Field Update: Venezuelan Families Struggle Amid Worsening Conditions
Christine Bragale, Project HOPE’s head of public engagement, visited Project HOPE’s programs in Cúcuta, Colombia and shares what she’s seeing.
Project HOPE is actively on the ground providing aid to Venezuelans. Read the latest updates here.
As thousands of displaced Venezuelans continue to pour across the border into Colombia daily with hopes of escaping extreme food and medicine shortages, Project HOPE is on the ground in Colombia to provide urgently needed health services to support local hospitals and clinics overwhelmed by the number of patients seeking medical care. Christine Bragale, Project HOPE’s head of public engagement, visited Project HOPE’s programs in Cúcuta, Colombia — a city along the border that is receiving the greatest number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants – and shares what she’s seeing.
The dictionary defines grit in two ways:
- Abrasive particles or granules, as of sand or other small, coarse impurities found in the air, food, water, etc.
- Firmness of character; indomitable spirit; pluck.
Both definitions apply here. My hair is a rat’s nest. The wind is blowing so hard and there is so much grit in the air. It gets into your eyes; it covers your skin and clothing.
And: we went to the Simón Bolívar bridge, an official crossing point between Colombia and Venezuela, where the grit of the Venezuelan “pendulares” (like a pendulum, the folks who go back and forth, often daily) is astounding.
First example: Some Venezuelans will sell just about anything for cash, including their own hair, and a man told me mine had value and he wanted to buy it.
As I already knew from news reports, the bridge is blocked with shipping containers, but there is a narrow pathway for people to walk across. Many Venezuelans go back and forth each day – their homes and jobs are in Venezuela, but there’s no food or medicine to buy, or none at affordable prices. Most of those crossing back into Venezuela are carrying massive amounts of supplies – on their backs, on their heads, or pulling heaving suitcases behind them. Those with smaller packs, or no papers, cross through the informal crossings called “trochas.”
The lines into Venezuela are long and slow. People are carrying pounds of supplies, everything from toilet paper and Pepsi to cooking oil and vegetables. To make money, men offer up their services to carry the supplies, using dollies, carts, wheelchairs, strollers or their own backs and shoulders.
We spent the bulk of Wednesday at Erasmo Meoz University Hospital, the only district hospital and the only hospital around that serves Venezuelans and Colombian “returnees” who are uninsured. Project HOPE has team members there working in the OB/GYN department, mostly treating Venezuelan refugees and migrants.
Here, waiting rooms are packed to capacity, and the hospital told me they are at “alerta amarilla” (yellow alert), meaning they are near capacity and are only taking emergency patients.
Sandra, a Project HOPE nurse in the OB/GYN department, showed me her tracking document, which shows the high percentage of Venezuelan patients. On one recent day, of the 30 pregnant women she saw, only four were Colombian.
Earlier in the week, I spent a morning with little Ema, a 3-month-old baby with Down’s syndrome who is in urgent need of cardiac surgery. Three weeks ago, she was at death’s door. In Venezuela, she was “inappropriately” prescribed blood-pressure medicine and diuretics, and her mother was directed to feed her only three times a day. Before her parents arrived here, they went to multiple cities in Venezuela seeking care for their daughter and were continuously turned away, and had the same response at hospitals and clinics in Colombia. Then they found Project HOPE thanks to a referral from Americares.
Ema landed on Project HOPE’s doorstep with acute malnutrition – an extremely rare condition for an infant who is exclusively breastfed. According to Dr. Atilio Rivera-Vasquez, our country representative in Colombia, malnutrition in infants is generally not possible before six months. Project HOPE doctors immediately suspended the blood pressure medicine and diuretics. What she needed was an EKG, and to eat. Now she’s eating eight times a day and has gained 380 grams in the past week alone. Once she hits 10 kilos (still six kilos away), she’ll be ready for the heart surgery she needs.
At a Project HOPE clinic not far from the Simón Bolívar Bridge, I met Josmar, who’d brought her 9-month-old baby Christopher to see Project HOPE’s Dr. Myleidy; the baby had a persistent cough and fever. In Venezuela, Josmar taught English at all levels, from university to pre-school, but one month’s pay bought just two days of food. Soon the family was starving, so she and her husband came to Colombia. Within just two months, her husband left her and their family.
Josmar rents space near the Project HOPE clinic. By “space,” she doesn’t mean an apartment or even a room – she means space on the floor – seven families live there now. She only has to pay for herself and son Yosniel (14); Joliet (6) and Christopher sleep there for free. They eat twice a day at a nearby “comedor” (soup kitchen) that serves breakfast and lunch, and often she gives some of her plate to Yosniel, a growing boy who, she says, needs the food more than she does.
She’s waiting for her work permit from the government of Colombia – she has a job offer to teach English at the University of Santander, but there are hiccups with the work permit and she won’t have an answer until June at the earliest. So Josmar scrapes by each day; she’s in debt to her landlord and tries to pay it off by finding more tenants.
Josmar is just one of many patients who received treatment from Dr. Myleidy that day. They all had similar complaints: coughs, fevers, diarrhea. And Dr. Myleidy cares for each with a gentleness that’s hard to match and offers them a moment of calm and kindness. I wish Myleidy were my doctor.
At Erasmo Meoz Hospital this morning, I caught up with a young woman I first met at the clinic on Tuesday. Yesterday she gave birth by C-section to a son. I got there just in time; she was already dressed and ready to go home. I asked about her dreams and hopes for Theylor, not even 24-hours old. After a lengthy pause, she replied that she dreams and hopes that they do not need to live day-to-day and that they as parents can provide for him.
This is my first trip for Project HOPE and in that moment, I understood that we do much more than keep people healthy. Our doctor José articulated it best: We give attention to people who really need it.
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