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Chronicles Of A Venezuelan Exodus: More Families Flee The Crisis On Foot Every Day

Apr 4, 2019
Originally published on April 4, 2019 10:18 am

One young woman is walking to find work so she can send money back to Venezuela for a nephew who has leukemia.

Another is traveling with four of her five kids, in search of food for her family.

As another family hikes along, the husband walks ahead to hide his tears from his children.

As Venezuelans flee their country's deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, Latin America is trying to cope with the largest number of refugees on record. Some 3.4 million Venezuelans are seeking refuge abroad, with the largest number in neighboring Colombia.

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An All Things Considered team recently traveled along one of the Venezuelans' frequent pathways from the Colombian border city of Cúcuta south to Colombia's capital, Bogotá, and discovered dramatic stories of an exodus that began a few years back and has now shifted. What used to be primarily migrant men looking for jobs over the border, relief workers say, are now increasingly groups made up of women and children — whole families who feel they have no choice but to go. By foot. Those traveling on foot, as most are, have been given a collective name: los Caminantes. The Walkers.

Left: Yuletsy Martinez, 19, is holding her 17-day-old daughter. She has a 1-year-old as well. Martinez has been living with her husband in a motel in Colombia for two months. Right: Stefanie Niño, 26, is seven months pregnant and has a second child who is 6 years old. Both women say they came to Colombia because they didn't have access to good prenatal care in Venezuela.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

The way out

For a majority of those fleeing Venezuela on foot, the road out begins close to Cúcuta. Many people pay smugglers to use what's called a trocha — an illegal border crossing through a river. All day long, a steady train of people cross the river carrying their belongings in overstuffed bags.

The Colombian side of the border has become a huge open-air market for all the things that people can't get in Venezuela anymore. Vendors shout to advertise medicines and cigarettes, candy and phone minutes for people to call home.

Jorge Cordero turns Venezuelan bolívar bills into art and sells the artworks in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. Hyperinflation in Venezuela has made the currency virtually worthless.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

Some are offering to buy jewelry. Other merchants shout, "¡Se compra cabello!" — they buy people's long hair for wigs. Others are selling bus tickets to towns in the interior of Colombia.

But hyperinflation in Venezuela has rendered most people's savings worthless, making bus fare out of reach.

So, for the most part, they walk. Rolling suitcases and pushing baby strollers, they walk. Wearing shoes that are too small or not wearing shoes at all, they walk. Many carry the yellow, red and blue backpacks once issued to Venezuelan schoolchildren, now the sign of a caminante.

This family walks on the road between Cúcuta and Pamplona, Colombia. Members of the family estimate they will have 20 days of walking left before they reach Peru. The youngest children range from 1 to 3 years old.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

Single file, they hug the almost nonexistent shoulder of the road out of Cúcuta and up into the hills surrounding the city. They walk toward Bogotá, 350 miles away, on narrow twisty highways with large trucks barreling past.

Some have family already in Colombia or have heard of work in the Colombian capital or in towns along the way. Some are walking hundreds and hundreds of miles farther — as far as Ecuador or Peru.

More women and children

As the crisis in Venezuela deepens, the makeup of the walkers has changed, say relief workers along the road.

Fundación Entre Dos Tierras (Between Two Lands Foundation) in Bucaramanga, in northern Colombia's Santander region, distributes food, medicine and clothes to the walkers. Its founder, Alba Pereira, is a chef from Venezuela who has been doing this work here for six years. She says that she left her country as the crisis was worsening and the government considered her an "enemy," but that she had more resources than those leaving today. She helps feed and clothe some 800 people a day. Lately, she has noticed a change in who is making this journey: "elderly people, sick people, people who are in wheelchairs or on crutches," she says. Many of the women are pregnant or are moms with new babies.

