by DeeDee and Mark
Our family’s eight-day trip to Riohacha in early January was full of new experiences and lasting memories. Riohacha is located on the north coast of Colombia along the Caribbean Sea. Riohacha is also the first larger city you come to in Colombia when you cross the northwestern border of Venezuela.
Riohacha will certainly be one of the defining experiences of our family’s year in Colombia despite only being there eight days. Our plan was to serve with the Mennonite church in Riohacha, which includes a healthcare facility for the elderly (Casa Del Abuelos). This is an amazing ministry with wonderful leadership, which also houses and feeds vulnerable refugees who have fled Venezuela. It’s a unique arrangement combining a living facility for high-need “elders” or “abuelos” with Venezuelan families who have immigrated to Colombia, many with small children. In 2016, Maria de Melo, the woman heading this ministry, felt God’s leading to open their doors to the rapidly increasing number of Venezuelan refugees who were coming into Colombia in desperate situations. Maria responded faithfully to this challenging call, and with the help of Mennonite Central Committee, they have been able to house, feed and equip a significant number of at-risk refugees.
Riohacha was a difficult week for our family, yet rewarding in many ways too. Oftentimes we approach a week of service such as this with hopes of doing tangible work and accomplishing things that the ministry couldn’t do without us. We quickly realized the best thing we could do with our limited time was engage in genuine relationship building with the elders and young Venezuelan families. Companionship is much-needed as the majority of the elders are wheel-chair bound and many of the refugees (children and mothers) are not often able to leave the home. Fortunately, engaging in this way is comfortable for our children. We were able to play lots of games, teach some English, hear tough stories, wash dishes, cook, clean, and be put on the spot to “offer words” and pray. DeeDee even shared a sermon! She didn’t have much time to prepare, but made the most of this opportunity. We felt our presence was positive for those we connected with, and we received so much back in return. Hearing the stories, seeing the massive needs in this border town, and being able to understand why and how people have fled Venezuela was a meaningful learning opportunity for our family.
There are two meaningful stories we are honored to share with you. These are some of the people we met in Riohacha who touched our lives. They have encouraged us to share their stories, which also represent the stories of many others who have fled Venezuela for the hope of refuge and a better future for their family.
Ivan is 63 years old and has a gentle soul with a welcoming spirit. He is fully bilingual (Spanish and English) and has much respect in the house. Without a language barrier, Mark quickly connected with Ivan and started hearing his story. Ivan spent most of his adult life living in Venezuela teaching English in various university and school settings. He has a child with whom he has been disconnected since the boy was young. His son now lives in Quito, Ecuador and Ivan desperately wants to reconnect with him. Ivan shared about his shortcomings in life, namely not being a good a father to his son. Ivan met the Lord in 2005 and has been growing in his faith since then. He now has a renewed vision and mission for life to help others, share the Gospel and reconcile with his son.
Around the fall of 2019, Ivan was faced with the most difficult life decision to stay in his home country or flee to Colombia. His life in Venezuela had become desperate. The pension which was supposed to support him during his retirement years was becoming worthless due to the hyper-inflation in Venezuela. He was starving, literally, and didn’t see prospects for an improved future for him or his family in Venezuela. There are some good articles in the New York Times chronicling the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela if you are interested in hearing more about the dire situation.
The concept of hyperinflation in hard to comprehend. Your wages, or other sources of income, don’t even come close to keeping pace with the increasing cost of basic necessities. During 2017, the cost of goods in Venezuela was increasing by over 50% ….. per month! And this hits the poorer population hardest as minimum wages aren’t enough to buy food. One article we saw references 11 minimum wage hikes over the past two years as the government tries to keep pace with increasing prices. The most recent increase to minimum wage last month was 67% (yes, no typo). In October 2019, your entire monthly minimum wage could buy 9lbs of beef. The more recent 67% hike in monthly wages isn’t even enough to buy 2lbs of beef anymore. Think of that type of inflation in just a few months. And this is what you can buy with monthly wages! In the U.S, a month of work at the minimum wage of $7.25 would buy ~300lbs of beef. The US Dollar (and other outside currencies) have taken over in Venezuela due to the local currency being almost worthless.
Ivan’s brother, who had already left Venezuela and lived in Riohacha, was visiting Ivan and told him he needed to get out. His brother had a tourist job lined up for him in Riohacha that would use his bilingual skills. With little hope and facing starvation, Ivan left for Colombia. The brothers hoped to earn money to bring their mother and sister into Colombia as well.
