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Cuenca refugee stories on World Refugee Day 2020: Despite Covid-19, there is hope for many

By Karla Betania Sánchez Arismendi

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, today’s 50th anniversary World Refugee Day will be celebrated without many of the usual  presentations and festivities.

Cuenca doctors attend a refugee child.

Designated by the United Nations on June 20, 2001, World Refugee Day commemorates the UN 1951 Status of Refugees convention that honors refugees around the world.

A refugee is someone who fled his or her home and country due to “a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group unwelcomed in their native country. Many refugees are also living in exile to escape the effects of natural and human-made disasters.

Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world and World Refugee Day shines a light on their rights, needs, and dreams, helping them to mobilize to gain political strength and to find the resources necessary to survive and thrive.

The number of displaced people and refugees in the world grew by almost nine million in 2019, reaching 79.5 million, or nearly one percent of the world population, according to the annual report of the Agency of the United Nations for Refugees, UNHCR.

“This figure of almost 80 million, the highest UNHCR has ever recorded, is a matter of great concern,” said Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Syrians, Venezuelans, Afghans, South Sudanese, and stateless Rohingya in Myanmar, are the most affected populations of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons.

Venezuelan refugees in Ecuador and Latin America
Venezuela is the second country after Syria (6.6 million) with the highest number of refugees counted by UNHCR, with just under 4.5 million. The numbers surpasses those Afghanistan, (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.2 million) and Burma (1.1 million).

The Latin American region, including Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Chile, have been the primary recipients of Venezuelan citizens who have left their country. However, with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, the situation of these migrants has become more complicated in host countries, where the vast majority live on the informal economy.

A mother holds her baby.

Amid the blockades imposed to stop the pandemic, many refugee jobs have disappeared, prompting between 30,000 and 50,000 people to return to Venezuela for lack of means to sustain themselves elsewhere.

“Eighty percent of these 4.5 million Venezuelans depend on the informal economy, and since the beginning of the Covid-19 confinements, they are entering a spiral of death, destitution, and evictions. Tens of thousands of them, faced with the lack of stability and means of subsistence, choose to return to Venezuela which is in a very complicated health situation,” Grandi said.

The pandemic has tested our strength, but it has also renewed our motivation to act for equality
“People cannot be expected to live in a state of uncertainty for years, without the possibility of returning home, nor the hope of building a future where they are. We need a fundamentally new and more responsive attitude towards all displaced people, along with a much more determined drive to resolve conflicts that last for years and are at the root of such immense suffering,” explained the high commissioner.

To help the refugees get on their feet, there are organizations such as GRACE (Give Refugees a Chance) in Cuenca. In addition to providing medical and legal services, GRACE has helped refugees by providing school uniforms, bringing loved ones out of Venezuela, providing household items, food, clothing, and helping small family businesses get off the ground. According to its organizers, GRACE was created to make refugees into neighbors by celebrating and supporting their resilience.

GRACE has 12 doctors who offer routine treatment, medications, and referrals as needed to a network of coalition medical partners who offer discounts to GRACE clients.

To donate to GRACE, please click: https://giverefugeesachance.org/donate/

Or contact them: giverefugeesachance1@gmail.com.

WhatsApp: +0959204786

COVID cases in refugee families in Cuenca
Luis Oscar Utrera Sanchez, 57, started getting worried when his 52-years-old wife, Lenni Fuguet, started complaining about pain in her bones, headaches, and high fever. After a week, Luis began to have the same symptoms. They were both terrified, but not from the possibility of having Covid-19 but because the worried that their landlord might notice.

Dr. José Luís Durán, who works at GRACE, received a call from Utrera explaining the symptoms and asking for help. “My wife cannot get up from bed, please come, but please no ambulance. We don’t want the landlord to notice. If she does, we would be evicted and be homeless,” he pleaded.

A baby in intensive care.

Utrera is a Venezuelan refugee who arrived at Cuenca three years ago. As a former construction company owner, he is used to working hard to support his family. Since his arrival in Cuenca, he worked every day selling bags of limes for $1 near the Feria Libre market on Av. Las Americas.

Dr. Durán visited Utrera and Fuguet, taking all the security measures necessary, and asked the family to come immediately with him to the Health Center. “We got there and they told us it was a throat infection. They gave us antibiotics but every day we got worse and worse,” explains Utrera.

After several more attempts to receive medical help, the Utrera family was referred to the Vicente Corral Moscoso Regional Hospital, where they were tested for Covid-19, confirming their suspicions three days later. The tests were positive for the couple and their little granddaughter, just seven months old.

“Thank God, since May 15, when they gave us the news, our health started to improve. The doctors at the Regional Hospital told us they would call to follow up but they never did. They don’t know if we are alive or dead,” says Utrera.

As they added their case to the statistics of Cuencanos with Covid-19, the Utrera family also joined the families in extreme vulnerability, uanble to work and facing starvation.

“I want to work but because I can infect others the situation is desperate.” Utrera continues. The GRACE Foundation has collaborated with the family by providing food while they remain in quarantine. Today, they are waiting for the results of their second Covid-19 test and Luis hopes to resume work soon.