The Weight of Two Worlds
A social worker confronts Colombia’s border crisis, one child migrant at a time.
MAICAO, COLOMBIA — To find someone in Villa Mery, you have to ask around.
There are no street names, only bumpy roads of dust. No house numbers, just walls of breezeblocks, or as you travel farther in, homes made from tin, wood planks, and plastic sheets.
While the next Colombian town is over an hour away, Maicao sits just ten minutes from the border with Venezuela, where a crisis that began seven years ago still wreaks havoc. The situation has led 1.8 million migrants to flee their home country for Colombia. Villa Mery is just one of several informal settlements that absorbs the flow. It is better than some of the other ramshackle neighborhoods around Maicao: a few of the houses have electricity, for example.
One afternoon last February, Alba Rosa Gomez drove to Villa Mery to find a Venezuelan woman who had applied for asylum—“a mother, with five children who were going to be left stateless,” she told me from the front seat of her government car. Dressed in chinos, a white linen shirt, and the green and turquoise jacket of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute, or ICBF, Gomez leaned out the passenger window to ask a passerby for directions.
It was a short conversation: in the settlement, everyone knows everyone, so the woman would be easy to find. We squeezed down a side road, into a section where lots are divided by barbed wire. We parked and walked down a dusty path to a one-room shack. There, a mother named Caroly* sat on the well-worn double mattress where she sleeps next to all her children. It was given to them by another Venezuelan migrant who moved on; before that, they slept on cardboard. And Caroly was grateful for such small mercies.
“I have a roof—thank god I’m not on the street—but here it’s difficult, because of the children,” she told us. She is 30 and has five to feed, the eldest aged 14, the youngest just nine months. “Colombia opened its heart to us to help us, but it’s still a fight. ”
Caroly came to Colombia last year from the once-prosperous Venezuelan port city of Maracaibo. In better times, she and her husband made a decent living selling vegetables. But after years of crisis and then electricity blackouts, rioting hit, and her husband was killed in the violence. She could not find enough work to support her family alone. So, she fled.
Her first stop in Maicao was a United Nations-run camp for migrants and refugees. When her time there ran out, she moved to Villa Mery, carrying the only belongings they had left, and subsisting on a small UN grant and the $2 a day she makes selling empanadas. It is still not enough, though. “After food and rent, I don’t have anything,” she said. “I don’t want money, but help with food, and for my children’s clothes.”
The breezeless, midday heat was stifling inside the one-room house. Gomez perched in the shade outside, her long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She told Caroly to visit the ICBF office the next day for some second-hand clothes and help getting the children into a local school, pledging to continue working on the case. Smiling through tears, Caroly promised to keep the appointment.
Gomez has been doing social work for ten years and exudes a practical, no-nonsense sort of empathy. She rarely cries. But this place, this woman’s struggle, upset her. Her eyes welled up as we walked away to find the ICBF driver.
“This is not a house. It’s a hole, a cave,” she said, shaking her head. “No mother wants to see her children like this. To see a case like this, it breaks my heart.”
Many of those who stay here, close to the northern border, have nowhere else to go.
Venezuela was once the richest country in Latin America. But after nearly a decade of severe economic mismanagement by two presidents, over 90 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty. Their currency is so worthless that entrepreneurial types sell bags and wallets made from discarded notes. Three million children are in urgent need of food, medicines, and education. United Nations figures show a 50 percent increase in infant mortality between 2014 and 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available; the Venezuelan government has suppressed more reporting.
The deterioration has sparked an exodus the likes of which this region has never seen. Already 4.8 million people have left, from a previous population of 30 million, and 1.7 million more are expected to leave this year. According to a December UNICEF report, the profile of Venezuelan migrants is changing, with recent waves made up of more families and young children “willing to travel in more precarious and dangerous ways.” The same report estimated that 1.9 million migrant children from Venezuela will need assistance this year.
And the nation that has received more migrants and refugees than any other is Colombia. It is an unexpected reversal: for decades, Colombians lived in terror amidst a bloody war between the state and the left-wing FARC rebel group, and Venezuela was the enviably stable neighbor to which migrants and refugees fled. Now, traffic goes the other way.
Nowhere is the migration crisis felt harder than at the border. Skilled migrants move on to start over in Colombia’s big cities or travel farther into Latin America, winding their way south to Ecuador, Peru, or even Chile. Some of the wealthiest Venezuelans headed to Europe or the U.S. in the first tremors of the crisis. Many of those who stay here, close to the northern border, have nowhere else to go, no passports or documents to ease their journey to more prosperous places.
José Carlos Molina Becerra, whose three-year term as Maicao’s mayor ended in December, told me last year that the population of the town saw a decade’s worth of growth during his tenure. He estimated that by the time he left office, the city’s population included 60,000 Venezuelans and 170,000 Colombians. The influx has put intense pressure on schools, shelters, and the town’s main hospital, which were already straining under Colombia’s own troubles. “The situation is not easy, and this crisis doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon,” he said.
