CUCUTA, Colombia – On the winding highway between the Colombian cities of Cucuta and Pamplona, volunteers acting like guardian angels provide clothing, food and shelter for Venezuelans walking away from the crisis in their country to find a better life in other South American nations.
After entering Colombia by the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, tens and perhaps hundreds of Venezuelans walk every day the 77.6 kilometers (48.2 miles) between the heat of Cucuta and cold Pamplona on a highway that often presents steep slopes to climb, and on which, according to Colombian Red Cross estimates, their hike can take 17 hours.
Pamplona is the first main stop on a much longer trek of hundreds of kilometers, between Cucuta and cities of the interior like Bucaramanga, Bogota and Medellin, along which they must deal with obstacles like the Paramo of Berlin, a kind of foggy moorland with temperatures that sink to around freezing before sunrise.
Nonetheless, Venezuelans on that road find shelters where they are donated clothes and given medical care, a great relief on their punishing journey with a suitcase or bag of goods packed on their backs, or in many cases, little children.
One such shelter was established by the evangelical church known as the World Revival Center headed by Pastor John Jairo Gauzaya, who told EFE that his goal is to “provide the migrants with meals, food products, shoes, clothes, and above all, the word of God.”
“Our intention is to give to everyone in need whenever we have what they need,” he said.
In the house by the highway that his church has fitted out to attend the itinerants and which has a small warehouse with stores of pants, shirts and footwear to be donated, there is also a space for at least 50 people to spend the night when necessary.
Gauzaya also said he advises itinerants that they shouldn’t trust everyone along the way and that they will need a lot of strength because not everywhere will they be treated equally well.
According to his estimates, an average of between 100 and 150 people pass by this migrant shelter every day.
One of them was Elvis Torreal, who spoke with EFE before leaving the refuge and who had abandoned his native Barquisimeto, capital of the north Venezuelan state of Lara, and left his family behind with no food in the house.
“One of my sisters and my mom took up a collection for my ticket, I traveled as far as San Antonio and from there I plan to reach Bucaramanga on foot,” he said.
Despite this 190-kilometer route, Torreal is set to walk the entire distance – because he has no other choice – in order to get to where he can make some money to send home to his family.
“They’ve given us a lot of help with food and drink, which is very important. I’m sad because I left my family in Venezuela, but I have faith and hope in God that everything will turn out fine, and that with my faith I’ll have the strength to carry on,” he said.
Some of the help he received was from the Colombian Red Cross, which has a stand outside Cucuta that provides water, medicines and food to whoever needs them.
On the road, everyone begins making friends and they form groups to protect themselves, to help and encourage each other not give up the good fight.
One such person was Osvaldo Antonio Vargas, who left the northern Venezuelan state of Yaracuy to seek a new life in the Colombian province of Nariño on the border with Ecuador, faraway on the other side of the country, where he is walking with about a dozen compatriots.
“We’re going to where a nephew of mine is waiting for us on the Ecuadorian border. He works there and he’ll provide me with somewhere to stay,” Vargas, who until a few months ago was a truckdriver, told EFE, adding that he has received medications and water along the way in Colombia and has been treated “fantastically.”
With him is Junior Javier, a young Venezuelan traveling with his girlfriend Andreina and who said that he has “found people in the streets who have helped them, given them good advice and who have also given them water.”
His immediate destination is Bogota, where he hopes to settle for a time and has friends there who can take him in for a couple of days, but his final goal is to reach Peru, where he believes he has more people who can help him and where he will have a better chance of getting a job.
However, his real hope is that the crisis in his country will soon be resolved and he can return as soon as possible to his hometown, Maracay, capital of the northern state of Aragua.
“That’s our dream, that’s where our families are,” Javier said with the same hope that no Venezuelan migrants ever give up.