Rosa Sulbaran (from left), Emely Materano, Eliangel Materano, Mariu Materano, Jeremías Materano and Heboni Materano sit on a couch. Sulbaran is Mariu Materano's sister-in-law. Materano left Trujillo, Venezuela, with four of her five children, the youngest of whom is 1 year old. Her husband abandoned the family.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

Mariu Materano, 31, is one of the women traveling with a young child. She left Trujillo, Venezuela, with four of her five kids, the youngest of whom is 1 year old. "I had to cross the border to find food for my children," she says. She sits on the bottom bunk of a bed in a shelter for women and children in the Colombian town of Pamplona. At least for tonight, she'll have a warm, safe place to sleep.

Materano's husband abandoned them. Her 12-year-old daughter, Heboni, breaks down when she talks about this and the headaches she has been getting along the journey. She says her whole body hurts.

With no diapers and no milk for the baby's bottle, their only choice was to walk.

"I used to have a job running a small cafeteria at the university, but all of that ended when the economy in Venezuela collapsed," Materano says. In her town of Trujillo, she made 6,000 bolívares a week, she says, but butter alone cost nearly triple that. Her dream is for her kids to be in school and settled again.

A week and a half later, she and her family have walked back toward Venezuela to Cúcuta, finding they did not have enough resources to continue on.

"This crisis manifests itself in vulnerable women," says Marianne Menjivar, who heads the Colombia office of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian nonprofit. Menjivar says Venezuela's crisis has made family planning impossible. "You are seeing young women with many children who, if this had been 10 years ago in Venezuela, they would have had the resources to choose when they want to get pregnant and when they want to have a family." Add to that a lack of medicine, food and security, and "it's like 15 tsunamis hit the same person."

Stefanie Niño left Caracas, Venezuela, when she was 32 weeks pregnant to have her baby in Colombia. "It sucks because I would like my kid to be born in Venezuela," says Niño, who is 26 years old. "I'm Venezuelan, but we can't have a kid there."

"Nobody's feet can go through something like that"

A horse stands at the highest peak before a path known as La Nevera (The Refrigerator). As the road climbs to 10,000 feet above sea level, temperatures can drop below freezing. This fluctuation is a drastic change from the hot weather in the border city of Cúcuta.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

In Cúcuta, the temperature can hit 90 degrees. On another part of the route, the road climbs to 10,000 feet above sea level, and temperatures can drop below freezing. One mountain pass is known simply as La Nevera — The Refrigerator. While there are some shelters along the path — some set up by aid groups, others by residents who have opened their homes — they have space for only the lucky few.

"It's incredibly hard to go through all of that cold," says Angelis Mendez, who is 19 and traveling with her infant son. She rests on the side of the road with her family near La Corcova, Colombia, hoping to get some food or water before they head over to a shelter nearby. "Making sure the kids are well covered, are warm enough, holding them close to you."

Though not officially verified, stories of possible death from hypothermia terrify the walkers. "We've heard so many stories, about kids whose parents have held [them] close and thought [the children] were alive and then found out that they were dead," Mendez says.

Reina Ballestero is 25. She left Venezuela alone to find work. She's heading to Bogotá so she can support her 5-year-old nephew in Venezuela. He has leukemia.

Finding work will be hard given that Ballestero has no passport or other ID. She lost her documents and all of her clothes when the river swept away her backpack as she crossed the trocha into Colombia. Five days into the walk, her foot is torn with blisters. She's walking barefoot, but she says she has to keep going. "Even if [my feet] stay torn up the way they are, I'll keep moving forward."

Dr. Roberto Rincón drives to small towns on the migrant route, providing free medical care to those in need.

"It's overwhelming to see people who can't walk in their shoes anymore and decide to go barefoot, for hours, and days, in the sun, through rain, through cold, heat. ... Nobody's feet can go through something like that," Rincón says.

As someone who fled Venezuela himself five years ago, he says he can't tell them to stop walking. "Each of them has a dream of providing a better life to their unborn babies and their families," he says.

