Cúcuta, Colombia: Venezuelan Refugee Crisis

This week I was invited last-minute to jump on a flight to Cúcuta, Colombia with a small group from my church to deliver relief supplies and document progress on a refugee care project our church is sponsoring through Iglesia Cristiana para la Frontera.

I don’t even know where to begin. If you follow my blog or my Instagram, you know I have seen a lot of poverty and witnessed some very heartbreaking desperation on our planet. However, I’ve never seen anything quite like what I saw in Cúcuta. What you will see on the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, dubbed ‘The Bridge of Desperation‘ by the BBC, is a mass of humanity walking across the border from Venezuela into Colombia with everything they own, leaving everything behind in the hopes of finding a new beginning in Colombia or other countries.

The thought of leaving everything behind and traveling with backpacks and suitcases by foot with young children who themselves were also carrying what they could… can you imagine it? I was, and still am, at a loss for words to describe what I was faced with in this sea of humanity. Optimism met with fatigue, desperation mixed with smiles of hope, and for some, simply downcast and depleted.

As I am not a journalist nor an economist I won’t speak with any authority regarding the political situation or what economic missteps led to the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, but the evidence speaks for itself, there are multitudes who have given up hope on finding a sustainable life in Venezuela.

According to a June 2019 BBC report citing UN statistics, more than four million Venezuelans have fled their country amid an economic and humanitarian crisis. The pace of people fleeing has “skyrocketed” since the end of 2015, with around one million leaving in the last seven months alone.

If you want to learn more, I suggest this article, “Venezuela crisis in 300 words“, or this short documentary our church produced about the crisis and what we are doing to address it in conjunction with local leadership.

On the outskirts of Cúcuta, you will find the brave little church Iglesia Cristiana para la Frontera, in English, “The Christian Church for the Border.” Here from within this humble church building, you will find volunteers both local and international scurrying around doing their best to serve the thousands of refugees fleeing Venezuela daily.

My church, Ecclesia Houston, has partnered with this beautiful congregation to help enhance their reach to the refugees. On the day of our arrival, we served over 4000 hamburgers, cupcakes, and sodas to the weary travelers, some who had traversed Venezuela for weeks by foot to reach the border crossing. It took us four hours to serve that many meals. The refugees were so patient waiting for up to two hours for their meals, and they were very happy to be the subjects of my photos.

Ecclesia Houston periodically funds what essentially amounts to a giant block party for the refugees, with live local music creating a festive feeling of happiness as these people get a meal that would cost them maybe a month’s wages at best. There was so much joy present. As strange as a sight it must be for them to see us, clearly foreigners, you could just tell that they felt we appreciated their struggle and that we were there to serve them.

We have also assisted with clean water distribution points called “Operation Blessing” just trying to meet the basic needs of hydration in the year-round heat near the equator.

The local church is also hosting an outreach further into Colombia called “Carpa Esperanza” or in English “Tent of Hope.” Here volunteers stay posted around the clock as they deliver thousands of meals to these tired sojourners each month, clean water, first aid, and provide the exhausted pedestrian travelers with foot washing and foot massages! True heroes. I am so humbled by their dedication to serve these people so faithfully and selflessly.

As we made the road trip to Carpa Esperanza we came across many refugees making their way up the mountainous passes. We were looking for the opportunity to pick up any families traveling with babies or small children, and we found a few quite early on along the way. We crammed them into our van and got to hear their stories of desperation and courage.

One family had a small grocery store they left behind because the police were taking all their profits. They left everything behind and had been walking for three weeks. That day itself they had already been walking since 6am, for four hours. We took them and two other families to the Tent of Hope and they could not have been happier.

Another family we met had been walking from deep within Venezuela for over 3 months, I can only assume with many stops just trying to make ends meet and survive. Yet here they were in the Tent of Hope. One lady told us as she was getting her foot washing and massage that she herself was a manicurist and hoped to set up a little streetside shop in Bogota, as she had hauled along all her supplies from Venezuela, by foot. Such optimism and determination in the face of such overwhelming odds, I thought to myself.

We were able to deliver gifts from the Houston Astros Baseball team– jerseys with the Venezuelan flag on the sleeves, baseball caps, and Astros backpacks. Our star player, Jose Altuve, is from Venezuela and so the Astros have a strong awareness of the refugee situation here. Every refugee present was experiencing shock and joy, as they are very well aware of the Astros as baseball is a very popular sport in Venezuela!

After our team passed out the gifts, washed and massaged feet, and gave out lots of hugs and fist-bumps, we were able to buy passage on a big bus for all of them to make it to the next big city along the way, getting them much closer to their destinations. They all waved and shouted their well-wishes and goodbyes to us. I have rarely seen such gratitude and excitement. It’s like we had given them a reset and they were good to go for the next stretch, whatever that would require of them.

