Perched on top of the highest hill in Las Delicias, José Luis Zabaleta looks down at the naked-brick constructions and metal roofs sprouting out of the luscious greenery. “When I arrived here, there was nothing,” he says. “Not even streets.”
Today, wooden poles and power lines skirt the unpaved streets of the neighbourhood he helped build 15 years ago – the one he is now the leader of, elected by the community every five years.
In this humble suburb on the outskirts of Cúcuta – Colombia’s biggest city near the border with Venezuela – two thirds of the population are Colombians internally displaced by the armed conflict that ravaged their country for five decades.
Thousands fled across the border too, into Venezuela. But over the last few years, there has been a reversal. Venezuelans are coming the other way, fleeing their country’s economic downfall, moving here, and receiving a warmer welcome in Las Delicias than they often get elsewhere.
The number of Venezuelans entering Colombia through Cúcuta has grown exponentially in recent years, as Venezuela’s economic and political crisis has spiralled out of control. More than 4.8 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, and some 5,000 cross every day over the Simón Bolívar International Bridge – the main entry point into Cúcuta.
After Bogotá, the capital, Cúcuta hosts more Venezuelans than any other city in Colombia and has the second highest unemployment rate in the country. But while hospitals and shelters in Cúcuta say they are overwhelmed with the arrival of hundreds of Venezuelans every day, families here in Las Delicias have opened their doors happily to the newcomers.
In 2017, Zabaleta led a census: there were a little over 2,500 Colombians and some 300 Venezuelans living in the neighbourhood. Today, he estimates there are more than 600 Venezuelans.
“You may have something today, and tomorrow you have nothing.”
Community-led and spontaneous, this initiative has shown promising results and developed into an innovative integration programme for displaced people. It has won the support of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and other local NGOs, and could serve as an example for other displaced communities and countries.
“A lot of [Colombia’s conflict] victims have supported the migrant population,” Zabaleta explains. “Because they know what it’s like – that you may have something today, and tomorrow you have nothing.”
Helping both Colombians and Venezuelans
Displaced Colombians used to move to Las Delicias looking for safety and job opportunities due to its proximity to Venezuela. For decades, Venezuela’s economy outperformed Colombia’s, driven by a booming oil industry and political stability.
“It was a fluid border. We exchanged money and goods,” recalls Zabaleta. “But now everything has changed.”
Since 2013, the Venezuelan economy has collapsed. Political mismanagement and sanctions imposed by other countries have driven hyperinflation and depressed the value of the bolivar, the national currency. In less than seven years, Venezuela has lost 66 percent of its GDP.
UNHCR first engaged in Las Delicias in 2015, trying to help internally displaced Colombians find jobs and integrate into the new community. In addition to training and leadership classes, it helped to build common spaces like a library and a football pitch.
Zabaleta was part of a programme that sought to strengthen community activism. “I used to be against development and would treat [community] leaders badly,” he says. “But when you put yourself in their shoes, that’s when you see how wonderful [this] leadership is.”
As time went by, UNHCR noticed that some of the Colombian families they had been working with were hosting more and more Venezuelan migrants.
“There was no project or action that motivated them to open their homes’ doors,” says Rafael Zavala, director of the UNHCR’s office in Cúcuta. “It was an initiative that was born from feeling identified with the situation of arriving in a new city and not having a support network.”
UNHCR decided to build on that solidarity and consulted with the community over a series of meetings in 2018 on how best it could help.
The “solidarity homes” programme started with only seven families. Word of mouth travelled fast, and today there are 22 families hosting 130 Venezuelans in Las Delicias. UNHCR is now replicating the initiative in four other neighbourhoods in Cúcuta. Over the course of 2019, 33 households joined the network beyond Las Delicias.
“At first, international aid focused only on the migrant population,” says Zabaleta, the community leader. “But we organised some talks and interventions where we raised the issue that this action was also causing harm. So then they started integrating both the Colombian and the Venezuelan populations.”
Identifying with newcomers
There are always people coming in and out of Marnellys Muentes’ home.
What all visitors have in common – whether it’s the old woman who lives next door asking for some extra coffee, the five-year-old getting some leftover rice, or the woman carrying a baby and a bag of diapers – is that they’re from Venezuela.
“If I’m cooking arepas with egg or rice, I’ll give them some,” Muentes says. “What’s important is that they don’t go to bed on an empty belly.”
The 46-year-old sturdy woman, with narrow black eyes and a shy smile, understands very well what Venezuelans are going through. She and her husband Alvis fled the arid region of La Guajira, in northern Colombia, after receiving threats from armed groups. “We had to leave everything behind – our home, our business, everything,” she says.
Today, Muentes is proud of her comfortable, shiny white home built on bricks, where she is currently hosting two young Venezuelans who help the family run their juice cart business.
