Brazilian volunteers lend helping hand to Venezuelans
Jobless, hungry and destitute in her native Venezuela, Nayebis Carolina Figuera left for the uncertainty of life on the street in neighbouring Brazil.
Soaring inflation, shortages of food and medicine, violence and political unrest are causing Venezuelans like her to flee in their tens of thousands.
Hundreds are camped out in Simon Bolivar Square in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima State in northern Brazil, where they are seeking humanitarian assistance and international protection.
“We left everything in Venezuela,” says Nayebis, 34. “We don’t have a place to live or sleep and have nothing to eat ... We came to Brazil to seek solidarity and support.”
A group of Brazilian volunteers heeded their call. Lawyer Ana Lucíola Franco and doctor Eugênia Moura, founded SOS Hermanos, a solidarity group which collects food, clothes, furniture and appliances for those in need.
“We need to do what we can to protect them and take them off the streets.”
"Most people arrive with very little clothing and are not ready for the cold,” says Ana Lucíola. “We need to do what we can to protect them and take them off the streets.”
The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum worldwide has soared by 2,000 per cent since 2014. The increase has been particularly marked in the Americas in the past year, including in Brazil which receives more than 800 Venezuelans per day.
An estimated 40,000 have entered through the isolated northern state of Roraima since the beginning of last year, and are living in Boa Vista.
Most need urgent assistance with documentation, shelter, food and health care, and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is working with the Brazilian government and partner organizations to meet these needs.
In Boa Vista, the help is making a difference to asylum seekers, among them Luisiana Milagros Medinal, 32, who fled Venezuela a week earlier.
“I am moved by the way Brazilians are treating us,” says Louisiana, adding that she feels welcome and safe. “I never thought it would be like this.”
“SOS Hermanos’s support provides food for 500 refugees every day and they will soon provide shelter to them,” says Bertrand Blanc, UNHCR’s emergency officer in Boa Vista. “This allows us and our partners to mitigate the extremely difficult conditions that many families face.”
The volunteers are helping those arriving not only with food and clothes and are also helping them find work through a network of professional contacts.
"One of our main purposes is to help them get jobs," says Ana Lucíola, noting that many Venezuelans have professional qualifications and can contribute to the local economy, given the chance.
With the rainy season approaching in May, the group is opening a shelter for about 40 families, which will be maintained mostly through donations.
In response to the outflow of Venezuelans, the UNHCR issued new guidelines for governments last month on how to support Venezuelans in need of international protection and humanitarian assistance.
"Every action of solidarity, in one way or another, generates empathy."
Since June last year, UNHCR has increased its humanitarian response to the influx by opening offices in Boa Vista and Manaus, in neighbouring Amazonas state.
UNHCR is supporting the federal police who are responsible for receiving and registering Venezuelans seeking asylum or residence permits. Up to February this year, more than 24,800 Venezuelans had sought asylum and almost 11,000 sought temporary residence.
Ana Lucíola believes the work of SOS Hermanos is helping change attitudes in her community, some of whose members are not receptive to refugees. She and other volunteers have been harassed and verbally abused but remain undeterred.
"Every action of solidarity, in one way or another, generates empathy," she says.
Nayebis and other Venezuelans are appreciative of such acts of kindness.
“They have been very helpful to us,” she says. “To me, it is an act of solidarity between Brazilians and Venezuelans.”