In my photos, you will also see our pastor, Chris Seay, recording a sermon with his feet in the local river to be shown to our congregation back home in a couple of weeks. Pastor Chris has a passion for justice and simply being the hands of feet of Jesus to a hurting world. We never cease to be inspired by his determination to make a meaningful difference in our world.

Our church has also bought a van for Iglesia Cristiana para la Frontera to use as a shuttle for families with young children to get to Bogota, the capital, where more refugee services and job or entrepreneurial opportunities exist. You’ll see it in the photos. And another van purchase is underway.

We were told by Juan David, the local director of Carpa Esperanza, that it takes the refugees an average of 10 hours on foot for every one hour a car can drive on the same roads. So I can only imagine what a godsend a free ride seems like to these determined but exhausted people.

I cannot come close to describing with words what I saw, and my photos also fail. But I hope these images will at least introduce you to the beautiful souls of Venezuela and Colombia who are involved in this crisis. I hope it will give you some small taste of their struggle and yet their determination and courage as well. I hope these images will also give you hope– hope that together, we can make a difference if we overcome indifference.

 

 

Rajasthan, India: Amer Palace, Streets of Jaipur, Neemrana Fort Palace

Continuing north from Gujarat we made our way to Rajasthan in northwestern India. I’ve been traveling back and forth to India for my entire adult life but never had the chance to visit Rajasthan. It’s known as the archetypical India of old, the source of many of the hyperbolic images you probably associate India with. So I was of course very eager to get my first taste of it.

I didn’t have a lot of time to fully immerse myself, and I didn’t get my dream shot of camel merchants in the desert at sunset lol, but what I was able to take in was thoroughly spellbinding. While I didn’t have time to hit every famous site, the real treasure of India is her people so I’m very grateful I had the chance to meet a few of these living jewels.

The two sites I did get the chance to take in, Amer Palace, which you will see first here, and then Neemrana Fort Palace on the way to Delhi provided endless scenes of classic Indian architecture and history. I hope you’ll enjoy the photos!

India: Mumbai to Ahmedabad

After my visit to South India, I took a flight to Mumbai where I joined my friends Edward Sanchez and Anita Jaisinghani to take the overnight Gujarat Mail train to Ahmedabad. Anita is originally from Ahmedabad so it was a real treat to have her show us around her hometown. Edward is an award-winning filmmaker who came along to do a short documentary about our journey and the work of She Has Hope.

Anita is the owner of what she refers to as an “India-Inspired” restaurant in Houston by the name of Pondicheri. She is currently embarking on her latest venture called Queen Scarves which will feature a line of headscarves made from fabrics sourced in India.

Many of the scarves will be made by trafficking survivors who are recovering at the She Has Hope rehabilitation home where they find purpose and empowerment as they learn various tailoring skills. A generous portion of proceeds from the sale of the scarves will be used to pay the artisans fair trade prices for the pieces they produce as well as to fund their programs.

Thus you will see many photos in this set showing you the amazing fabrics we shopped for while we were in Ahmedabad.

Then, of course, there were the amazing people of Ahmedabad. They were extremely welcoming and so happy to be photographed. I have found this to be true all over India. It’s a photographer’s dream come true to be able to freely interact with the locals and have the honor of shooting their portraits.

For my fellow statistic lovers, here are some mind-boggling stats I’ve gathered on Ahmedabad and India population topics. Honestly, this is just me rambling but in case you find this kind of thing interesting I wanted to put it out there:

Ahmedabad is the seventh-largest urban agglomeration in India by population (6,361,084), and the fifth most populous city in terms of people living within the official city limits. Interesting to note that my hometown, Houston, has about the same urban agglomeration population as Ahmedabad at 6,315,000.

However, the real difference can be found in the population density of the two cities. Ahmedabad is extremely crowded with 22,100 people per square kilometer, whereas Houstonians enjoy a sparse urban sprawl of just 1,300 people per square kilometer!

This kind of density is seen throughout India. Many do not realize that India has a current estimated population of 1.339 billion which is more than four times the population of the United States. Here’s the rub: India sits on a landmass only 1/3 the size of the United States. So we’re talking about four times the population of the US, on only 1/3 the amount of land.

Add to this the challenge that 31% of this population lives in urban areas. This means that just India’s cities alone hold a population of 415 million people, more than the entire population of the United States and Canada combined. I do not envy the infrastructure challenges the Indian government is faced with.

Yet in spite of these challenges, India is finally taking some bold steps to fight its environmental crisis. I am so happy to report that almost all of India’s 29 states have banned plastic bags, and many have banned all single-use consumer plastics such as plastic drinking straws as well. It’s a wonderful thing to see the people of India standing up to take pride in the beauty of their amazing country and unparalleled heritage.

