It is noon and the heat is stifling in El Juncal, a small town located in the mountainous province of Imbabura in northern Ecuador. With the help of two Venezuelan women, Carmen Cercelén washes the kitchenware in her hostel. In the backyard, about 20 other Venezuelans talk and eat plantains. Some are just passing through. Others, encouraged by Carmen’s generosity, have opted to stay in town.
Carmen, 48, has spent most of her life selling fruit, but a dozen years ago she opened a hostel as another small source of income. At first, it was a convenient stop for tourists. Since the beginning of 2018, however, most of the guests are not travelling for fun, nor do they pay for their stay – they are fleeing Venezuela.
Carmen knows what Venezuelans are going through. “I grew up in the streets,” she says, describing her difficult youth. “They are good people, mothers and fathers. They are engineers, workers, carpenters. They are people like us.”
Over 3.7 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years amid a political and economic crisis. More than 240,000 of them have found a new home in Ecuador.
When dozens of Venezuelans started showing up walking along the road, pulling suitcases, pushing strollers and carrying babies on their way to other cities in Ecuador or Peru, Carmen decided to open the doors of her hostel and take them in.
“Now this lady is like our mom.”
According to protection monitoring activities carried out by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, at the end of 2018, at least 3 out of 10 Venezuelans arriving in Ecuador had completed at least part of their journey on foot. They often arrive dehydrated, sick and extremely exhausted. During the journey, they are exposed to great risks – robbery, violence and trafficking networks.
Carmen’s hostel has become a safe space for those who need to recover their strength before continuing their journey. Here they can sleep, eat, have a shower and wash their clothes for free.
About 20 people sleep in Carmen’s hostel every night, but in certain peak periods more than 70 people have knocked on her door and been welcomed. She estimates that, in total, about 8,000 Venezuelans have slept under her roof – collectively more than three times the local population of 2,500. They usually stay for one or two nights, but those who have special needs – such as women who are pregnant or people who are sick – tend to stay a few longer.
Carmen’s hostel, which is also her home, is very cozy. The rooms are simple and the walls are painted in bright colours: blue, orange and green. Paintings and religious figurines add to the ambiance. On a wall in the living room, Carmen proudly displays photos of her eight children. “They are all men,” she says.
Carmen offers more than just a roof to Venezuelan refugees and migrants: she gives advice and connects them with UNHCR, so they can learn more about access to refugee status and services available in Ecuador. Sometimes Carmen recommends them for jobs in the area.
“For example Jonathan, who is an excellent carpenter,” she says. “I struggled to get him a contract to build 30 benches for the church. Now he has a job and brought two more fellows to help him.”
Won over by Carmen’s hospitality, many Venezuelans have decided to stay in El Juncal. This is the case of Daniel, 34, who is a mechanic and a chef. In August 2018, he left Venezuela with some friends and neighbours hoping to reach Guayaquil, an Ecuadorian city where they had heard there were good job opportunities.
"They are engineers, workers, carpenters. They are people like us.”
“In Venezuela I didn’t have any food for my children. I had to hit the streets every day and see what I could get for them, and that led me to leave the country,” he says.
Daniel quit his job and sold his car to pay for a bus ticket to the border. After entering Colombia, he had to continue the journey on foot for eight days. “We hitchhiked, we slept in the open several times,” he recalls. “It was very hard.”
When he arrived in El Juncal, where the majority of the population are from African-Ecuadorian descent, some women who were selling fruit on the street gave him something to eat and told him about Carmen. Daniel and his companions decided to go to the hostel to rest. “Now this lady is like our mom,” he says, smiling. Thanks to Carmen’s help, the young man got a job as a field labourer and now he is renting a room a few metres from the hostel.
Daniel remembers that, when he moved, several people from the town gave him a mattress, clothes and food. The generosity and kindness he encountered in El Juncal led him to stay. Six months on, he thinks of the town as his new home, and he hopes to be able to bring his family soon from Venezuela.
Carmen sees each person who crosses her doorstep as a new member of her family. “When we sit down, we talk and laugh,” she says. “I like to watch them dance and sing. Every day they greet me. It’s as if we’ve known each other all our lives.”
She is excited to keep in touch with them, and she often receives photos and messages of gratitude from those who have moved on to Peru, Chile or Argentina. “Mama Carmen, we’re fine, we have a job,” says one of the text messages.
In 2018, for the first time, Carmen celebrated her birthday surrounded by Venezuelans. “My family organized a party on Saturday, but they came on Thursday, the day of my birthday,” she recalls. “They sang a Venezuelan song that is very funny, and they brought me a cake. I couldn’t have asked for more. In my house there will be no more private parties. Everyone who comes is welcome.”
Now, one of her wishes is to buy a small television so guests can watch the news together in the backyard of her hostel. Carmen is constantly looking for bakery courses and other types of skills trainings, so that those who have not found a job yet can sign up and learn.
Carmen hopes that one day the Venezuelan people will no longer be forced to leave their country and that she will again be able to offer her hostel to tourists passing through. She says she has learned a great deal from this experience, and hopes that this gesture will inspire her children to be generous and better people: “That’s the only thing that matters in life.”
Carmen’s hospitality is a shining example of solidarity in her country. Over the past 30 years, more than 66,000 people of 70 nationalities have been recognized as refugees in Ecuador, the highest number in Latin America. However, in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America, there has been a rise of discriminatory rhethoric and negative stereotypes about people on the move.
To counter such attitudes, United Nations teams in Ecuador have launched Abrazos que unen (Uniting Hugs), an awareness campaign that seeks to influence public perceptions about refugees and migrants in the country.
Find more stories like this at www.abrazosqueunen.com.