Rosa Umaña, a Colombian woman who was displaced by the violence in her own country, opens the doors of her home in Cúcuta to Venezuelans who have been forced out by the humanitarian crisis.
The suffocating noise and confusion of the Simón Bolivar international bridge comes to a standstill in the Camilo Daza neighborhood, located in the northwest corner of Cúcuta. The barrio is characterized by picturesque houses and clean sidewaks—a contrast from the filthiness of some Venezuelan districts.
The streets are scattered with small family businesses that sell dog food, sewing supplies, and medicine; there are even a variety of bakeries that recall a Venezuela of the past, one filled with the aromas of fresh bread made from flour and sugar and guava. It is a neighborhood of few resources, largely made up of Colombian families displaced by violence who found, on the outskirts of Cúcuta, a place to rebuild their lives.
Camilo Daza is also full of hair salons, like the one owned by Rosa Umaña. Rosa is popular in her community, not only because of her business, but also because she has been the salvation for many migrants coming from Venezuelan. Numerous people fleeing Venezuela’s profound humanitarian crisis have passed through her home, finding there a place to rest and save up money before continuing their journey to Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Quito, Guayaquil, Peru, Chile, Argentina...
“I was told that she rented out rooms, but when we arrived that’s not what we found—she put us up for free.”Niledys García, MIGRANT STYLIST
Rosa never charged a penny for the lodgings and food she provided. In fact, she even went so far as to give work to some of the migrants she hosted. That is what happened to Niledys García, a Venezuelan who had heard of Rosa from a friend over Whatsapp. “I was told that she rented out rooms, but when we arrived that’s not what we found—she put us up for free,” says Niledys, a mother who migrated four months ago with her two children. They are currently living in a nearby house. “We recently moved,” Niledys proudly exclaims. Niledys is a stylist, and today is one of Rosa’s most trusted employees.
Perhaps Rosa’s compassion comes from the fact that she, too, experienced the Venezuelan crisis firsthand. Rosa first arrived in Venezuela in December of 2001, having decided to flee the violence in Colombia after authorities broke into her house declaring she was conspiring with guerrillas. She decided to go to Valencia (in the center of Venezuela), where she lived for many years. When the country started to experience shortages, she would spend entire days waiting in line to buy food, holding one of her sons in her arms. The crisis worsened, and one day, after hours of waiting, she left emptyhanded while others who had paid bribes for preferential treatment were able to shop. For her, that was the last straw.
She decided to return to Colombia. Rosa had abandoned her house there, and, with an almost childlike resignation, had given it up for lost, knowing that at any moment it could be taken away. “But thank God I managed to make it back here again. There’s nothing left for me but to help those who come here searching for a new life,” she says.
While there are many migrants making difficult journeys, only a few come across people like Rosa—a rose along their path. She is, among everything, a standard bearer in the fight against the stigmatization and xenophobia that followed the wave of Venezuelans fleeing to Cúcuta.
“Thank God I managed to make it back here again. There’s nothing left for me but to help those who come here searching for a new life”Rosa Umaña
Francesco Bortignon, a thin, elderly man with hard features moves towards the window of his office in the heart of the Camilo Daza neighborhood, seeking reprieve from the heat. Bortignon directs the Scalabrini Migrantion Center. “A few years ago, we were working with between 200 and 300 Venezuelans annually. Now the number is over 4,000,” he explains.
For many of those expatriated, the passage through Cúcuta is not rosy. While a large number are in transit, many others remain, sleeping in the streets and searching for ways to survive from day to day. This is the situation according to Óscar Calderón, coordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Northern Santander department. “We have registered a maximum figure of 2,000 Venezuelans that are homeless. The majority of those migrating occupy the poorest regions of Colombia, which frequently results in a kind of struggle amongst the poorest for a minimal standard of life.”
However, the challenges don’t stop there. Another thorn—perhaps the most painful—is the xenophobia. Bryan Román, a strong, dark-skinned Venezuelan, tanned by the sun of the western Venezuelan coast, endures the midday heat of Cúcuta with a resigned stoicism. What he can’t stand, he explains, is the aversion towards migrants and the fear that surrounds them. “You go somewhere that is hiring, especially supermarkets, and when you tell them that you’re looking for employment, they immediately tell you no, because of your accent.”
Bryan has been in Colombia for 15 days, and although he has faced plenty of rejection, he recognizes that he has also received help. He is seated in the patio of the Scalabrini church, together with his brother, sister, and nephew, waiting to enroll the young boy in the center where he will be able to recieve an education. Because of the boy’s illegal status, he cannot recieve education from the Colombian government.
“I’m not afraid of being discriminated against because I came to work humbly and earn my bread,” states Euclides Colmenares, who arrived one week ago and is living in Rosa’s home. In spite of difficulties entering Colombia, he persisted until he was successful. “I didn’t go back because my wife is pregnant, and I have to work to send (money) to them in Venezuela.”
Kelly has made a home for María Valentina Hernández, another migrant. María is young and smiling; she has black hair, white skin, and is 34 weeks pregnant. She crossed into Colombia with her husband. “It costs a lot to give birth over there. You can’t even get surgical gloves or antibiotics,” she says.
As it turns out, crossing the Simón Bolivar international bridge is a vine full of thorns: you must wait at least six hours in line to exit Venezuelan customs, and another six hours to enter Colombia. You have to barter with or avoid the crafty people offering to carry your belongings. You must comply with the demands of the Colombian police, and put up with constant extorsion by the Venezuelan National Guard.
Nevertheless, once inside the country, the heat of a place like Cúcuta becomes the warmth of a home when Rosa, and other Colombians like her, reach out a hand to relieve the uncertainty and despair that many Venezuelans carry.