Now there is a second crisis: the coronavirus. Although the border was officially closed in March, there is no way to close the trochas—the unofficial crossings that many migrants use. “Close one, and another one opens ten meters away,” one Colombian government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told me.
There are still relatively few cases in Colombia—just under 4,000 confirmed, with nearly 200 deaths—but fears about how the virus could impact a vulnerable healthcare system encouraged the government to enforce a swift lockdown and ask for help from other countries to care for migrants. The quick response has so far reined in the virus, but at a cost to migrant families; some, newly unemployed and evicted from their homes, have decided to return to Venezuela.
Amidst all this the ICBF, where Gomez works, continues as the frontline state organization for child protection in Maicao. It’s a herculean task: some children have run away from home and crossed the border alone. There are families in crisis and children suffering from circumstances beyond their control, sometimes neglected and abused.
Last February, I spent four days with Gomez as she traversed the fallout of the migration crisis. In that time, she handled youth detentions, suspected child abuse cases, and visited two foster mothers, one looking after two Venezuelan migrant children whose mothers could not be traced. She defended minors in criminal cases and dropped by the emergency refuge for children to check on a homeless teenager who’d been sliced across the face with a bottle. She also served as a liaison between the police, a hospital, and the Colombian forensic institute about two girls from Venezuela, one of whom was raped by a neighbor.
Gomez’s position is unusual: she is a lawyer, but much of her work would be more commonly identified as that of a social worker, moving between police stations, courts, and house visits. At the ICBF she works on a team of professionals—lawyers, social workers, psychologists, and nutritionists—tasked with protecting children who live or arrive in the region.
The pressure of the crisis is palpable everywhere. When I interviewed people working in the shelters or the UN camp, they hinted at the toll of spending years in an adrenaline-fueled state of emergency response. One official described the pressure on people and systems as an “avalanche.”
Like many of those responding to the migrant crisis, Gomez now regularly works gruellingly long days. Each night, she takes an hour or so when she gets home to lie down on her sofa and decompress, to work through the things she has seen. Sometimes, it’s the only moment she gets to herself in the whole day. But she does not question staying. “With this job I can protect these children from many threats,” she says. “It’s the only institution that has people trained to deal with the needs of these children. What would happen without us?”
She feels that the world, tired of hearing about the Syrian refugee crisis, doesn’t have the appetite to hear about another one.
When Gomez speaks it is in a hushed, measured tone. She worries a profile of her detracts from the real story: the suffering at the border. Like all the experts I met working in this region, she feels people do not really know what has been happening here; that the world, tired of hearing about the Syrian refugee crisis, doesn’t have the appetite to hear about another one. But not knowing about it, or not wanting to read about it, does not stop it from happening. “These people live in a lot of misery,” she says. “Too much misery.”
To her, Maicao is both a troubled and a blessed place. She is a proud Maicanera, born here fifty-seven years ago, but she also rubs daily with its problems. She is the daughter of an indigenous Wayuu mother and a Colombian father. Her parents separated when she was a baby, and per Wayuu tradition, she lived with her father while her brother stayed with her mother. She was 18 when she saw her mother again and speaks just a few words of her mother’s indigenous language.
The days that I was with her, she darted around town toting a big leather handbag stuffed with case files, returning several times a day to the ICBF building. Although the office has been open for years, the road outside is still unpaved, and drivers have to swerve to avoid huge potholes. Families wait patiently inside for their appointments, perched on plastic chairs, trying to catch a breath of air from the open doors.
Gomez’s office is sparse, with a wooden lady justice on her computer and a small beaded rosary nearby on her desk. An electric fan moves around sticky air that rustles the piles of paper casework on her desk. A mother of four herself, Gomez trained as a lawyer and worked with the regional government before joining the ICBF. At first, she worked with Colombian children from the region, or indigenous children living in the semi-autonomous territories. “The migration crisis has changed everything,” she told me as she plucked out files spread over her desk. “This one is from Venezuela. This one too. Most of our users are now Venezuelan. Before, we had referrals from the police, the healthcare institutions, but now it’s also from Save the Children, the UN Refugee Agency.” Between the three lawyers at ICBF, there might be 150 cases in a typical week.
Later, I asked one of her lawyer colleagues, Michael Vega Cuello, what makes a good social worker, and what it is that keeps people like them going. Gomez is “warm, dedicated, a missionary,” he told me. “She loves the children. She’s committed. Respectful.”
Everyone who does this job needs to have sympathy and empathy, but also steel, he added. Working with unaccompanied minors is not easy. “The satisfaction comes with the sense of [having] helped improve the quality of life of the child,” he said. “No one is here for the money—everything we do here we do for love. This job must be among the worst paid in the country. The salaries are bad but here we are. And here we wait.”
Since the UN camp opened in Maicao in March of 2019, the figures have been stark: 60 percent of its residents are children, and many have multiple siblings with only a single mother to care for them. These are the cases that get priority. “There’s a system in place that pre-identifies the most vulnerable,” says Federico Sersale, the UN Refugee Council chief for the region. “People with certain disabilities, mothers alone with three or four kids—it prioritizes people on the street, or in a street-like situation.”
