Standing on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge at the border of Venezuela and Colombia last week put me at the center of one of Latin America’s biggest refugee and migration crises in decades.
An estimated 50,000 people walk across this bridge linking Cucuta, Colombia, and San Antonio del Táchira, Venezuela, every day. Most are Venezuelans, fleeing their country for good or leaving for the day to find food, medicine or other supplies to take back home.
Venezuela, in many respects, is collapsing. An ongoing political, social and economic crisis has forced more than 2 million people to leave the country. Bridges that link Venezuela to Colombia — like the Simon Bolivar Bridge — once carried trucks and cargo. Today, the spans are shut to vehicles — there is now only foot traffic as a flood of people walk across.
In a nearby town, I met Nayelys. Three-months pregnant with her first child, the 18-year-old left her home in a Venezuelan border town and walked 40 minutes under a blazing sun to reach an emergency health center set up by Americares to provide primary care services. Back home, she might be able to see a doctor, she said, but wouldn’t have access to any medicine she might need.
Nayelys is one of many Venezuelans seeking health services in Colombian border towns. The surge of patients has overwhelmed hospitals and clinics built to serve a more stable local population. Americares, in cooperation with local health authorities, recently launched a new project to establish four primary care centers in Colombia to serve Venezuelans and ease the burden on area health institutions. Three Americares clinics are operating, and a fourth will soon open its doors to patients.
Other community and international not-for-profit and faith-based institutions are providing social services to support Venezuelans as they cross the border to begin a new life. Near the Simon Bolivar Bridge, I visited two organizations — one serving meals to 2,500 people each day and a second providing free showers and hygiene supplies.
This crisis will continue until changes take place in Venezuela. That’s up to the people of Venezuela with support from the international community. Until then, providing essential services to Venezuelans fleeing the country is important for the stability of Colombia and other neighboring nations.
A Venezuelan family seeks care at an Americares primary care center in Colombia. Photo by Nicolo Filippo Rosso.
At one of Americares clinics, I met another young mother. Vanessa is expecting her second child and fled her home in Venezuela with her husband and extended family a short time ago. When I asked why they left, she had a one-word answer: hunger. Vanessa and her husband have settled in a busy town near the border, where Americares operates a clinic. Her husband is earning a small income at the local market, and they have found a small space to live.
When the time comes, Vanessa will deliver her baby at the local hospital. Until then, she is coming to the Americares clinic because the clinic can accommodate her and provide any medicine she needs, as well as quality, compassionate care. The visits to the clinic give her hope the future will be brighter.
After seeing the situation firsthand, I’m afraid the people of Venezuela and their Colombian hosts will have to wait for a brighter future. In the meantime, I will support Vanessa, Nayelys and thousands of others who have found their way across the bridges.