By Cristal Montañéz Baylor, International Coordinator for Hope for Venezuelan Refugees and a member of the Rotary E-club of Houston, Texas, USA
It is immensely gratifying to witness children, in the midst of crisis, smiling again over a shared meal. Your heart is touched as you sense their parents’ tension ease and see expressions of hope radiate across their faces.
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes access to food as a fundamental human right. And access to food continues to be a focal point of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis.
We are in the fifth phase of the Hope for Venezuelan Refugees project, which is providing hot “soup meals” to Venezuelan refugees, migrants, and walkers (also known as “caminantes”) on the Cúcuta-Pamplona humanitarian route.
Every day, thousands of caminantes stream into Colombia through “trochas,” or improvised crossings trails along the Colombia-Venezuela border. These trails have become the only access points between the two countries for Venezuelans traveling on foot, who are vulnerable and exposed to a variety of dangers.
Roughly one in seven Venezuelans have left their homeland since the economic crisis began, prompted by hyperinflation, lack of jobs, rising crime, corruption, and a monthly minimum wage of just $2.40. With the May food bonus that now represents $3.50, that is only enough to buy a kilogram of cheese and a liter of milk. This complex humanitarian crisis is resulting in the most significant refugee exodus in Latin America’s history, and is second only to Syria in catastrophic migrations of people.
Venezuelan refugees leave everything behind except for the possessions they can carry on their backs. Entire families walk along the roadside, shoes worn-out from walking, with no jackets or protection from the elements including temperatures that drop below freezing at night at higher elevations. Most of them are hungry, poor, and in desperate need of assistance.
As a Rotarian, humanitarian, and native Venezuelan (now living in Houston), I could not ignore the situation in my homeland. Based on the success of a previous project providing meals and supplies to hospital children in Venezuela, I traveled to Colombia to evaluate the situation and met with members of the Rotary Club of Cúcuta. We created Hope For Venezuela Refugees, working with the Cúcuta club, Rise Against Hunger, volunteers, and partner organizations to provide hot meals to key food distribution centers that serve the migrants walking along the humanitarian route in Cúcuta, as well as temporary shelters in Pamplona.
The first container filled with RAH meals arrived in December 2018, and the distribution of meals began in January 2019. More than 46 tons (92,000 pounds) of Rise Against Hunger fortified meals and 31 tons (62,000 pounds) of locally purchased commodities were distributed to selected food distribution centers, shelters, and vulnerable/extremely poor communities in Cúcuta and Pamplona during the first two phases of the project (January 2019 to January 2020).
Impact of pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, many of the shelters had to close per government guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. However, refugees and “caminantes” continued to flee Venezuela. Shelter and food distribution center coordinators and volunteers contacted us and other organizations for help.
Specifically, they needed food packed in disposable containers, as well as face masks to distribute to the refugees and migrants. At the beginning of April, we initiated the third phase of our project to respond to the growing food insecurity affecting the migrant population.
For a few months during the initial stage of the pandemic, the Hope For Venezuelan Refugees project was the main donor for food centers and shelters on the humanitarian route from Los Patios to El Alto of Pamplona.
In September 2020, Rise Against Hunger joined our COVID-19 efforts and enabled us to increase our hot meals and distribution of Personal Protection Equipment, disposable plates, plastic utensils, portable hand-wash stations, face masks, cleaning supplies, and disinfectants. A total of 59 tons (118,000 pounds) of food has been distributed through March 2021.
Currently, our team is partnering with several other organizations including United4Change Center (U4C), RAG for Refugees, Forced Displacement, and Migration, the Rotary Club of Washington Global, and Rotary Fellowship for Global Development (in formation) to support a fifth phase of our project. We are providing selected food distribution centers and shelters with everything needed to prepare and distribute “soup meals” to the migrant population. Each soup meal consists of:
- A nutritious bowl of chicken and vegetable soup
- An arepa (Venezuelan traditional cornbread)
- A cup of hot panela water (unrefined whole cane sugar)
How you can help
As Rotarians, we cannot sit idly by in the face of such human tragedy. Visit our webpage to learn more about the refugee crisis, the organizations we work with, and to support our efforts to provide Venezuelan refugees, migrants, and “caminantes” with hope and the fundamental human right of access to food. We cannot do this alone!