As the situation in Venezuela worsens, a moment of reflection for its mothers

UNHCR Canada protection officer Nadia Williamson recalls spending Mother’s Day on the Venezuela-Colombia border last year and explains why she’ll be thinking of the women and children there this week.

By: /
May 10, 2019
A woman walks with her son at a camp run by the UNHCR in Colombia's La Guajira region, near the Venezuelan border, May 7, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Last year I spent Mother’s Day alone. It wasn’t easy to be away from my kids, but I found solace in knowing that they were proud of me. In my capacity as a protection officer for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), I was at the Colombia-Venezuela border, helping to provide safety and basic necessities to people forced to flee the crippling humanitarian crisis plaguing their country.

Thousands of people were arriving every day. Of the ones I met, a few lucky ones had a bit of money to take a bus, but most had made the journey on foot, walking for days or weeks under extremely difficult conditions. They had barely any belongings but came with severe ailments. Almost everyone had at some point been forced to sleep out on dirty streets, with little access to drinking water, bathrooms or shelter. In the streets, women and children were also exposed to human trafficking, and labour exploitation and sexual exploitation.

As a mother, it pained me to see other mothers and their children suffer. But I also understood why they left. The decision to leave your home is never easy, but sometimes all your other options have run out. At the UNHCR shelter, I met Ana, who left Venezuela after the “colectivos,” the paramilitary groups that support Nicolas Maduro, killed her eldest son. She had no choice but to take her three grandchildren with her to Colombia: “When we arrived here, we were better off sleeping on the streets than living in Venezuela.” It broke my heart when she added: “There is no life in Venezuela, but I feel safe here.”

Ana and her grandchildren are just one example of how the Venezuela crisis is having a particularly devastating impact on women and children. Children are at risk of severe malnutrition and all kinds of diseases that were thought to have been eradicated in Venezuela, such as measles and malaria. Scores of pregnant women are fleeing due to lack of prenatal care, medicine and diapers. They want to give birth in a hospital, but hospitals have stopped functioning normally in Venezuela. Women have told me me how they had been pushed into sex work to support themselves and their families, or fear having to do so.

"In Colombia’s La Guajira region, where I was posted, 80 percent of all arrivals to the UNHCR shelter were single mothers."

On average, 5,000 people continue to leave Venezuela every day. In Colombia’s La Guajira region, where I was posted, 80 percent of all arrivals to the UNHCR shelter were single mothers. I would see the relief in their eyes when we were giving them food, shelter and medical attention. I still remember how they thanked me for restoring their dignity — something no mother should be stripped off.

This year, I am happy to spend Mother’s Day with my kids back in Ottawa, and to know that they have what they need to thrive. But I am also sad to watch the security and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela deepen. I am afraid that many more mothers like Ana will be forced to make the impossible choice of leaving their homes. More than three million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015 — the largest outflow in Latin America in recent history. Neighbouring countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador have been generously welcoming them, but are increasingly overstretched, and some are reaching a saturation point.

Humanitarian organizations are supporting their efforts and working with local governments to provide lifesaving aid. (UNHCR is one of them — building and managing reception centres where people are given access to tents, food, water, basic medical care and ways to secure their stay in exile. At the borders, UNHCR identifies people who may require special protection such as unaccompanied children and pregnant women.)

But as the situation deteriorates and needs keep growing, much more is needed — now.

Canada has so far been generous in its support, having pledged $53 million for humanitarian needs in the region, and while many countries have also pledged sizeable contributions, this is not enough. If additional funding is not provided soon, mothers and grandmothers like Ana will have no other option but to go back to sleep on the streets and fall prey to all kinds of dangers I do not want to think of.

This is why I am calling on my fellow Canadians to see beyond the political headlines, to channel their generosity and help families who are now caught in a fight for survival. No mother should have to leave her home to ensure the well-being of her kids. No mother should be left without help for her kids when they become refugees.