Three more come every day and help her with chores like cooking, washing the dishes, and sweeping the floor. They all eat together and keep each other company. “I used to be here alone with my granddaughter,” Muentes says. “At least now I talk and laugh.”
It’s all very different from when Muentes and her husband arrived in Las Delicias – the house walls were made of wood planks and they slept on the floor.
“When I got here, I couldn’t afford the most basic needs,” she recalls. “I was pregnant with my first son; I would go to bed without eating. I cried. I said, ‘I want to leave.’”
Across the steep, muddy street, her neighbour Élida Betancourt holds her seven-month-old baby in her arms and pats his sweaty forehead with a towel.
Betancourt is from Venezuela and has been living in Las Delicias for nine months. When she and her husband first arrived in Cúcuta, they rented an apartment closer to the city centre, but they soon found they couldn’t afford the cost.
They learned about an empty lot in Las Delicias, where a Colombian man was looking for someone to take care of his home while he was away. They don’t pay rent, only electricity and water bills. “We are now used to this place,” says Betancourt. “We feel valued.”
The 30-year-old mother has become really close to Muentes. “She is always keeping an eye on whether I had breakfast, lunch, dinner, the baby’s food, diapers,” Betancourt explains. “She says, ‘Let me know when you need anything.’ But I feel embarrassed to ask.”
Back in Venezuela, Betancourt obtained a Physics degree at university, and she and her husband ran a clothing business. “We earned a good salary, had our own home, a comfortable life,” she says. “Here, one has to start from scratch.”
Opening their doors to Venezuelans was an act of selflessness for many displaced Colombians, but it’s not all peace and harmony with the newcomers. For many people in Las Delicias, electricity and water bills have soared since they started hosting Venezuelans, creating some tensions among those living under the same roof.
“In Venezuela, we are not used to paying for services, while here you have to pay for everything: electricity, gas, water,” says Betancourt. “In Venezuela, it is actually free.”
Zabaleta, the community leader, hosts two Venezuelans at his home. He grumbles that they may leave the phone charger plugged in even when the phone is fully charged, or they won’t be mindful about the water running while they wash the dishes. “There have been issues,” he admits, before adding philosophically: “It’s another country. We have different habits.”
In the consultations UNHCR held in Las Delicias, the community identified the payment of services – electricity, water, gas – as a priority. The UN agency started a programme that covered those bills for three months for the families who hosted Venezuelans. “Those payments can be reactivated when they receive more people,” Zavala, the UNHCR director, explains.
For Zavala, the biggest lesson from the approach at Las Delicias is that when displaced Venezuelan families live in homes, instead of shelters or camps, it speeds up the integration process. “This way, they start building their own networks, their own paths to stabilise themselves in the country.”
A year ago, Muentes was hosting 12 Venezuelans in her home. They tend to come and go in waves. Some find a more stable job in another city or even in another country like Ecuador or Peru, and move on. Others stay in Cúcuta, while some have even found their own home in Las Delicias. Muentes stays in touch with many of them over text messages and she enjoys it when they send her photos from far away.
Zavala insists all the merit for this initiative should go to the people of Las Delicias: “It was the community who did this; we only organised, boosted what they were already doing.”
Too hard to leave
As the sun goes down and a cool breeze blows through the neighbourhood, Betancourt and Muentes chat by the white-fenced door of the latter’s house. The sound of TV cartoons blasts in the background. Muentes’ granddaughter is watching shows in the living room.
Soon both women will lock their doors and stay inside. Robberies have increased in the area recently, and they say they are afraid of leaving their homes at night.
“At 7pm already, I lock myself up,” says Betancourt. “Here, in Cúcuta, there are no jobs, and so, people, with the pressure of not finding a job or food, their option is to steal.”
Muentes tells Betancourt about a neighbour, an old lady, who was robbed the night before inside her own home: “Now when there’s a robbery, without knowing who did it, they blame Venezuelans." Muentes says she feels bad about such accusations and hopes people will become more understanding.
“It was the community who did this; we only organised, boosted what they were already doing.”
For Zabaleta, the community leader, the only solution is to keep pushing for integration and greater opportunities for everyone.
“We help build or destroy our environment with our actions,” he says. “Until we switch that chip in our head – of blaming others for something we did – we cannot change reality.”
Despite the security concerns, and the fact that it takes almost an hour to get into Cúcuta by bus, Betancourt feels at home in Las Delicias. “Some people say it’s ugly, too far removed from the city centre, but I like it here,” she says. “It’s quiet, comfortable, and people treat me well.”
If there were a chance of finding a lot to buy, she says she would like to stay. It would be too hard to leave, she explains – “so many good friendships,” like the one she has with Muentes.
Standing by Betancourt’s door, Zabaleta smiles: “No one wants to leave Las Delicias.”
The reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.