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Venezuelans find mercy in arduous exodus from tumult

COLOMBIA (BP) — Night descends rapidly on the small plaza where a penetrating drizzle falls onto the cold stone floor. About 35 men, most in short sleeves or sleeveless shirts, huddle under the only two trees.

Meanwhile, two young women scurry to pull together an improvised “tent” of black plastic trash bags while trying to keep a small girl dry in her fuzzy footsie pajamas. They select the top step of the plaza, against the wall of a closed building. Rain runs off the roof onto their shelter, collapsing it.

Nearby, under the narrow archway of the building, a young couple sit in physical exhaustion, leaning as far back as possible, their legs from the knees down with nowhere to go but out in the drizzle. Between their two bodies they try to shelter their eight-month-old son.

This is the first Colombian town of any size on the route up, over and along the high, arduous Andean mountains from the Venezuelan border, across Colombia to the Ecuadorian border, across Ecuador to the Peruvian border and — for some — across Peru to Chile or Argentina.

It represents only the first few days of travel by foot for Venezuelans fleeing the surreal collapse of their nation — once one of the wealthiest on the continent.

They are only a handful of the 200 to 500 Venezuelans who pass this way every day, some pushing the elderly in wheelchairs, many carrying a baby or child, a number well along in pregnancy, nearly all dressed for hot climates. Most have no money, no food, no connections outside of Venezuela. They have not eaten well for a long time in their home country, where a month’s salary will only buy two days’ worth of food. They have sold their homes and belongings to pay for bus fare across Venezuela to the Colombian border — if they are fortunate. Some cannot do even that, so they walk a week across Venezuela to the border — before beginning their long walk toward multiple countries.

Here in neighboring Colombia, the Venezuelans on this dark night on a mountain plaza are sore, hungry, thirsty, cold and wet. They have been walking steadily upward on the mountain highway for anywhere from two to four days. They carry with them everything they own in a backpack or luggage with rollers: perhaps a change of clothes, perhaps photos of family left behind, perhaps work boots for a hoped-for future job. They come from flat, hot plains or the sultry coast. They have never known cold — no more than what would be felt by opening a refrigerator door. They have never slept on the ground in a public plaza.

They have no coats, no jackets, no gloves, no sweaters, no scarves. Their socks (if they have any to begin with) and shoes are already in tatters. Their footwear is flip flops, cheap loafers or low-cost tennis shoes. They are all headed toward a 10,000-foot mountain pass where at least 18 people have recently died of hypothermia and exposure. They have no preparation, no resources for this appalling journey, and no idea what lies ahead.

Their survival depends on strangers. Some strangers are kind. Others are not. In a growing atmosphere of xenophobia against Venezuelan immigrants, some people are turning against them and some nations are slamming doors shut. In this town, this night, the townsfolk are in their homes, eating dinner, preparing for bed. They have seen floods of Venezuelans pass their shops and homes, all tired, all hungry, all penniless.

Then a small miracle comes out of the night. A van pulls up across the street. From it descend a weary band of missionaries.

Since early morning they have been driving up the mountain, stopping each time they see a group of Venezuelans, getting out, inviting them to put down their heavy loads and sit for a moment while they give the Venezuelans hot sandwiches and hot chocolate, bind up their tattered and broken shoes with silver duct tape, give out mountain clothing and gear donated by Colombian believers, hear their stories, tell them a story — one of God’s stories — share suggestions for staying well, cry with them, hug them, pray with them and encourage them along the way.

The plaza is the missionaries’ last stop. For 11 hours they have been hearing and seeing one heartbreaking story after another: The 16-year-old who has left home alone to find work to send money back to six younger brothers so they can eat. The elderly man who has worked the soil all his life. There are no seeds now, he says. He hopes someone will let him work their land and give him enough to eat. The woman in her fourth month of pregnancy whose intention in leaving is that both she and her baby live. The teenage girls walking to a 10,000-foot pass in sandals, capris and summer blouses.

The group of men on the plaza come to life as they realize that food — FOOD! — is being offered to them. And HOT CHOCOLATE. The two women receive their sandwiches and drinks, warm jackets and scarves. Expressing thanks, they quickly retire with the little girl to their reconstructed trash bag tent. A few feet away, the young couple under the archway barely have the energy to extend their hand for the sandwiches. All day and evening the missionaries have zealously guarded their one child-size blanket, watching for that child who most needs it. Now the pink crocheted blanket wraps their little boy. The father sits by his wife and child, completely unable to care or provide for them in any way. As he takes his first sip of hot chocolate, the hot tears begin to flow down his face and will not stop.

The men are reluctant to let the missionaries leave. Here are people with jackets for them. More importantly, people who see them as human beings and know where they are going, and have information. “Will it be colder further on?” the men wonder. “Can anywhere be colder?” They are at 7,000 feet and still have another 3,000 feet in elevation to reach the pass, where nighttime temperatures range from 36 degrees to below freezing. Practical tip from the local pastor: Don’t climb into the mountain heights while hot and sweaty — a sure way to get bronchitis. Cool off first. A tip from one of the missionaries: Save the foil from the sandwiches. It can keep your hands warm.

Today, somewhere in South America these Venezuelans are still walking.