Notes from el Paramo de Berlin

Yelitza Pernia walked through the mountains in a leopard print dress and purple crocs, with five dollars hidden in her Bible. When I met her, she was sitting in front of a dusty Red Cross shelter and struggling to stay awake. Around the end of our interview, she asked me for a favor. “Could you take a picture of me and send it to my family?” she said. “I really want them to know that I’m okay.”

Pernia and I met in el Paramo del Berlin, a small plateau in the Colombian Andes that has become an epicenter of the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Staggering hyperinflation and political chaos has forced over four million Venezuelans to flee the country, and the majority are leaving on foot. These caminantes trek hundreds of miles through the mountains, and el Paramo del Berlin is among the most dangerous parts of their journey. The local nickname for this particular mountain pass is “the refrigerator,” and temperatures regularly drop below freezing at night.

Pernia and the group she was traveling with told me about wandering around small towns in the mountains at night, looking for a shelter or doorway to sleep in. They didn’t have the food or winter gear they needed, and as Pernia urgently pointed out, they were missing something else: connectivity. Thousands of caminantes sell their phones at the Venezuelan-Colombian border, or have phone plans that don’t work in other countries, or are robbed of their valuables along the way. While a phone might not sound as essential as food or shelter, this means that many caminantes are unable to call for help in an emergency or communicate with their families. The Red Cross provides some refugees with simple paper maps, but some caminantes still reported getting lost on the mountains’ winding roads, and many struggled to connect with shelters or find the resources they need.

A record 70 million people are currently displaced worldwide, and conversations with Pernia and women like her help reframe assumptions we might have about the services refugees actually need. After our interview, she rearranged her hair and asked me to take a portrait. I sent it to her brother in Caracas and her friend in Cali. As requested, I told them she was absolutely fine.