This is a major step for India’s staggering environmental crisis, as most cities do not have any well-organized trash collection systems and estimates put the time it takes a plastic bag to decompose at anywhere from 20 to 1000 years. Even at 20 years in a best-case scenario, imagine the accumulation of plastic bags in such intensely dense population centers with no organized trash collection systems?

The plastic litter had completely overwhelmed Indian cities and meanwhile, plastics disposed of before the bans are still seen strewn about the landscapes, seashores, and riverbanks taking their time to decompose. But this new of the bans is great progress and gives me a lot of hope for the future of India to avert a full-blown environmental catastrophe.

So I have given you quite a lot to think about regarding India! Now let’s take a look at some of the beautiful Gujarati fabrics and the beautiful, hospitable people of Ahmedabad!

Note the bonus content at the end of this post with some food shots and a few Ahmedabad restaurant recommendations! 

Bonus content: food shots taken with my iPhone along with a couple of videos of street life during the rainy season. Restaurants you MUST try when you’re in Ahmedabad: Swati Snacks (could eat here every day), The Vishalla, House of MG, and the Green House.


South India

My recent trip to (South) Asia began with a visit to a boarding school for at-risk youth including trafficking survivors in South India. My lifelong local friends operate these programs, so I’ve been able to visit their campus many times during my travels to India since I first fell in love with the country in 1993.

It is always so inspiring to see the smiles of these children knowing the circumstances from which they have come. Learn more about this education program at PeaceGospel.org and their girls’ trafficking response programs at SheHasHope.org.

The program includes an accredited day school for local at-risk children, many of whom, without the free education and fresh-cooked meals the program provides, would otherwise be involved in child labor because the families cannot afford the supplies needed to keep the children enrolled in other local schools. Orphans recovering from trafficking (slavery) situations are able to find boarding at the school where their complete resident care is provided for. Much of the evidence of the success of the programs is found simply in their smiles.

Photography note: I took over 600 photos of these kids but had to face the hard task of narrowing it down for this blog post. I managed to get it down to 105, I know it’s a lot, but it’s the best I could do in choosing from so many great smiles!

 

Amsterdam: Venice of the North

Or is Venice the Amsterdam of the South? Whatever the case, I was thoroughly impressed with this city. With an intricate web of both wide and narrow canals and a staggering number of bridges (1281 to be exact), there’s an endless amount of exploring to be done. Rent bikes and find your way around the canals and the parks of this gorgeous city and you will not be disappointed! I would suggest staying away from the too-commercialized city center, one walk-through to discover some very quaint side-streets is a good idea to get the feel there as you come out of the “Centraal” Station, but the more serene and appealing parts of the city, in my opinion, are toward the middle of the fan of canals that emanate southwest from the station.

The summer daylight lasts from about 5am to 11pm and due to the city’s high latitude, the sunset seems to last for 2-3 hours, setting very slowly, providing surreal light shows during golden hour and the extended blue hour. I hope these few shots might give you some feel of the city. I cannot wait to return to explore more of the Dutch countryside. A quick trip to Bloemendaal for a concert gave us a little preview. There’s water everywhere, and nature is on grand display at every turn. The country is very environmentally conscious and it shows.

Per i miei amici italiani:

Amsterdam: Venezia del Nord. O è Venezia l’Amsterdam del Sud? In ogni caso, sono rimasto davvero impressionato da questa città. Con una rete intricata di canali ampi e stretti e un numero impressionante di ponti (1281 per l’esattezza), c’è una quantità infinita di esplorazioni da fare. Noleggia le biciclette e fatti strada tra i canali e i parchi di questa splendida città e non rimarrai deluso! Suggerirei di stare lontano dal centro della città troppo commerciale, una passeggiata per scoprire alcune stradine molto pittoresche è una buona idea per farti sentire lì quando esci dalla stazione “Centraal”, ma più serena e parti interessanti della città, a mio parere, sono verso il centro del ventaglio di canali che emanano a sud-ovest dalla stazione.

La luce del giorno estivo dura dalle 5:00 alle 23:00 e, a causa dell’elevata latitudine della città, il tramonto sembra durare per 2-3 ore, impostando molto lentamente, fornendo spettacoli di luce surreali durante l’ora d’oro e l’ora blu estesa. Spero che questi pochi scatti possano darti un’idea della città. Non vedo l’ora di tornare per esplorare più della campagna olandese. Un breve viaggio a Bloemendaal per un concerto ci ha regalato una piccola anteprima. C’è acqua dappertutto e la natura è in gran vista ad ogni angolo. Il paese è molto attento all’ambiente e mostra.

