Indigenous people from Venezuela seek safety across the border in Brazil
One night in February, the inhabitants of a tiny indigenous hamlet in one of the most remote regions of Brazil were awoken by unusual noises: human voices and footsteps that broke through the cacophony of nocturnal animals and rustling leaves that form the usual night-time soundtrack emanating from the surrounding forest.
The newcomers were from across the nearby border with Venezuela. They had fled their homes, carrying only small bundles of clothes, sheets and other essentials, and trekked for hours through rough, jungle-covered terrain in search of a safe haven. Marauding armed groups had attacked their communities, and they were scared for their lives.
The newcomers were Venezuelans from the Pemon-Taurepã indigenous group – the same group to which the inhabitants of Tarauparu village, on the Brazilian side of the border, also belong.
The people of Tarauparu immediately welcomed the frightened, exhausted new arrivals.
“There were sick and disabled people, babies, children, and pregnant women,” said Aldino Alves Ferreira, 43, who serves as tuxaua, or chief, of the Tarauparu. “We decided to receive these refugees with an open heart.”
“I didn’t think this was going to happen to us. We had to leave very suddenly.”
“The first day, 67 people arrived. Each of the next two days, it was over 100. And people kept coming for six days straight,” said Aldino, adding that in total, more than 1,300 Pemons from across the border have taken refuge in Tarauparu – which before the crisis had just 263 inhabitants. “It’s been very difficult. We couldn’t imagine how many would come.”
One of the new arrivals was Magdalena, a 21-year-old who fled her hometown of Sampay, Venezuela, after armed groups in a nearby city opened fire on protesters there, killing and wounding several of her Pemon-Taurepã neighbours.
“We were living in our hometown, happy and living peacefully until the violence came,” said Magdalena, who was pregnant when she fled along with her mother, grandmother and three children, ages five, three and one. “I didn’t think this was going to happen to us. We had to leave very suddenly.”
The family headed southward, picking their way through the dense vegetation and keeping off of roads and well-trodden paths, where they feared they could fall victims to the marauding gangs. Clutching only bundles of clothes and sheets, the family arrived in Tarauparu in the middle of the night and were met by local villagers, who ushered them in by the faint glow of flashlights.
Annabel, her husband Levy, and the couple’s five children received a similarly warm welcome upon reaching Tarauparu following a harrowing journey from their home inside the sprawling Canaima National Park, in eastern Venezuela. The Pemon people have called this area home for generations, and before the crisis, Annabel and Levy worked as tour guides, taking visitors to such attractions as Salto Ángel, or Angel Falls, which is reputed to be the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall.
“Each morning, I woke up with happiness, and then started my work,” 28-year-old Annabel recalled, adding that the sudden spasm of violence upended their world. “When we heard armed forces were coming, we fled through the forest.”
“UNHCR is here every day. We’re working to address challenges.”
Although the residents of Tarauparu have proven remarkably accommodating and resilient in the face of this unprecedented influx of people – giving the newcomers access to a community water tank and organizing communal meals – the town’s resources were strained. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, swiftly stepped in to try to ease the burden, delivering food, blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets, hygiene supplies, shelter materials and other lifesaving assistance to Tarauparu.
“Logistics is a huge problem,” said Aldino, the chief. “UNHCR is here every day. We’re working to address challenges.”
With the collapse of Venezuela’s economy and the resulting food and medicine shortages, crippling inflation and widespread social upheaval, it’s not clear when – or even if – the hundreds of Pemons who have found safety in Brazil will return to Venezuela. As a result, UNHCR is working with Aldino to find longer-term housing solutions in Tarauparu and other nearby villages.
“The other tuxauas (chiefs) met and decided to receive refugees with an open heart,” Aldino said.
Meanwhile, the village that has mushroomed in size over the past months is growing even bigger. Magdalena, the young mother of three, gave birth to her fourth child in the shade of a tree right outside of Tarauparu. The baby was born before the ambulance could get her to the nearest hospital, which is approximately 10 kilometres away.
While Pemon culture generally dictates waiting several days before naming a newborn, Magdalena noticed that a doctor had scrawled a name on the baby’s charts: Neymar, the name of the Brazilian football superstar.
“I want him to have a name from here,” said Magdalena with a smile, “so it’s okay to keep Neymar.”