Help along the way

Aid organizations are at work all along the route. The Colombian Red Cross has a small aid station on the outskirts of Pamplona, a city in Colombia's Norte de Santander region. The aid station is expanding in anticipation of an increase in migrants.

The U.S. government says it has provided about $200 million in humanitarian aid to address the crisis in the region. Most of the funds have gone to Colombia.

Handwritten letters in notebooks and bolívar bills from Venezuelan migrants decorate Alarcón's roadside stand.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

But individuals are also doing their part, like Colombian Marta Alarcón. She runs a roadside stand near Cúcuta selling chips and bottled drinks. Three years ago, she started giving migrants food, water, diapers and a place to rest for the night near her stand.

"I really feel it from my heart," she says. "It's really sad to see so many people, so many women, so many kids, walking by hungry."

Plastered to the walls and hanging from the ceiling of her stand are hundreds of handwritten notes from caminantes. Many of them are written on bolívar bills — the Venezuelan currency that became worthless.

Part guest book, part travelogue, some of the notes seem to simply say: I was here.

"Today on the 26th of January 2019 we're coming as a family of five for a better future for our family."

"We take one more step towards a better future. Leaving behind times of suffering our country is dealing with. But we will never forget our roots. And we're thankful for what will come in this neighbor country of ours."

"With all my heart I love Venezuela."

There is no doubt that this mass migration is straining Colombia, a country that more traditionally has sent migrants abroad. "Colombians, in their tens and hundreds of thousands, migrated to Venezuela in the '60s and '70s and '80s, when Venezuela was a wealthy country and Colombia was not so much," says the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker. Now, more than 1 million Venezuelans, many of them since 2015, have gone to live in Colombia. Hospitals and schools are crowded, especially near the border. Sometimes the local news plays up crime allegedly committed by Venezuelans.

Oscar Martínez rests at a roadside stand near Cúcuta. He wrote a note to Marta Alarcón before continuing his journey.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

But for the most part, the response by Colombia has been positive, says Whitaker. "It won't necessarily last forever," he says, "but right now Colombians are welcoming these Venezuelans and helping them as much as they can."

Colombia under pressure

Colombia's foreign minister predicts the number of Venezuelans in the country could reach 4 million by 2021. That could overwhelm the country.

José Escobar (from left), Miguel Ángel Cordero and Jesús Escobar stop next to the road by a Red Cross aid station outside Pamplona, Colombia. The group came from Yaracuy, Venezuela, and had been walking for six days.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

Whitaker says that about 3 percent of Venezuela's population of 30 million is already residing in the neighboring country. "This is the largest movement of refugees — outside of Syria — in the world," he says. "This is a humanitarian catastrophe right in our region. And one thing that we've learned over the course of the last 20 or 30 years is we're all interconnected."

"Anyone who has feet leaves"

Over the past month, major power outages have rolled through Venezuela, making it even harder to get by. As the crisis continues, more caminantes are a certainty.

Jennifer Guanipa walked out of Venezuela with her husband and two small children in November. Now the 23-year-old prepares meals for migrants in a shelter in Curití, south of Bucaramanga, in exchange for a place for her family to stay.

Jennifer Guanipa sits with her son. She prepares meals for migrants in a shelter in Curití, south of Bucaramanga, Colombia, in exchange for a place for her family to stay.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

Guanipa chokes back tears as she recalls the hardest part of the journey: telling her son they didn't know where they would sleep each night.

"My husband had to walk ahead of us to hide his tears. We didn't know what to tell [our son]," she says. "How do you explain that to a child?"

Despite the difficult journey, Guanipa expects more caminantes to come. She already knows more people who have left Venezuela than who are still there. "Everyone who can walk leaves," she says. "Anyone who has feet leaves."

Caminantes walk back toward Venezuela on the road between Bogotá and Socorro, Colombia. Thousands cross the border each day. Many head back to their home country after failing to find work or shelter.
Ryan Kellman / NPR


The audio story was edited and produced by All Things Considered's Selena Simmons-Duffin and Sam Gringlas.

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