When local governments fail to resettle refugees, citizens open their doors
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Marta Duque lives in a white, brick house with red trim in Pamplona, Colombia, a sleepy university town in the mountains. It’s a misty Friday night, and she’s walking in a brisk loop between each room in her house.
She checks on her kitchen, where three volunteers are cleaning the counters and assembling a massive platter of ham-and-cheese sandwiches. On her back patio, another volunteer is brewing a thick chocolate colada in a pot over a wood-fueled stove.
Outside, at least a hundred Venezuelan migrants are waiting patiently in front of Duque’s house. A man wrapped in a pink princess blanket sips water on Duque’s front steps. A young woman in purple crocs trudges toward her house with two small children and a roller suitcase. The crowd is spilling onto the bustling highway out front, and you can see more people coming, walking along the highway’s shoulder with care packages from the Red Cross.
One of Duque’s volunteers opens her front gate, and families with young children start filing inside. They get to come in first.
“This is where the littlest children sleep,” Duque says, gesturing to a cozy room crammed with bunk beds, “the babies and their mothers.” Mothers with slightly older children file into another room lined with Disney blankets and padded floor mats.
Raquel Sandeño claims a mat with her three children, who start quietly eating ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Her daughters are 11 and 9, and her son is 10 months old. She used to work at a school in Carabobo, Venezuela. “We were almost dying of hunger,” she says, when asked why her family left.
They’re headed to Cali, Colombia, and so far, the trip’s been rough. “We came here on foot and it took hours,” she says.
Staggering hyperinflation and political chaos have forced over 4 million Venezuelans to flee their country, and another 2 million are expected to leave in 2020. Many of them are crossing Venezuela’s border with Colombia on foot. Migrants like Sandeño hope to find work in cities like Bogotá or Lima, hundreds of miles away. If they can’t hitch a ride or afford a bus ticket, they walk. Their journey can take days or weeks, and many migrants make the trip with small children. They’re called los caminantes, or “the walkers,” and their main route takes them through the Colombian mountains. It also takes them right past Duque’s house.
In response, Duque has converted her home into one of the only local shelters for caminantes. The volunteers who help her cook dinner are also caminantes; several Venezuelan migrants currently live with her. According to an unofficial log she keeps, she says she helps 300 to 500 migrants a day.
‘We never put the car back in the garage’
“I started doing this like any normal person would,” Duque says, “when I saw people in front of my house in the cold and rain. I was hesitant to take them into my house at first because I didn’t know any of them. So, I told my husband, ‘Let’s take the car out of the garage. The car won’t get sick, but they will.’ That’s how this all started.”
“We never put the car back in the garage,” she says, then laughs.
That was back in January 2017. There weren’t many migrants at first, Duque says, maybe a few dozen a day, mostly young men looking for work. Then the food shortages in Venezuela accelerated, and the medical system collapsed even further. Hundreds of young families started showing up at Duque’s home. Now, Duque says she sees everyone.
“The ones who really stick with me are the pregnant women who make this trip when they’re eight, sometimes almost nine months along,” Duque says. “After walking all day, sometimes they arrive at my house already dilated — they’re in pain, but they tell me they want to keep going.”
The caminantes’ climb through the mountains is notoriously dangerous. One of the mountain passes is nicknamed La Nevera, or the refrigerator, and it’s over 10,000 feet above sea level. A lot of caminantes make the trip in crocs or flip-flops.
“They destroy their feet walking,” Duque says. “A lot of the children are coming from hotter places, and they don’t bring coats for this frigid climate.”
Duque has massaged a little boy’s feet with hot water and soap; they were shock-white and wrinkled in his soaked-through shoes. She’s warmed up caminantes with hair dryers when she was afraid they were getting hypothermic. When a little boy died after collapsing at a nearby gas station, it was Duque who arranged for his body to be cremated. She’s helped thousands of people and seems to remember them all.
Colombia’s welcomed Venezuelan migrants. Over 1.4 million Venezuelans have already resettled here, and the country has maintained open borders and even changed its citizenship laws to accommodate them. But Colombia has also resisted building shelters or formal refugee camps for caminantes, and Duque doesn’t receive any government support for her work. She’s cobbled together funding from international aid organizations, including Oxfam and Rotary Club International. The International Red Cross helped her remodel her kitchen and bathrooms so that they were up to code.
Still, money is a constant issue. “About a month ago, I had to stop serving food for maybe a week because I was in debt to the gas company,” Duque says. Her electric and water bills are also extremely expensive.
Then there are her neighbors. Plenty of people support what Duque’s doing, and her next-door neighbor also serves caminantes dinner. But anti-Venezuelan attitudes are on the rise in Colombia, and some of Duque’s neighbors have complained about the crowds her shelter attracts.
“They’ve tried to shut me down a couple times,” Duque says. Last year, Pamplona’s mayor briefly closed her shelter in response to a community petition, which claimed the caminantes were blocking local roads and posed a public health risk. Duque successfully fought to reverse the decision with the help of local activists and sympathetic press coverage.
The most important thing is freedom
For Duque, this work is the culmination of decades of community activism. She got involved in local politics 20 years ago, and migrants’ rights are personal for her. That’s because Duque is a former migrant herself. She grew up poor in the 1960s and 1970s when Colombia was in the throes of a bloody civil conflict, and Venezuela was the country people migrated to. Thousands of Colombian domestic workers cooked and cleaned for Venezuelan families, and when Duque was 12, her father sent her away to join them.
“Caracas was the other side of the world for me,” she says. She was hired by a well-to-do family, but they told her she was still paying off her debt from her trip across the border. They never paid her.
“I felt like they had sold me,” Duque says. “I stayed in a 10th-floor apartment, and I felt like a prisoner — I never went out.” She remembers watching families celebrate Christmas from the apartment window as she ironed the families’ shirts at night and took care of their young children. When she threatened to leave, they said she’d turn her in to the police. Duque says this dragged on for two years until she set a fire in a wastebasket.
“They all thought I’d gone crazy, and was going to burn down the apartment,” she says. “It had been an accident, but I let them think that.” That’s when they let her go.
Duque worked in Venezuela on and off for the next 10 years.
“That’s how I came to believe that the most important thing to any human being is freedom,” she says.
After Duque shows the young mothers and children to their rooms, she and a volunteer stand on her front stoop with a platter of sandwiches. It’s time to feed everyone else.
“Alright, listen to me,” she shouts. “Everybody get in line!” The windows to her home are flung open, and you can faintly hear a group of mothers singing to their children inside.
“A police officer once told me … ‘Do you think anyone will thank you for this?’” Duque says. “I don’t expect anything from people. I never did any of this expecting to be given something back.”
She walks back inside to check on the kitchen. Tomorrow, she’ll do it all again.