In the mid-1970s, Marta Duque’s father sent her from her home in the Colombian city of Pamplona, tucked into a far eastern range of the Andes, to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to work as a live-in maid. She was 12 years old.
Long since back in Colombia, Marta has opened her doors to thousands of Venezuelans in their time of great need. In 2017, she turned her garage, and then her modest family home, into a makeshift shelter for Venezuelan refugees and migrants making an often precarious overland journey to destinations throughout Colombia and further afield.
“This all started when I saw people huddled together underneath the bridge in front of my house,” said Marta, 56, speaking in the tiny backyard patio where she and her staff of around 10 volunteers prepare giant pots of soup over a word-burning stove.
“They were getting all wet, and it was cold, and it occurred to me I could put them into the garage … so that at least they would be inside for the night.”
Some two years later and several dozen women, children and infants pack each night into Marta’s home, which has been all but given over to the revolving cast of temporary guests. Even the living room furniture has been put into storage to make room for the mats where up to 100 people sleep cheek-by-jowl.
“When they arrive, the moms and their crying babies are extremely stressed.”
“When they arrive, the moms and their crying babies are extremely stressed,” said Marta, who tends only to women and children, while her next-door neighbor and fellow Good Samaritan, Douglas Cabeza, has opened his property to men and boys. “What keeps me going is seeing them smile … seeing them be able to relax and laugh.”
The need is huge. More than four million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015, fleeing insecurity and violence, persecution and threats, chronic food and medicine shortages and a breakdown of basic services.
An estimated 100-250 are thought to be setting out daily on the journey that takes them hundreds or even thousands of miles on foot up a winding, mountainous road, through a frigid mountain pass, and on to destinations such as the Colombian cities of Medellin or Cali or even on to Ecuador, Peru, or Chile.
Pamplona, where Marta lives, is about 40 miles from the border, and the so-called “caminantes,” or walkers, as they are known in Spanish, reach her after several arduous days on the road, dragging suitcases, cradling infants and toddlers, eating in soup kitchens run by aid agencies and NGOs and sleeping in shelters, when there is room, and when there is not, under the elements.
Two years later, not only has Marta not put the car back into the garage, but she has given over almost the entire two-bedroom home she shares with her husband and adult son to the constant stream of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in need. From dawn till late at night, the house is a hive of constant activity and earsplitting noise as Marta and her volunteers tend to the needs of dozens of women and children and a chorus of screaming babies.
Marta acknowledged her extreme generosity has put a strain on her nearly 30-year-long marriage, adding her husband once asked her choose between him and the shelter.
"We haven’t had a single day of rest … But I don’t feel it’s a burden. I do it with love and conviction."
“I told him, ‘If you want to go, go, but I’m not going to let these poor people down,’” she said. (He stayed.) “It’s not been easy. We haven’t had a single day of rest … But I don’t feel it’s a burden. I do it with love and conviction, and if one day they are no longer here, I’ll feel a bit alone because this has changed my life.”
To help vulnerable refugees and migrants from Venezuela, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has stepped up its response and is working closely with host governments and partners to support a coordinated and comprehensive approach.
This includes supporting States to improve reception conditions at border points where Venezuelans arrive in very precarious conditions, coordinate the provision of information and assistance to meet Venezuelans’ immediate basic needs including shelter.
The European Union, together with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, are organizing a high-level International Solidarity Conference calling for urgent and concerted action for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Brussels on 28 and 29 October.
The two-day gathering aims to raise awareness of the crisis, reaffirm global commitments to host countries and communities, assess best practices and achievements, confirm international support for a coordinated regional response and call for greater international technical and financial cooperation with the region.