By Stephen Vargha
A horrifying and tragic experience out in public changed Karla Sánchez’s life.
“I was working as a tour guide at the time for Ecuador Direct Roses,” said Karla. “The office was at Plaza Otorongo, and I saw a big police presence across the street at the Tomebamba River.”
Wanting to know what was going on, the Venezuelan walked up to a police officer and asked him why they were there. “He told me that a young Venezuelan man had jumped into the river to commit suicide,” said Karla. “The police officer added that the man had just lost his job and had no way to support his family of three children.”
After experiencing one of her fellow Venezuelans ending his life abruptly, she accepted a job at Fundación GRACE, a charitable organization set up by Californian Saxon Gotfried in 2019. It was originally set up “to provide health care services to refugees and locals in need.”.
“Saxon had been asking me for a year to help run this organization for internationally displaced Venezuelans,” said Karla.
Karla uses the term, “internationally displaced,” as La Organización Internacional para las Migraciones (OIM), a United Nations agency uses it instead of “refugee” for legal reasons. “It is a legal obligation if the Venezuelans are classified as refugees,” said Karla. “Only 200 thousand Venezuelans out 6 million have been classified as refugees.”
Driven by hyperinflation, violence, food shortages, and a lack of medicine stemming from recent years of political turmoil, Venezuela has lost almost a fifth of its population. According to OIM, 1.5 millions of those Venezuelans are now in neighboring Colombia. Another million fled to Peru. Ecuador has the third highest number of Venezuelans with 513,903 as of March.
Though Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, it has the fourth highest number of Venezuelans, behind number-one Quito, Guayaquil, and Manta. “Venezuelans do not come to Cuenca due to a lack of jobs. Because of tourism, there are basically only service jobs to be had,” said Karla. “Besides, it’s too cold for most Venezuelans. They are not used to the mountain weather.”
When Gotfried went back to the United States in February 2021 to look for funding, Karla became the organization’s president. As a 501(c)(3) organization and a registered Non-Governmental Organizations Fundación, Karla has greatly expanded Fundación GRACE’s services to Venezuelans.
“The Venezuelan kids are malnourished. They are poor and are eating a lot of rice,” said Karla. “It is bad here as 27 percent of the children are malnourished compared to 18 percent in Venezuela.” In Ecuador it is about 10 percent who are malnourished.
Besides being refugees, Karla said that 80 percent of her clients are single-mother families. “You have chronic malnourishment, creating physical and mental issues,” said Karla. “Children’s brains are not developing correctly.”
Under her leadership, Fundación GRACE is now offering general medical help, psychological support, gynecological services (no birthing of babies), and dentistry. They are in the process of offering physical therapy.
“Our objective is to assist people in conditions of vulnerability and mobility, and who lack the ability to obtain medical care in a timely manner,” said Karla. “We had 2,700 patients from January through May. And we expect to have 6,000 patients by the end of the year.” She adds that some of them will be repeats.
Doctors and the dentist at the non-profit center on Calle Mariscal Lamar are part-time. It is difficult to get Venezuelan doctors due to the difficulties of obtaining a medical license in Ecuador. Most doctors are Cuencanos though the dentist hails from Venezuela.
The doctors’ time is not just for Venezuelans. “We offer these services at a discount rate to expats who are financially strapped,” said Karla. “Just give us a call to make an appointment.”
As a matter of fact, Fundación GRACE just donated eight pints of blood to an American expat for his surgery. “Every five months, we have a blood drive for the Ecuadorian Red Cross. We get 50 Venezuelans to donate blood,” said Karla. “Since we had blood available from the last drive, we donated eight bags to the North American.”
There is even legal help being offered, but it is very limited. Once a week a local attorney shows up at the center to give advice to needy Venezuelans.
Karla’s experiences and education are helping Fundación GRACE move forward. She grew up in Caracas and went to Central University of Venezuela. It is Venezuela’s oldest and most prestigious university, as well as being one of the oldest in the Americas.
She studied International Affairs and worked for international non-profit organizations for six years. Her last job was with the Press and Society Institute of Venezuela, a non-governmental organization that works on the promotion, defense, training in freedom of expression, investigative journalism, and the right to information.
Karla left that job unexpectedly with a move to Cuenca. “A friend of mine was a lawyer in Cuenca, so I flew to visit her,” said Karla. “On my flight to Quito, I had a medical emergency.”
That medical emergency was diagnosed as almost having a miscarriage. “I did not know I was even pregnant,” said Karla. “The doctor said if I get into another plane, I will most likely have a miscarriage.”
Based on that medical advice, Karla and her boyfriend went overland. She got married and gave birth to Max in Cuenca in 2015. A few years later, Karla was divorced.
Renting a house for Fundación GRACE means there is always a need for money. Charitable giving in the United States reached a record $485 billion in 2021, and Karla is hoping some of that U.S. charity heads her way.
“I am basically looking for money, food, and the right people,” Karla said. “We would love to have the expats’ knowledge and expertise. They have a lot to offer Venezuelans.” She said that one of the expats volunteering his time used to be with NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which included the rovers.
“Helping us with the laundry and organizing the clothes for donations is always needed,” said Karla. Along with clothes, diapers for Venezuelan babies are an important part of Fundación GRACE.
“When we had our first diaper giveaway, the line was down the street,” said Karla. “Now, we use diapers to entice mothers to show up for their health appointments every month.” The tactic seems to be working.
The ever-changing political landscape may bring more refugees to Cuenca soon. “It is going to get worse very soon because of the recent elections in Colombia,” said Karla. “After telling the current government who raped, kidnapped, and injured them, people associated with the accused are taking revenge on those people with the election of (former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement) Gustavo Petro.”
Then there is the dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries just south of Ecuador. “Xenophobia is strong with the current government,” said Karla. “Venezuelans are fleeing Peru for Ecuador in big numbers.”
How many of these refugees end up in Cuenca is unknown. But Karla does know one thing about all that make their way to Cuenca.
“We just want to give the Venezuelan a chance to be your neighbor,” said Karla.
Fundación GRACE, Guillermo Medina 25-01 y Mariscal Lamar, Cuenca; Tel. 095-920-4786; email: email@example.com; website https://www.giverefugeesachance.org
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.