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When Local Governments Fail To Resettle Refugees, Citizens Open Their Doors

In 2019, the United Nations reported that an unprecedented number of people have been forced to flee their home countries. Over 70 million people are currently displaced worldwide, and the global refugee population is expected to increase in 2020.

In the Bay Area, dozens of volunteers have responded to this crisis by inviting refugees to live with them. They are part of a global, grassroots response to mass migration. In countries like Colombia, which neighbor conflict zones, volunteers are also opening their doors to those in need, often at great personal cost.

Marta Duque lives in a white, brick house with red trim in Pamplona, Colombia, a sleepy university town in the mountains. It’s a misty Friday night, and she’s walking in a brisk loop between each room in her house.

She checks on her kitchen, where three volunteers are cleaning the counters and assembling a massive platter of ham and cheese sandwiches. On her back patio, another volunteer is brewing a thick chocolate colada in a pot over a wood-fueled stove.

“Ah, that’s a little too hot,” Marta says after tasting it, “the children might have trouble drinking it.”

Outside, at least a hundred migrants Venezuela are waiting patiently in front of Marta’s house. A man wrapped in a pink princess blanket sips water on Marta’s front steps. A young woman in purple crocs trudges towards her house with two toddlers and a roller suitcase. The crowd is spilling onto the bustling highway out front, and you can see more people coming, walking along the highway’s shoulder in the dark with these care packages from the Red Cross.

“I came here with my mom!” says a six-year-old boy sitting on Marta’s steps.

“I’m going to Bogota!” says the girl next to him. “In Venezuela, I was really hungry,” she explains. “And here someone gave me a cookie and—bye!” She runs to join her family.

Staggering hyperinflation and political chaos have forced millions of Venezuelans to flee their country. The majority of them escape by crossing Venezuela’s border with Colombia on foot. Most migrants hope to find work in major South American cities like Bogota or Lima, but those cities are hundreds of miles away. So, if the migrants can’t afford a bus ticket, they walk. Their journey can take days or weeks, and many migrants make the trip with small children. They’re called los caminantes, or the walkers, and their main route takes them through the Colombian mountains. It also takes them right past Marta’s house.

One of Marta’s volunteers opens her front gate, and families with young children start filing inside. They get to come in first.

“This is where the littlest children sleep,” Marta says, gesturing to a cozy room crammed with bunk beds, “the babies and their mothers.” In a group of young pregnant women, each chooses a spot. Mothers with young children file into nother room, lined with Disney blankets and padded floor mats.

Raquel Sandeño claims a mat with her three children, who start quietly eating ham and cheese sandwiches. Her daughters are eleven and nine, her son is 10 months old. She used to work at a school in Carabobo, Venezuela.

“We were almost dying of hunger,” she says when asked why her family left. They’re headed to Cali, Colombia, and so far, the trip’s been rough.

“We came here on foot and it took hours,” she says.

The Colombian government has welcomed Venezuelan migrants, but it’s also resisted building shelters or formal refugee camps for them. So, Marta’s converted her home into one of the only local shelters for caminantes. The volunteers who help her cook dinner are also caminantes; nine Venezuelan migrants currently live with her. Marta asks caminantes to sign-in when they arrive at her shelter. According to that unofficial log, she says she helps 300 to 500 migrants a day.

‘We Never Put The Car Back In The Garage’

“I started doing this like any normal person would,” Marta says, “when I saw people in front of my house in the cold and rain. I was hesitant to take them into my house at first because I didn’t know any of them. So I told my husband, ‘let’s take the car out of the garage. The car won’t get sick, but they will.’ That’s how this all started.”

“We never put the car back in the garage,” she says, then laughs.

That was back in January 2017. There weren’t many migrants at first, Marta says, maybe a few dozen a day, mostly young men looking for work. Then the food shortages in Venezuela accelerated, the medical system collapsed even further. Hundreds of young families started showing up at Marta’s home. Now, Marta says she sees everyone.

“The ones who really stick with me are the pregnant women, who make this trip when they’re eight, sometimes almost nine months along,” Marta says. “After walking all day, sometimes they arrive at my house already dilated—they’re in pain, but they tell me they want to keep going.”

The caminantes’ climb through the mountains is notoriously dangerous. One of the mountain passes is nicknamed ‘La Nevera,’ or the refrigerator, and it’s about 10,000 feet above sea level. A lot of caminantes make the trip in crocs or flip flops.

“They destroy their feet walking,” Marta says. “A lot of the children are coming from hotter places, and they don’t bring coats for this frigid climate.”

