When we left Canada all those years ago, we did not set out with any sort of social agenda. We simply wanted to see the world and expose our girls to culture and help them to see that there is a world beyond their own backyard. Along the way though, you see and experience things that have an impact on you, and your perception of the world changes in a way that following the news of the day does not prepare you for. When confronted with the tragic reality of human existence, it gives you pause and makes you see life in a new light. This is such a moment. Today I want to tell the story of being confronted face to face with people escaping the very real social and economic tragedy that is happening in Venezuela right now.
Living in New Zealand, we were not confronted with poverty or destitution of any kind that we would not have seen walking the streets of Edmonton back home. Travelling to South East Asia (the harrowing border crossing from Cambodia to Thailand by foot comes to mind) changed this, so to did some of our experiences in Northern Africa. In each of these cases though, we were being shepherded along as tourists off to the see the next site. We made strong local connections in New Zealand where we were based, but when we travelled, this did not hapen in the same way.
Now we are in Colombia, and, like New Zealand, we have made strong local connections here. This has been more eye opening than anything we experienced in New Zealand because of the recent history of Colombia, (that Narcos does not even scratch the surface of). and now too, Venezuela. I am not sure of the global awareness outside of Colombia of what is happening in Venezuela right now, but suffice to say we experience the sad reality on a daily basis here in Envigado. Like many of you, (no doubt) I knew that Venezuela was in a degree of economic turmoil, and that things were not great - but I did not fully grasp the level of destitution experienced there. Destiitution that is largely being ignored by a world who is more zeroed in on climate change (as they should be), Donald Trump's latest Twitter gaff, Brexit, or in Canada, the legalisation of marijuana.
Some context: economically, life in Venezuela is not unlike life in Pre WWII Germany, with runaway inflation of the Bolivar expected to hit 1 million %. This makes life for Venezuelans unaffordable, as salaries are not adjusted for this inflation. Example: One 2.4kg chicken costs 12 million Bolivars. The monthly average salary is 248,000. So, if you saved for four years, and bought nothing else, you could buy a chicken.
It is under this reality that an estimated 1-2 million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia in search of a better life. Yesterday, thanks to my wife Stephanie's involvement with her bible study group I met some of these people and heard their heartbreaking story.
Before I continue, with the tale of these Venezuelan families, I will also provide a bit of background on poverty in Colombia, who unlike EU nations currently grappling with the Syrian migrant crisis, has major economic problems of its own before taking on the problems of Venezuela.
If you spend any degree of time in Colombia, on transit, in a taxi, walking around the streets, eating at a restaurant - you will be confronted with the working poor. They will be trying to sell you, most often, tiny candies made by Colombian confectionary giant Colombina. They sell from anywhere from 300-1500pesos ($0.30-0.60CAD). These people will hop on to transit buses for a few stops, and sell. Stand on a street corner, and sell. Approach while you are eating on a patio, at a restaurant, stopped at a traffic light - and sell. All this for the equivelant of spare change, upwards of 10 hours a day, everyday. It is only recently that I learned that many of these people were Venezuelan migrants, undocumented and unemployable. This reality is sad, but not as sad as the stories I will now share. Or maybe, worse because it is likely all of these random vendors have similar stories...
My wife's group wanted to reach out to some Venezuelan families before Christmas and try to help them a little. I am not involved in this initiative in any capacity, but went along to the meet and greet dinner they arranged yesterday. There I heard the story of Brixila, and Henry. (I am not confident of the spelling as in Venezuela, when it comes to naming people, anything goes.) Brixila has been in Colombia for about 3 months, and has been working selling water anyway she could, and then vegetables. She is still struggling to find consistent work, but sends money back whenever she can to help her grandmother and aunt who are looking after the 6 month old daughter she had to leave behind in Venezuela, all this while minding the two year old she has with her. She is here on this occasion (on a Sunday) with a few children from other families who could not attend because they had to work doing similar menial labour.
Henry's story is equally tragic. After working for ten years for a company in Venezuela, his company could no longer afford to pay the workers and he was laid off. Unable to find work and unable to take care of his family he opted to take his wife and two of his children to Colombia. He received enough severance to get him as far as the Colombian border, and then he had to arrange payment with friends on the other side and rely on the kindness of strangers to get him as far as Medellin.
The tragic thing about Henry's story, is that like Brixila, he has another daughter at home in Venezuela. She is 7 and at home because she is in school, and as decrepit as schools in Venezuela are at the moment, it is, in his view, better than no school at all. School in Colombia for undocumented migrants is simply not a possibility. Aside from that, the public school system here, already overcrowded, has issues of its own.
All this reality considered, both seem to be holding up well. They were greatful for the efforts of the bible study group, and happy to share their stories. They seemed neither happy nor sad, more disillusioned. I thought: surprisingly tranquil considering they had left very young children behind in one of the least desireable place on the planet at present, and considering reunion and long term economic prospects remained bleak at best. As a father of three, I cannot imagine leaving one of my girls behind not really knowing for sure when I would see them again. For Brixila, would her daughter of six months even remember her?
Nothing like a does of real poverty and sacrifice to make my present struggle of being tired all the time seem pretty trivial
Happily married to my beautiful wife Stephanie, and proud father of three beautiful girls, Aurora, Brynn and Clara. Master student, working in South America as a Social and English teacher: writing when I find time.