The tour guide job lasted for about ten weeks before the business ceased operations due to some sort of accident. Ivan hadn’t been paid yet and only received two weeks’ worth of pay for the ten weeks of work he had done. There was nothing he could do about it. This is where we began to hear about the poor working conditions for Venezuelans in Colombia. Some refer to it as “slave labor” because of how they are taken advantage of. Many Venezuelans are desperate for work and will do it for very little money because any little bit of money is better than nothing. And as refugees without legal work contracts, they have limited rights, which contributes to this exploitative environment. This is also a tough situation for Colombians who work in these areas, but aren’t willing to work for such little pay as the displaced persons from Venezuela. What a predicament.
There are times we hear frustrations about the job market with the open border and so many displaced people from Venezuela, but we also appreciate how much worse these tensions could be. Although there are ongoing issues between the governments, the border between Venezuela and Colombia is an open border, at least for now. Most sources suggest 4 – 5 million people have fled Venezuela since their economic recession started with around 1.5 – 2 million coming to Colombia. And the numbers continue to increase rapidly as the situation worsens in Venezuela. Our experience in the U.S has exposed us to much of the opposite of this border situation, so it has been interesting to see how this plays out between the two countries and its people. There are displaced people all over Colombia and seeing how so many Colombians care for the people of Venezuelan has been an inspiring reflection of God’s intent for us to love all people. Important to note, this immigration scenario did happen in the opposite direction decades ago when Colombia was struggling and Venezuela the more prosperous country. That is believed to be one of the reasons Colombia has been welcoming to those fleeing Venezuela.
Back to Ivan. He was a very slim guy when we met him. It was hard to imagine how he must have looked six months prior when he was starving. He said he had gained 30lbs since coming to Colombia. He spent most of the first few days apologizing to us and trying to explain behaviors that were happening within the house. Of course, he hadn’t been exposed to our children much, so he was unaware of how normal this sort of chaos and crazy behavior was for us! He loved to talk us through the juxtapositions going on that he could see. Our family came to serve and yet the culture in the house (and Colombia) emphasizes serving the visitors. He laughed when we tried to help do things and our help was rejected. He also noted how families were trying to put on a good face for us and hide the need, hurt and sadness present within the families. There is a desire for power and control within the house because outside of the house exists very little opportunity for such things. These were great learning moments for us, so we listened and tried to dig in as much as we could with those around us. During the week, Ivan gave us a tour of Riohacha and shared the history as he had learned it for his tour guide job. He took great pride in this, and we could see why he would have been good at this job with the English-speaking tourists.
While it was hard to remember this fact at times given his education and language skills, Ivan is homeless. He eats food at a refugee shelter and sleeps on a small mat at night with other refugees at the shelter. All of his belongings are in a very large duffle bag. While he has made mistakes in his life, as we all have, his desperate situation was borne out of failures beyond his control. Living in the U.S, it is so hard to imagine how this could happen to a country. And not just the poor, but to the middle class and much of its professional class. Ivan never complained, rather he was a true example of living with joy on a daily basis despite lack of worldly possessions. He had a deep conversation with one our kids about his failed life as a parent and spouse. Wow, what an amazing gift he gave our family! We were blessed to be able to take him out for several meals; it was hard to hear him talk about eating his first hamburger in three years. Hamburgers are relatively easy to get here, if you have the money. The things we take for granted. He gave graciously of his time and his presence in our lives and will not be forgotten.
Ivan has a beautiful plan for his remaining years on earth. This is the most amazing part of the story! He has been a believer for over 15 years, but as of recent decided that he wants to go to the Mennonite Seminary based in Bogotá to further his pastoral interest. He hopes he can do some online because that would allow him more work flexibility. He loves the Anabaptist belief system and is increasingly interested in learning more and being able to spread the Gospel. Maria de Melo (the woman in charge at the Casa del Abuelos) is an amazing woman. She daily leads the displaced people that are living at the house in daily Bible studies on topics from parenting to peace to surrender… there are so many great things she is teaching from the Bible. Ivan has been inspired by Maria and has a growing desire to learn more. While Ivan’s plan is to go to seminary, his end goal is reconciliation with his son. He wants nothing more than to be in relationship with his son who is living Ecuador and to share the Gospel, ideally in a place close to his son. He has so many unknowns and obstacles in front of him (bad eyes, no technology, lack of necessary paperwork), but he is trusting in God. He continues to live life on a daily basis with a positive attitude and hope in Christ. As we reflect on the privilege of our own geography and lives, we grieve for Ivan and the retired life that should have been so different for him. It should have been easier, much easier. And there are millions of others in similar situations. We also are inspired by Ivan’s plans for the rest of his life and the genuine Godly passion with which he is pursuing this plan.
