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.