By Mary Tracy
In late September, I got a close-up look at the Venezuelan refugee crisis in Colombia.
I have been living in Colombia on an extended sabbatical from chaplaincy while my husband works for the U.S. Agency for International Development. During my nearly year and a half in Bogotá, I have been asking taxi drivers their opinion about the Venezuelan situation. We usually start with how Colombia has been a good neighbor to Venezuela by receiving so many refugees in recent years. Then we talk about how strange it must feel for Colombians to be on the receiving end of a refugee influx, after many years of a mass migration in the other direction. During the 1980s and ’90s, it was Venezuela that maintained an open-border policy toward its Colombian neighbors fleeing rampant drug- and terrorism-fueled violence.
At this point, my taxi-driving interviewee would usually shrug, and I would speculate aloud that the current situation is not sustainable. The taxi driver would vigorously nod, usually with a sad expression, as if to say, “No matter how much Colombians want to return the favor now that it is Venezuelans in crisis, how many immigrants can we absorb?” Indeed, it seemed clear that Venezuelans would continue to flee the widespread starvation, currency hyperinflation and lack of healthcare – and in greater numbers.
And so in this context, on a perfect, sunny morning, I arrive at Villa del Rosario, on the border between the countries to begin my three-day volunteer stint at the soup kitchen Casa de Paso Divina Providencia of the Diocese of Cúcuta, more commonly known as El Comedor (The Dining Room). My taxi driver and I know that we are close to the soup kitchen when we see the withered-grass soccer field rimmed by refugees who have laid clothes out to dry. Then we see the tall metal wall with a padlocked door and a long line of people waiting to get in. On this wall are colorful posters of Our Lady, Pope Francis and St. Teresa of Calcutta, and a list of supportive organizations: USAID, World Food Programme, U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, and UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency.
Mere steps from this sanctuary, an estimated 40,000 Venezuelan refugees walk daily across the Símon Bolívar Bridge into Colombia to get basic necessities such as food and medical care. Most, but not all, return to their country the same day. To put the number in perspective, the United States is reducing the cap on refugees permitted to resettle to 30,000 people next year, down from 45,000 in 2018.
Entering the soup kitchen the first day, the most noticeable feature is how pleasant it feels. While El Comedor’s space is enclosed behind protective metal walls, padlocked doors and large bodyguards, inside is large bandstand, more cheerful signs from supportive organizations, and plenty of trees that shade most of the large sitting area for those who come to serve, pray, eat and occasionally enjoy live music. Lots of construction workers in hard hats are working on one of two new medical facilities for seeing indigent patients.
The first day, I get a brief tour of the kitchen, pantry, consultation space for sick or pregnant patients, and a nearby makeshift shelter for migrant children run by Fundación Renacer. Then I spend the next two days jumping into whatever job needs doing – peeling potatoes, setting out chairs, doling out food, pouring juice, or carrying food for those whose hands are to occupied with a baby or items for sale. I am relieved that everyone seems happy to have me there, but there is little fuss over showing me the ropes.
On my third day, I graduate to chopping onions. The tall, lanky gentleman next to me clearly has good knife technique and notices my mountain of oddly shaped, oversized pieces. He puts down his knife and takes over my tormented onion to demonstrate. Renewed by his kindness, I make a second effort. Although my onion pieces are smaller and more uniform this time around, my eyes start watering. Smiling behind his surgical mask (which we are all wearing as protocol), he introduces himself as George Stewart, noting that although he is Venezuelan, one of his parents is British. He then gently motions toward the mountain of yucca. I take my knife and move to the yucca station where a couple of other women, already hard at work, show similar kindness in demonstrating how to debark the large branch-like tuber.
As we hack away at yucca, the women report that they are with one of the volunteer church groups from Venezuela that rotates through the soup kitchen. George, however, is a daily volunteer.
Just before we start serving lunch, I meet Father David, director of El Comedor. I have already heard stories about him from my contact at the Colombian International Rescue Committee. Stories about how he maintains the soup kitchen’s integrity by vetting potential donors and collaborators for mission compatibility. My favorite story is about how, when volunteers and patrons became pushy, demanding and reckless, Father David immediately shut down the soup kitchen until civility and order were restored three days later.
I like this story because it reminds me of one of my favorite scripture passages. As Jesus is sending the apostles out in mission, he exhorts them to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10). Throughout my three days at the soup kitchen, I feel unfailing warmth and hospitality from staff and volunteers and gratitude from the refugee patrons. It does not dawn on me until the second day that many of the volunteers were in the same boat as the patrons, equally grateful for the good food and goodwill inside the metal walls.
The mostly Venezuelan team feels utter frustration and dismay on a daily basis, watching their proud and formerly affluent country fall apart. But it was unmistakable how proud they were to join the joyful work of serving, eating and perhaps even dancing a bit, with their brothers and sisters. The refugees will no doubt continue to come. But thanks to the efforts of El Comedor and its staff, they will find love, hope and support in their hour of need.
Mary Tracy, BCC, was an oncology chaplain at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore before moving to Colombia in 2017.