Johnny and Miguel
Oh where to start with these two brothers. Our first encounter with them was in church on Sunday morning soon after we arrived. There were a lot of refugees and abuelos in church, but there were also other faces that we didn’t recognize like Johnny and Miguel. They sat right in front of us. During the music portion they were passionate about worship and one would have thought that they attended church regularly. After the service they stuck around and ate lunch with all of us. We started hanging out and playing games with them. Sunday was the one day that refugees staying at the house are able to go to the beach and play, so we all did (they have to limit showers/use of water). We had such a fun time and enjoyed playing volleyball in the sand, swimming in the ocean and just feeling free of the bondage that is so present in our lives. That night, we said our goodbyes and thought it might be the last time we saw Johnny and Miguel since they live 45 minutes away, by foot. This wouldn’t be our last encounter with them though.
Miguel and Johnny showed up almost every day after that for the entire week to hang out at the house. When we asked Maria about their story, she told us a little about them, but also said that she had never met Miguel before. And Johnny had never come around the house except for Sundays. As the week unfolded, we gained insight into the events that were happening. You see, these two brothers are one year apart in age and live together. They have different dads and their mom lives in the next town over, which is over two hours away. These two brothers are on their own. Miguel moved from Venezuela five years ago and Johnny has been in Colombia for a year now. The two have reconnected and a pastor gave them a house to watch over. We don’t know all the details of this situation, but it’s likely not a long-term option for them. Monday, we hung out and these two said they were wanting to learn about the Bible, learn English and practice music. They did a little of this, bit by bit, but the vast majority of the time was spent with Mark. Miguel followed Mark around everywhere he went and constantly wanted to be engaging in communication or activity with Mark. It seemed like a situation where a boy is missing his parental connections and is eager to engage with other adults. It was sweet!
On Tuesday, we were surprised not to see Johnny and Miguel for breakfast and thought maybe they were asked not to come back. We found out later that was not the case. At about noon the day before Maria came and picked us up and took us to another “comedor.” These are feeding facilities for refugees and also Colombians who fled years ago for Venezuela and are now returning. There is a facility that the church owns and is run by The Red Cross with a few other NGOs that feeds 800 people twice a day. It was sobering to walk through the place on Monday when there weren’t people there due to a national holiday, but that wouldn’t prepare us for Tuesday. Maria insisted we go back on Tuesday and see it when people were there. It was overwhelming to say the least. The hardest part was walking through and seeing the massive need for basic food and all the desperate faces. Even in our normal clothes, we very much stood out. We’re glad we could do this with our children, but this was also a lot for them to take in. At one point Taylor was overcome with feelings she could not express and buried her face in DeeDee’s stomach. She felt big!
As we left the kitchen area and walked toward the exit, another knot formed in our stomachs. We ran into Miguel and Johnny leaving the comedor after finishing their meal. It was true – every meal that these brothers eat is provided from a shelter. They warmly greeted us with their normal big smiles and told us they would be back to the house soon. And they were.
The week continued on and we enjoyed many games, conversations and passed much time with these two. If you ever wondered where Miguel was… just look for Mark. Johnny spent a lot of his time with Kason, and the two of them formed a quick friendship that Johnny very much appreciated. Kason can talk in Spanish pretty well, so this was a neat connection. The two of them spending time side-by-side was an invaluable experience for both!
As the week wrapped up it was very hard to say goodbye to Johnny and Miguel. We found ourselves wondering how long they would have a house to live in, if they could find work and what their futures might hold. They asked us to come back and make it soon. The reality is that even if we come back “soon,” their version of soon has a whole different meaning. We were thankful for the way they opened their hearts to us, allowed us into their lives and for the time we spent together. It was hard leaving them knowing the harsh conditions they experience daily and the tough times they’ll likely face ahead. Yet, they are brave, they know Jesus, and they keep keeping on. They were a blessing to us!
As we reflect and share stories about our time in Riohacha, tears often surface. It was such a meaningful experience and provided our family with a rich opportunity to grow together. We gained understanding and appreciation about a very different border situation than what we have ever experienced, what hospitality looks like in this setting, and how we often receive so much more than we can give when we are guests in another culture. These stories and our many learnings will impact us forever. We pray that our minds are expanded, our hearts filled and our empathy increases. We are grateful to the church for giving us this experience!