The pain of my neighbor: CSUMB professor Estella Porras reflects on her time on the Colombian-Venezuelan border

Story by Oscar Daniel Jimenez Iniguez 
Photos courtesy of Estella Porras 

In 2015, Venezuela faced one of the largest economic disasters in the world as the inflation rate of the country skyrocketed past 1 million percent. Following the collapse of the economy, Venezuelans left in masses to Colombia and other surrounding Latin American countries due to the financial instability the country faced which prevented people from being able to afford basic necessities. Most of the surrounding countries added measures to prevent and limit the influx of migrants entering. However, Colombia was the only country willing to accept them with open borders.

As the humanitarian crisis continued into 2019, California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) Associate Professor Estella Porras was spending her sabbatical year in Bucaramanga, a town located close to the Colombian-Venezuelan border, where she witnessed first-hand the true severity of the crisis and its consequences. Her experiences on the ground interacting and helping to aid the migrants showed how many of the Colombian people felt the need to help their neighbors through an intensely precarious situation.

During her stay in Colombia, she decided to help the migrants by actively volunteering at food shelters and with non-governmental organizations (NGO). She recounts the numerous stories of migrant families having to sell all of their belongings in order to have enough money to survive the trip to the Colombian border. As they made their way into the country and passed through Bucaramanga, Porras got a true sense of how devastating the humanitarian crisis was by taking first-hand accounts from the migrants themselves.

“I was seeing families, who were at one point working, in extreme poverty. They once had jobs but all of a sudden in a matter of weeks the Venezuelan economy was falling so much that they couldn’t afford to buy anything including food and basic services which forced them to move to Colombia.”

She interviewed Durcely García and her son Johnatan. Durcely made the decision to leave because her son was so malnourished due to her no longer being able to afford food and basic resources to take care of him. The Ortega Cisneros family went through a similar situation as they had to leave their home in Venezuela and walk to Colombia with six children, two of them having disabilities. Omar and his pregnant wife Liyibeth Guarín decided it was the best choice for them to have their baby in Colombia where they could raise both of their children in a stable environment.

When the migrants passed through Bucaramanga, many of the Colombian people greeted them with open arms and helped provide necessary aid. Porras regularly volunteered for the nonprofit organization Entre Dos Tierras. The organization focused on providing Venezuelan migrants with emergency assistance for food, clothing and medicine. There, she saw her own people actively helping the Venezuelans, who she wholeheartedly considers to be her neighbors. 

However, despite all the aid being given to them, Porras believed the Colombian government did not give the appropriate amount of aid as they were not prepared to because of the massive scale of the migration. She saw the migrants not being given basic necessities and were often just a second thought to government officials. 

Porras sought answers for why they were being treated the way they were. She interviewed Bucaramanga’s top immigration officer. When she asked him about the rights of the migrants, the immigration officer claimed he never heard anything about them having rights and simply just wanted them to keep walking through the town until they reached their destination. 

Many NGOs, according to Porras, stepped up to help with migrant relief in response to the government’s lack of it. One aspect she believed to be severely nonexistent was access to sources of basic information for the migrants. One NGO provided a map with information, however, most of the information and locations were wrong and led to a lot of confusion among the migrants. In response, Porras wrote proposals for grants which would help fund sources of vital information accessible to them.

The humanitarian crisis is still continuing today, however, Porras believes that it has slowly started to improve but acknowledges there is still a lot more work to be done to help the struggling migrants. Despite her no longer living in Colombia, she continues to see the Venezuelan people as nothing less than just her neighbors needing a helping and deserving hand. She will always refer to them as pana, Venezuelan slang for friend.

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