Day 7: Pre-Dawn Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Garden Tomb, Garden of Gethsemane, Holocaust Museum

Continuing my journey with Ecclesia Houston and Pastor Chris Seay via the always-innovative tour company Breaking Bread Journeys, day 7 of our itinerary was perhaps the most profound. There are many inspiring moments along the way but there’s something about waking up before dawn and taking a vow of silence only to hear the scriptures related to the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion at each of the 14 stations. We departed from our hotel at 5am to take the walk to Herod’s Gate and then made the descent to Station One of the Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrows.”

There in the predawn deep blue glow of a sleepy Jerusalem sky, we listened with broken hearts as Pastor Chris read us the scriptures that chronicled or prophesied of Jesus’s walk to his death. It struck me that many of the stations depict those who loved him reaching out to help him, to do something for their beloved teacher and friend. They did not understand anything he had said about his coming resurrection, so to them, this was just the most awful, dark, miserable thing they could imagine happening. Here was the man who had healed, preached forgiveness of sin, fed the poor, taught a Gospel of a higher love, yet here he was the scorn of man, bruised, beaten, flogged nearly to death, then sentenced to carry his own tool of execution while wearing a crown of thorns.

I cannot imagine anything more profoundly distressing, depressing, confusing, or anguishing than these scenes laid before the very eyes of those who had followed him and loved him. In that dark hour, before the sun had risen, I and members of our group were gripped by the reality of those accounts as we trod over stones sometimes dated to the first century. There were few dry eyes as we meditated on those seemingly slow-motion brutal moments of the Via Crucis, or the Way of the Cross.

At the same time, as Pastor Chris read these scriptures, it became apparent that another emotion felt in those steps is a realization of the profound love that God has for us, that while we were yet imperfect people lost in our own ways, Christ died for us because he loved us. I’m no theologian, but I do know a few things about the Bible from my time of studying it personally. I believe that when Jesus was buried in his tomb (Station XIV of the Cross) he descended into hell (“Hades”) and conquered death so that we might have the resurrection into eternal life at our bodily death. “Following his death for sin, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges.” —Joe Rigney

After this intense experience, we visited a much brighter place called the Garden Tomb, a location just to the north of the Damascus Gate believed to contain the empty tomb of Jesus, a site many historians believe to be the place of Jesus’ resurrection. The overseers of the location have done an amazing job of keeping the gardens bright and colorful, as a representation of the glory of Christ’s resurrection, symbols of rebirth blossoming all around us. We took communion in that holy space and we all felt a very present touch of the Holy Spirit, a touch of the very palpable hope of the resurrection in that supremely serene garden.

Later in Day 7, we made our way to the Garden of Gethsemane, another important scene in the story of Jesus’ path to his crucifixion. It is very revealing to me that Jesus prayed in the garden the night before his crucifixion, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” This reveals his humanity, that he knew the fight for the salvation of the world was before him, and in that humanness, perhaps he did not feel he could bear it, and thus he prayed for God to take it. Yet in his humility and submission to God the Father, he relents, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

The olive trees we saw there were at least descendants of the trees that would have arched their embracing arms in sadness over Jesus on his last night before his death (some say they are saplings of those trees that provided rebirth for the trees to carry on, as is the manner of olive trees to regenerate in their same location for thousands of years– either way, a beautiful symbol there, too). So many touch-points for us to feel, see, and experience these places where he walked, where he prayed, and where he loved us with an ultimate love unfathomable among mankind.

As if we had not felt enough for the day, the tour ended at the Holocaust Musem, “Yad Vashem.” There we experienced yet another kind of darkness, one of history’s deepest wounds, the Jewish Holocaust. There are no words to appropriately express the horrors of the Nazi’s deliberate cruelty, a merciless and systematic murder of millions of innocents, in the most unthinkable ways possible. In this contrast to the beauty of God’s love as demonstrated on the Via Dolorosa, we remembered the total depravity of mankind, that we could fall to such a grave brokenness, to an antithesis of love, and the ambivalence of so many who turned their hearts and eyes away from the reality of what was happening all around them in those days. Yet even in those horrible chapters of history, the museum beautifully and thoughtfully documented “The Righteous Among the Nations” — accounts of those who stood up to the ultimate brutality and evil, to rescue and hide Jews who would have otherwise perished.

The group then took a much needed time of reflection and prayer on the bus to help us process all that we had taken in on this inexpressible day. Then Christina Samara and Lisa Moed of Breaking Bread Journeys met us at a farewell lunch and presented all of the group with a small but beautiful gift of cookbooks containing their favorite holy land recipes. We were all so grateful for them and our faithful tour guide, Bassam.

We concluded our last night with a special Shabbat dinner hosted at a local Jewish home by the group called Shabbat of a Lifetime. Photos are not allowed so you will have to imagine the scenes of an authentic Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) meal.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for following along. I hope these blog posts have been inspiring as a visual expression of what we felt this week. God bless you.