,000 feet into the mountains. The road is narrow, the truck traffic is heavy and the shoulder almost non-existent, but that’s the path the walkers will follow, going single-file, carrying suitcases, trash bags full of belongings and, often, babies in their arms.
While I was in Colombia, I worked with a team of volunteers from Utah-based Hope Humanitarian and Colombian-based Solidaridad sin Limites to provide medical, psychological, physical and emotional support to the caminantes, some 1,248 of them in one week.
In addition to providing basic screening, arts and crafts for the kids and a couple of articles of clothing, we also had the opportunity to listen and bear witness to personal stories. We heard some of life’s hardest stories, including stories of rape, witnessing murder and kidnapping. We also were privileged to bear witness to the resilience of the human spirit.
We met one young couple who has successfully parlayed their musical abilities into enough income to stay and pay it forward in Colombia. Another former refugee found success in selling socks from a small stand and several others were selling fruit to the trucks that got stuck in construction traffic.
Consistently, the stories we heard were filled with hope — hope that they could find work now, hope they could support family members still in Venezuela, hope for the future, hope that one day they would be able to return to their country.
Perhaps lost in all the news of COVID-19 was this week’s news that putative Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was charged with “narco-terrorism” and international cocaine trafficking. The U.S. State Department announced a $15 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Maduro. Maduro, of course, poo-pooed the charges and responded by calling Trump a “racist cowboy.” But, one day, he will no longer rule with an iron fist, one day, he will no longer control all Venezuelan media and one day, he will not be able to buy votes with boxes of food.
If there is any good to come out of this global pandemic, I hope it is a huge increase in understanding and compassion. If you have felt fear wondering if that cough would lead to being intubated, if you worried that you would not have enough toilet paper or hand sanitizer or bottled water to keep your family healthy, if your first thought was how to keep your kids safe, then might I suggest that you now have reason to have a deeper, more tender understanding of people around the world who flee from war, famine and disease because they too want their families to live.
They are just like you.
Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.