The most vulnerable stay longest, but it is still a temporary camp, and migrants must leave after a few months. One afternoon Gomez took me to La Pista, another settlement like Villa Mery where many go when they can no longer stay at the UN camp. It sits on the edge of town on the site of an abandoned airplane runway. As the sun started to go down, the plastic tarps holding many of the houses together flapped in the wind.
Inside one of these lean-tos, Zuleima sat on the edge of a bed next to her 18-year-old son Rey, who lost part of his skull two years ago in a motorcycle accident. He can no longer talk or walk. Huddled under a mosquito net, she fed him bread softened in a bowl of milk; to ask for more, he prodded her and made a small grunting sound.
She had hoped with the right therapies he would get better, but in Venezuela, she said, “you don’t get medicines.” In Maicao, Rey takes anticonvulsants provided by an aid agency focused on migrant and refugee healthcare, but the family struggles to buy food with the money Zuleima’s husband makes off recycling. “The doctors have not been able to give him an appointment with a specialist,” she told us, “but here we are with him, hoping, fighting.”
Handouts from a battalion of international agencies—the UN, USAID, the Red Cross, and Mercy Corps—are sometimes the only thing keeping families like Zuleima’s afloat. The ICBF helps get children enrolled in school and babies into state-sponsored nurseries so that parents can go to work, while other organizations provide food rations doled out at soup kitchens. But the assistance is often only temporary, and often not enough.
The situation is critical for many families, even those with two parents. Single mothers struggling to work and care for their children, and teenagers who arrive alone, are in an even more precarious situation.
Every week, Gomez says, the social services team in Maicao picks up unaccompanied minors after receiving calls from the hospital or the police station. These are usually complex cases, involving children who have travelled across the border on their own or lost their parents. Felipe Muñoz, the Colombian government border czar, told me that more than 3,000 Venezuelan children have been taken into care since 2018. Some were being exploited, others were abandoned, and yet others were at risk of being abused.
Finding homes for them puts additional pressure on already sparse resources. “In the case of a Colombian child, [foster] placements last for 18 months, then they are put up for adoption,” Gomez says. “In the case of a Venezuelan child, it’s indefinite. The adoption of Venezuelan children has not been approved. So the children stay here.”
There are only a handful of foster homes in Maicao for abandoned children. “This is one of the biggest problems that we have, that we don’t have many spaces,” Gomez says. “We can place three or four children in each home. When lots of children arrive at the same time we don’t know where we are going to put them.” So placements are made all over the country.As the numbers of children in Colombian state care grow, the pressure on the system intensifies. For those dealing with this impossible situation, Gomez says, “we feel like we are carrying the load of two countries.”
60 percent of the residents of the UN camp are children, and many have multiple siblings with only a single mother to care for them.
On my last day with Gomez, we visited a foster family looking after two young girls: a Colombian teenager whose newborn baby sleeps in a cot by her bed, and Luz, a 12-year-old girl from Venezuela who was raped by a neighbor. We first met her earlier that week at the medical examiner’s office, where she sat cocooned in her mother’s arms, apprehensive and nervous, perched on a plastic chair in the waiting room.
Her foster home was a small house with polished concrete floors. White metal grills curled over the open doorway and the windows. The girls’ room, set just off the living room, was spacious and immaculately clean. Lunch bubbled away in the kitchen, but Luz’s foster mother told us the girl has little appetite.
Hers was a horrifying case, made worse by the fact that the family of the accused had been roaming Luz’s neighborhood looking for her, hoping to intimidate her out of filing a police report. The family seemed to have learned of her relocation, too: a stranger on a motorbike had been trawling the streets for her. What was supposed to be a safehouse was no longer safe.
Luz sat on an oversized rocking chair, gliding back and forth while she watched TV. She was nervous, quiet, her hair braided and pulled up into a tight bun. As she spoke, she pulled her knees into her body, holding them close. “I have a pain in my chest,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t sleep. I feel like the walls are closing in.”
Gomez sat close to her on a sofa, gently trying to reassure her. “What you are feeling and going through is normal,” she said. “What you have been through is serious, and you are going to get treatment where you are going.”
Later that afternoon, Gomez continued, someone would come to take Luz to the departmental capital, Riohacha, where there was a clinic that treated child victims of sexual violence. Watching Gomez, I realized the job is also about patience—walking overwhelmed migrants through bureaucracy over and over. Helping them to understand their rights, fighting on their behalf.
“Do you know Riohacha?” she asked. “It has the sea. They will take you to the beach. You can eat an ice cream.” The girl mumbled a quiet assent and got up to get her few belongings piled up neatly in a corner.
The heat of the day was intense by the time Gomez left. She was relieved to send Luz to the team of specialists. The results they get are good, she told me: one girl transferred last year felt so safe she never wanted to leave. Others return to their families with impressive coping skills to manage deep trauma.
Luz will “never forget something like this,” Gomez said. The best thing she can do is help her through it, and make sure that for now, she is safe.
*The names of all migrants in this story have been changed or abbreviated.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.