Dreams do come true: advancing local integration in Venezuela

Making a Difference, 15 August 2012

© FUGU/JavierJara
Twenty years after Celina Gelvez was first driven from her home in Colombia, she has been given a house for her family by the government of Venezuela.

GUASDUALITO, Venezuela, 14 August (UNHCR) Celina Gelvez was celebrating with a house warming party, joined by refugee friends, neighbours, government officials and UNHCR staff. The parish priest of the Guasdualito Cathedral was also there on the patio to bless the new three-bedroom house she had received from the Venezuelan government.

Some 20 twenty years after she was first displaced from her home in Colombia, a dream had come true.

Gelvez was born in San Ignacio, in Cesar Department, Colombia, but spent a decade displaced inside her native country, fleeing several times with her family from irregular armed groups.

"Eventually, the situation became so unbearable that I had no choice but to take my children and flee our home country," she said. "We left our home and all our possessions there; we arrived in Venezuela with empty hands."

In 2002 she came to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela with her two sons. Now aged 35 and 30, one has a mild cognitive disorder but the second has a severe mental disability. Since their arrival, the 66-year-old asylum-seeker and the family that she heads had lived in a tin shack in Samaria, on the outskirts of Guasdualito, Apure State.

"Living in a new country with a disabled child and without regular employment, I found it almost impossible to improve my situation," Gelvez said, citing the search for a decent place to live among the biggest challenges. "Nevertheless, I always dreamt about a better and safer house for my children."

Despite the challenges, Gelvez, assisted by a micro-finance programme, raises hens and ducks to earn income, keeping her active in the community and helping with her own integration.

She takes part in projects organised by UNHCR, CARITAS, the Apure State Secretary of Culture and the government programme named Bario Adentro that is aimed at elderly refugees and Venezuelan nationals in the Guasdualito area. The programme includes cultural and sport activities, and beneficiaries also receive weekly medical check-ups.

Additionally, Gelvez has joined in other community-based projects funded by UNHCR and the local Community Council in Samaria to promote human rights and local integration of refugees and asylum-seekers. UNHCR has recorded some 400 recognised refugees and 4300 asylum seekers in Apure State, all originally from Colombia.

Taking Gelvez's situation into account, the Community Council in Samaria included her and her family as beneficiaries of the government-run housing project Rancho por Casa (Huts for Houses) in which the community builds free housing for those in extreme poverty. She in turn assisted by cooking meals for those involved in the construction and painted not only her own house, but those of neighbours built under the programme.

Her case illustrated what can be achieved through UNHCR community based-projects in partnership with local institutions. It also showed the commitment of the Venezuelan government to refugees' rights and including refugees in public policy.

Gelvez's life has taken on new hope and colour. After a day of music and food spent with her friends, neighbours and representatives of her community, Gelvez and her children spent the first night in the safety of their new home.

Marcela Rodriguez-Farrelly, Head of the UNHCR Field Office in Guasdualito, Venezuela

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Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

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