In Venezuela, radio soaps depict the refugee life

News Stories, 8 August 2005

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

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




UNHCR country pages

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

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