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Indigenous Venezuelans help others navigate life far from home


Indigenous Venezuelans help others navigate life far from home

Indigenous Warao people from Venezuela face particularly steep hurdles building new lives in Brazil. But some of their fellow Warao are lending a helping hand.
19 April 2022

Lucetti del Pilar Ramos Blanco is a natural-born problem solver.

After the 42-year-old elementary school teacher found herself forced to flee her home in Venezuela’s Orinoco River delta two years ago, she swiftly took on a leadership role in the settlement where she and other indigenous Warao families took refuge in neighbouring Brazil.

The living conditions in the settlement, an abandoned building in the far-northern city of Boa Vista, were precarious, and the needs of those who were sheltering there, overwhelming. Lucetti immediately rolled up her sleeves and got to work, drawing up lists of the residents and trying to figure out how to get them the food, health care and other essentials they needed.

“I try to help by informing and orienting the community.”

Lucetti’s industriousness caught the eye of Caritas Arquidiocesana de Manaus, an aid group and partner of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, that works in the Amazonian city of Manaus – one of the main hubs for Warao people fleeing Venezuela. They offered Lucetti a job helping her fellow Warao navigate life in an unfamiliar country.

“I pay them [new arrivals] a visit, almost as if I were going to visit with family, and I chat with them and take down their information, find out what they need,” she says, adding that her job involves acting as an intermediary between the Warao and Caritas. “I try to help by informing and orienting both the community and also the institution.”

Brazil is playing host to more than 300,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants, who have fled widespread food and medicine shortages and insecurity back home. Around 7,000 of them are Warao, many of whom arrived in Brazil destitute and malnourished. These indigenous Venezuelans face particularly steep hurdles when it comes to meeting their basic needs and adjusting to life in Brazil.

In the Portuguese-speaking country, they often grapple with a double language barrier, as many, particularly older Warao, only speak their own language and struggle with Spanish. Making matters worse, many Warao people arrive with no documents, or only expired IDs or ones where their names are spelled wrong due to communication problems with authorities back in Venezuela. These issues make it much more difficult for them to find jobs and housing, and many Warao resort to sleeping on the streets and begging in order to survive.

But there is hope, in the form of fellow Warao people, like Lucetti, who are stepping up to help their community navigate the difficulties of an unfamiliar culture.

When Warao families arrive in Manaus, she immediately swings into action, walking the new arrivals through the process of applying for asylum and ensuring they are able to access such basic services as health care and schooling. She often accompanies families to government offices or to the consulate to help them overcome bureaucratic hurdles.

Her most difficult cases tend to be minors who arrive with relatives who are not their parents, or even on their own. Older people also tend to have a hard time adapting and require special attention, Lucetti says.

Another stumbling block that sometimes prevents Warao people in Brazil from reaching their full potential are the rules around validating university degrees and other professional titles.

UNHCR has been working with partners and universities on a strategy to help refugees and migrants living in the country validate their diplomas and other professional credentials. But Lucetti said there were engineers, nurses, lawyers and teachers among the Warao community in Brazil who were forced into precarious work as day labourers, or even to beg, because they could not work in their fields.

Fortunately, that was not the case for Marcelino Moraleda Paredes, a 36-year-old Warao man, also from Venezuela’s Orinoco River delta. Before he, his wife and five children made the southward journey to Brazil in 2017, Marcelino had spent more than a decade working for Venezuela’s Health Ministry as an “intercultural facilitator,” helping his fellow Warao people get care at their local hospital.

“I know when a fellow Warao person is sick, when they’re down.”

He loved the work, but with spiralling inflation eating away at his wages, Marcelino found he could no longer feed his family.

“We could only buy four or five food items a month,” he recalls, adding “we were eating only once a day.”

After a few months spent working to load and unload semi-trucks in Pacaraima, the town that straddles the Brazilian-Venezuelan border, Marcelino began to volunteer with an aid group. That led to a job with the local organization ADRA, a partner of UNHCR and other UN agencies, working as a health and nutrition monitor among his fellow Warao.

Marcelino plies the city’s specialized shelters for indigenous people, talking with residents and new arrivals to understand their medical and nutritional needs and assisting them in getting any help they might need.

“I know when a fellow Warao person is sick, when they’re down,” says Marcelino.

The job has allowed he and his family to move out of the shelter and into a modest, two-room apartment. His and Lucetti’s skills and knowledge have also borne fruit for the indigenous refugees and migrants they serve. The two of them have helped hundreds of Warao families find their feet in a foreign land.

“For me it’s been very satisfying,” said Lucetti, with pride.