The GSF project promotes the autonomy of migrants in Colombia
By Felipe Herrera-Espaliat, special correspondent in Colombia
In a world that is increasingly marked by migration movements, the flow of people from Venezuela to Colombia was one of the most significant in recent decades and, undoubtedly, the most substantial in South America. Since 2017, almost seven million Venezuelans have been forced to leave their homes due to the collapsing social, political and economic conditions in their country. “There was no milk, nor diapers. Food items were almost impossible to find, shelves were empty. The situation was truly unbearable”, says Francis Cruz who, after having managed a large restaurant in Carabobo state for years, suddenly found himself unable to feed his children. The only solution that seemed possible to him was to venture across the border into Colombia, as thousands of his fellow citizens were doing.
Something similar happened to Enzor Figuera, who has been trying his luck near Cúcuta for the last six years. He left his home and entered Colombia illegally. Without documents, he found employment in various coal mines where he withstood a pace of 15 days of work and two days of rest, for almost three years. He survived a landslide but was trapped below the debris and suffered permanent damage to his left hand, losing mobility, as well as his job.
Enzor moved to Cúcuta with his wife and their four children and has spent the last three years on the streets selling sweets, collecting recycling material from rubbish bins, or simply begging for alms. He admits this with profound suffering, the same he felt when one month ago, he was kicked out of the house where he lived with his family because he could not pay the rent. It was then that he heard about the new Centre for Integral Assistance to Migrants (CIAMI), opened by the Scalabrinian religious community in Villa del Rosario, not far from Cúcuta. It is a modern building complex which houses families, offers them psychological and legal support and meals and invites them to stay for three months so that the adults can receive technical training that will allow them to start their own business or find work.
Promoting the autonomy of migrants
The challenges Venezuelan migrants must face once they reach Colombia have to do with obtaining legal status in the country, but also with the possibility of carrying out some form of activity that will allow them to make an honest living. While the first groups to leave Venezuela were made up of people with a high level of professional training, in the last two years, there has been a flow of people especially from rural areas, with too little training to find work in the city. This reality has been the focus of the Global Solidarity Fund (GSF), a philanthropic organization present in different countries around the world which is promoting a “Hub for social innovation” in Colombia.
After determining that religious organizations are the most efficient when it comes to supporting migrants, the GSF is now helping them coordinate with each other, seeing how, when they work together, they are able to more effectively reach the objectives of their individual missions. This was the case for various communities of women, like the Sister Adorers and the Sisters of Divine Will, who are now seeing the fruits of their collaboration. In Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, they dedicate themselves, according to their own charisms, to the integral promotion of women, providing assistance especially to victims of sexual exploitation, given their vulnerable condition. Sister Ilse Villamar explains that the women who arrive are “devastated, feeling dirty and believing that they are incapable of doing anything”. That’s why, in addition to strong psychological and social support, they are offered training in activities like tailoring, sewing and giving manicures and pedicures. But that is not enough.
Finding employment or endeavouring to start one’s own project is always a challenge, and addressing this specific challenge is the second stage for the Global Solidarity Fund’s “Hub for social innovation”. “The core is truly creating a new system, innovative solutions that combine migrants’ expertise, skills and trust in religious congregations, with innovation and a capacity to create jobs and markets in businesses”, explains Marta Guglielmetti, Executive Director of the GSF.
Thus, in order to allow migrants to become independent and lead a stable and peaceful life, the GSF is now establishing contacts among religious congregations and different types of businesses that can offer job opportunities to people who already have good training. At the same time, the GSF is promoting activities that facilitate insertion into the market of those who choose to start their own business. This model of collaborative work, which aims for autonomy, would help put an end to the ‘vice of welfarism’ with which many international aid agencies cancel out people’s skills, according to Scalabrinian priest Flor Rigoni. Fr Rigoni has worked with migrants in Latin America for 40 years, and he assures that welfare “is a drug. A drug with which the United Nations justifies its survival. A drug for the migrant, because it makes him or her dependent upon my help”.
The joy of overcoming
In the Kennedy neighbourhood in Bogotá, the Scalabrinian religious sisters run a welcome and training centre for migrants, founded by the Archdiocese of Bogotá. There, with support from the Global Solidarity Fund and together with a group of experts, they coordinate training programmes in beauty treatments, baking and even sectors like accounting and business planning, so as to allow each person to choose whether to find a job or start a business. They even offer start-up money to those who decide to start their own business. Isa Loyo is one of them. She’s a Venezuelan who has been living in Colombia for four years, and today she and her husband manage a fast-food restaurant. They have an agreement with a distributing company through which their gastronomical products reach the different neighbourhoods in the Colombian capital, while they are still warm. Isa recounts this with joy and pride, grateful for the welcome she received as a migrant, the training she was offered and the future that is now open to her and her family.