Edixioney Nubo Romero's colleagues credit her with having delivered the most COVID-19 vaccines in all of North Lima, a sprawling, impoverished district of the Peruvian capital. And while there is no exact tally, her unofficial record of delivering many tens of thousands of doses seems plausible.
There were times, during the darkest days of the pandemic, when the Venezuelan nurse started vaccinating at 7am and finished, many hundreds of patients later, only at midnight.
“We didn’t get tired,” Edixioney recalled. “What we wanted was for people to be able to get vaccinated so that they wouldn’t have to go home, unvaccinated, after having wasted their time in line.”
For 39-year-old Edixioney, who left Venezuela to seek life-saving heart surgery for her daughter and spent her first months in Peru working in a restaurant, the chance to serve in her chosen profession feels like nothing short of a miracle.
“Our thing is vaccinating,” said Edixioney, adding that she and the other Venezuelan nurses she works with at the Los Libertadores public health clinic in Lima’s San Martín de Porres neighbourhood will be eternally grateful for “the opportunity to earn a living doing what we love.”
Peru is home to the second-largest population of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the region, playing host to nearly 1.5 million of the total 7.1 million Venezuelan nationals who have left their country in recent years amid the ongoing social and economic crisis there. Many of them are educated professionals, including nurses, physical therapists, and physicians who, despite having skills that are highly sought after in their adopted country, have sometimes faced administrative hurdles that have make it difficult for them to practice in their adopted country.
That was initially the case for Néstor Márquez, a 53-year-old physician who settled in Lima in 2018. When he first arrived, Néstor was in no position to revalidate his medical licenses – a long and expensive process that can take upwards of a year and a half. His first priority was to save up enough money to be able to bring his wife and three young children to Peru.
To do so, he traded the scrubs that had been his daily uniform during his decades-long medical career in Venezuela for a pair of comfortable shoes.
“I worked selling books at sidewalk stands…. I was a travelling book salesman,” said Néstor, a smile just visible from behind his surgical mask. “It helped me so much. With what I made selling books, I was able to bring my family.”
Now, thanks, in part, to an agreement between UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and Peru’s Health Ministry, Néstor is working in physical therapy – the specialty he trained for back in Venezuela – at a new public clinic in North Lima. Under the deal, UNHCR funds the salary of the staff, nearly all of whom are Venezuelan nationals, for an initial three months while they are onboarded.
Since it opened last year, residents from across the Peruvian capital have been flocking to the Los Olivos de Pro Rehabilitation Centre, seeking relief for ailments such as back pain, nerve damage, and long-lasting respiratory problems resulting from COVID-19. The team has also seen a surge in parents seeking speech therapy for young children who, kept inside during the pandemic at crucial stages in their development, are having a hard time communicating.
Ironically, Néstor says that it was the coronavirus pandemic that helped Venezuelan health professionals in Peru, like him, get back to work.
In 2020, Peru’s healthcare workers were among the hardest hit by the coronavirus, which further depleted an already overburdened workforce. The pandemic created a dire need for qualified and experienced medical professionals, which prompted Peruvian authorities to fast-track medical licenses for qualified staff hailing from other countries who were already living in Peru. It was then that Néstor applied for and was granted the right to practice in Peru.
"It's like a dream come true to be ... in this place where there is so much need."
“For me, it’s like a dream come true to be here, in this place where there is so much need,” he said, gesturing toward the waiting area, where a little boy in a wheelchair and leg braces was awaiting his appointment. “Working here in this clinic allows me to carry out what I’ve spent my whole life thinking about and doing, surrounded by a group of extraordinary Venezuelan professionals.”
Asked whether any of the patients have balked at being cared for by the clinic’s near all-Venezuelan staff, Néstor said that, on the contrary “they are happy and grateful.”
Yesenia Ramos Sandóval, the mother of the little boy in the wheelchair, 7-year-old Jeremy, echoed that sentiment.
“We’re just so happy to be able to get Jeremy the therapy he needs,” said Yesenia, a 30-year-old native of the Peruvian capital, with a broad smile.