In Venezuela, radio soaps depict the refugee life

Three new radio soap operas are shedding light on the lives of people forced to flee their homes for Venezuela, home to more than 1 million Colombians. The vivid tales of suffering are helping UNHCR to spread its message of tolerance, understanding and respect for refugees.

CD covers of the radio soap operas about Colombian refugees.   © Jorge Silva

CARACAS, Venezuela, August 8 (UNHCR) - Radio and television soap operas in Latin America most often deal with questions of love, treason and double dealing. But in Venezuela, three new soaps centre on an unusual subject - the problems, fears and hopes of Colombian refugees in the country.

Andres Valenti, a recent law school graduate, is in the process of filling out forms so he can start his professional life in another city. But a blood test he is required to take threatens to reveal a jealously-kept secret: exactly who is his father and why did he cross the border and end up in Venezuela?

Thus begins "Silence of May", one of the three radio soap operas about refugees with a combined audience of over one million listeners. Because soaps are highly popular among different social strata throughout South America, they are perhaps the most efficient way of getting messages across to a mass audience.

The radio soaps follow the day-to-day lives of different characters that have been forced to flee their country of origin. Their vivid tales of individual suffering are helping UNHCR spread its message of tolerance, understanding and respect for those forced to flee their homes.

"We must think about what refugees feel when confronted with situations such as the ones presented in the stories of the radio soap operas," says Trina Medina, a composer and singer who prepared the musical theme for the three radio soaps.

In another innovation, the episodes are broadcast in the Wayunaiki and Yukpa languages of indigenous peoples.

"The use of fiction on the radio is very popular in Latin America, especially in very poor communities where radio is the only means of communication," says Javier Barrios, Director of Radio Fé y Alegría, which broadcasts the soaps. "These are the first radio soap operas produced in Venezuela that will reach the indigenous Wayúu and Yukpa people who are located on the Colombian-Venezuelan border."

By broadcasting in their languages, "we show respect for them as human beings," added Medina.

A second radio soap about refugees, "Town of Rain", follows the lives of Ligia, her husband Pedro and their only child Juan, who live in a peasant town that has become a tourist attraction because it never stops raining. In the story, Ligia owns a restaurant managed by her mother, but their happy life suddenly ends when the armed conflict reaches their town. Ligia must leave in order to save her son's life. The desperate family crosses the border for a chance to live in peace and learns that courage can help them overcome all difficulties.

A third soap, "Accordion of Life", talks about a singer, José Gregorio Vuelva, who loses his parents when they refuse to pay ransom to the illegal armed groups in Colombia. Angry and scared, José Gregorio realizes that his life is in danger and is forced to flee his country and seek safety on the Venezuelan border. Cramped in a small house in his new hometown, he enjoys peace, but says that the nostalgia for home is almost too much to bear.

The radio soaps are financially supported by the Canadian and the British embassies in Caracas, the Radio Network Fé y Alegría, and UNHCR.

"This project responds to a broader strategy of conflict prevention that the British government, along with UN agencies and official institutions, are implementing in the Andean region," said Catherine Weiss, Regional Conflict Adviser for the British Embassy.

"Colombian campesinos and indigenous peoples suddenly find themselves facing the same problems - homeless and frightened in an alien environment. Therefore projects like this one are vital in order to try to better integrate Colombian asylum seekers located along the Venezuelan border," she added.

The Venezuelan government estimates that there are over one million Colombians living in the country. The 40-year conflict in Colombia has displaced millions of people in and outside the country.

By Grace Guerrero
UNHCR, Caracas