Marta’s massaged a little boy’s feet with hot water and soap; they were shock-white and wrinkled in his soaked-through shoes. She’s warmed up caminantes with hairdryers when she was afraid they were getting hypothermic. When a little boy died after collapsing at a nearby gas station, it was Marta who arranged for his body to be cremated. She’s helped thousands of people and seems to remember them all.

‘They’ve Tried To Shut Me Down’

Marta doesn’t receive any government support for this work, but she’s good at leverage local connections and the media to find the funding she needs. She sits on the local hospital’s board of directors and sends caminantes there for emergency treatment. She’s received funding from Oxfam and Rotary Club International. The International Red Cross helped her remodel her kitchen and bathrooms so that they were up to code.

Still, money is a constant issue. “About a month ago, I had to stop serving food for maybe a week because I was in debt to the gas company,” Marta says. Her electric and water bills are also extremely expensive.

Then there are her neighbors. Plenty of people support what Marta’s doing, and her next-door neighbor also serves caminantes dinner. But anti-Venezuelan attitudes are on the rise in Colombia, and some of Marta’s neighbors have complained about the crowds her shelter attracts.

“They’ve tried to shut me down a couple times,” Marta says. Last year, Pamplona’s mayor briefly closed her shelter in response to a community petition, which claimed the caminantes were blocking local roads and posed a public health risk. Marta successfully fought to reverse the decision with the help of local activists and sympathetic press coverage.

Marta’s faced plenty of local pushback, but overall, Colombia’s response to mass migration is considered a global model. Over 1.4 million Venezuelan caminantes have resettled in Colombia, and the country has opened its borders and even changed its citizenship laws to accommodate them.

In the past few years, more people like Marta are stepping up to help the global migration accelerates. In Canada, thousands of citizens have volunteered to adopt Syrian families through their government’s sponsorship program. In Germany, hundreds of families applied to share their homes with refugees. In the Bay Area and other corners of the United States, dozens of volunteers have taken in local refugees and asylum seekers. And in Colombia, other people have opened shelters like Marta’s, which dot the highway the caminantes travel.

The Most Important Thing Is Freedom

For Marta, this work is the culmination of decades of community activism. She got involved in local politics twenty years ago, and the work is personal for her.

“I decided I was not going to be the vulnerable girl that I was,” she says. “The shy girl who was scared of everything. That girl who couldn’t look in another person’s face, because they were so afraid.”

Marta is a former migrant herself. She grew up poor in the 1970s when Colombia was in the middle of a bloody civil conflict and Venezuela was the country people migrated to. Thousands of Colombian domestic workers cooked and cleaned for Venezuelan families, and when Marta was 12, her father sent her away to join them.

“Caracas was the other side of the world for me,” she says. She was hired by a well-to-do Caracas family, but they told her she was still paying off her debt from her trip across the border. They never paid her.

“I felt like they had sold me,” Marta says. “I stayed in a tenth-floor apartment, and I felt like a prisoner—I never went out.” She remembers watching families celebrate Christmas from the apartment window, as she ironed the families’ shirts at night and took care of their young children. 

“I told them I was going to leave,” she says, “and they told me they’d turn me in to the police and I’d go to prison.” Marta didn’t have any documents. She says this dragged on for two years until she set a fire in a wastebasket.

“They all thought I’d gone crazy and was going to burn down the apartment,” she says. “It had been an accident, but I let them think that.” That’s when they let her go.

Marta worked in Venezuela on and off for the next ten years.

“That’s how I came to believe that the most important thing to any human being is freedom,” she says. 

After Marta shows the young mothers and children to their rooms, she and a volunteer stand on her front stoop with a platter of sandwiches. It’s time to feed everyone else.

“Alright, listen to me,” she shouts, “everybody get in line!” The windows to her home are flung open, and you can faintly hear a group of mothers singing to their children inside.

“A police officer once told me... ‘do you think anyone will thank you for this?’” Marta says. “I don't expect anything from people. I never did any of this expecting to be given something back.”

She walks back inside to check on the kitchen. Tomorrow, she and a quiet army of volunteers across the world will do it all again. 

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.

Correction: An earlier version  of this story stated that Marta Duque grew up in th 1980s. In fact, it was the 1970s. We regret the error.

Teresa Cotsirilos is a reporter at KALW, where she covers labor rights and public health in the Bay Area’s immigrant communities. A recipient of the IWMF Adelante Fellowship and the Center for Health Journalism's National Fellowship, she is currently investigating California wildfire cleanups and their impact on immigrant workers’ health and safety.