This Ecuadorian woman has provided food and shelter to 8,500 Venezuelan refugees
By Kimberley Brown
The sun had already set when a group of 10 Venezuelans trickled into Carmen Carcelen’s home in northern Ecuador late last month. They joined about 100 others who were already there. Two volunteers immediately invited the new houseguests to put down their tattered suitcases and backpacks, and offered each person a bowl of soup.
As they started eating, Carcelen was already in the middle of her nightly speech, explaining the house rules: Keep a peaceful atmosphere, wash your plate after you eat, do not consume drugs or alcohol in the house, and hand over any knives or other weapons you might be carrying. Those who refuse to comply will be escorted out of town, she said.
“Here the price of food, the bed you’re using, the water and electricity is all free: All you have to do is behave well,” Carcelen told her guests.
The 48-year-old mother-of-eight has been welcoming Venezuelans to her home for the past two years, providing a moment of relief to migrants and refugees on their long, and increasingly-dangerous journey. Since August 2017, she estimated that she has given shelter to over 8,500 Venezuelans travelling south. She is also known for giving people hugs when they need it and rubbing their aching feet.
The number of people passing through Carcelen’s house spiked after the Ecuadorian government announced the implementation of strict new visa requirements. Thousands rushed to the border, trying to enter the country before August 26, the day the new laws came into effect. More than 4,500 Venezuelans arrived daily at Ecuador’s northern border in the days leading up to the change, up from the previous norm of some 2,500 a day. Most were fleeing extreme poverty, hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages back home.
At this same time, up to 300 people a day were arriving at Carcelen’s doorstep, triple the amount from six months ago when the daily average was 100 people. While she gave everyone meals, she was only able to give beds to about 150 people a night, prioritising families with children, she said.
“Where are they expected to go?” said Carcelen, criticising the new visa restrictions, “they don’t have wings, they can’t just hover around in the sky.”
‘I thought I would be sleeping in the streets tonight’
Carcelen did not intend to convert her home into a hostel. The devout Christian said she has always had people in her house and loves to help travellers. In 2017, Carcelen and her husband saw a group of Venezuelans walking on the side of the highway when one man collapsed out of exhaustion. They picked up the group and offered them a place to rest for the night. Things grew organically after that, as more and more migrants and refugees began coming through.
Her home in the small town of Juncal is only 80 kilometres (about 50 miles) from Rumichaca, the main Colombia-Ecuador border crossing. The majority of the 1.7 million Venezuelans who have entered Ecuador since 2015 have come through this entrance. Those who enter on foot, eventually walk past Juncal as it sits on the PanAmerican highway, on the way to the capital, Quito.
Today, those who end up at Carcelen’s home have either been referred there by other migrants or taken there directly by Carcelen’s neighbours who see them walking on the highway.
Carcelen lives in a three-story split-level house made of cement, where she raised her own six children and two others she adopted when their parents passed away. The Venezuelans who stay here sleep on the third floor: The men in one large room on mattresses on the floor and the women and children in two smaller rooms on mattresses and bunk beds. It is one of Carcelen’s key house rules – that men and women be separated at night, no exceptions. But when they are not sleeping, everyone stays downstairs in the open terrace area beside the open kitchen – where Carcelen spends the vast majority of her time – and the bathrooms and showers that have been donated by aid organisations.
Edgar Soto and his wife Yennifer Peralta crossed the border just before the new visa restrictions went into effect. Since it can take up to one or two days to reach Carcelen’s house by foot from the border, Venezuelans continued to trickle in in high numbers days after the restrictions were passed.
Soto and Peralta walked for more than 10 hours before a trucker finally brought them to Carcelen’s house. It was their 19th day on the road, which they spent mostly walking and occasionally hitching rides on the back of trucks through Colombia.
The night they spent in Carcelen’s home was the first time in six days they slept in an enclosed space with a roof over their head.
“I never imagined that I would arrive here, I thought I would be sleeping in the streets tonight, as we have been,” Soto said.
“When you live through bad moments, something good always happens,” he told Al Jazeera.
The young couple said that twice in Colombia they had to outrun violent hooligans who chased them with machetes and threw rocks at the vehicles they were in while trying to steal the little they had. They also heard horror stories of other Venezuelans falling off of the backs of trucks or being killed by traffic while walking along Colombia’s narrow, windy highways.
Since the end of 2018, more than 35 percent of all Venezuelans who entered Ecuador travelled on foot. These were mainly people who could not afford to take the bus, according to Juan Pablo Terminiello, a protection officer with the United Nations Refugee Organization in Quito. This population is increasingly vulnerable, as they face a higher risk of theft, attacks, sexual assault and discrimination while on the open road.
Children are also among this more vulnerable population. More than half of all Venezuelans who arrived at the Ecuador border since the end of 2018 have been family members of Venezuelans already in the country, said Terminiello. This means many more children are travelling to meet their parents, he added.
Ranmari Mendoza spent one night at Carcelen’s place with her husband and two daughters, ages four and 12. She was living in Peru but had to return to Venezuela to pick up her daughters after her mother became too ill to continue caring for them. Mendoza was now on her way back to Peru after walking the entire return trip. It was her 43rd day on the road.
Discrimination and border policies
Most people here say they have received an enormous amount of help by locals along their journey, but very few people have opened their homes like Carcelen.
A similar house existed in the nearby town of Peguche, run by a local priest. But in July, the shelter was forced to close after locals in the indigenous community caught three Venezuelan thieves in the town square. Videos show police standing by and watching
“I don’t think people are up to creating spaces like this any more,” said Javier Arcentales Illescas, a human rights lawyer at the University Andina Simon Bolivar in Quito.
“It’s too risky, with the rising levels of xenophobia in the country, and the lack of policies to detain it,” he told Al Jazeera.
Terminiello said citizen and community initiatives like Carcelen’s are fundamental for migrants and refugees to feel protected and integrated into society.
But it is also questionable whether, or how, these can be sustained.
Carcelen runs her house mostly on the small income that her husband makes selling fruit and vegetables at the city market four days a week. She occasionally receives small private donations. Several international aid organisations have donated plastic chairs, blankets, portable showers and mattresses, but these do not meet Carcelen’s consistent needs of food and money to pay the high water and electricity bills.
Terminiello said UNHCR supports Carcelen, but it does not have enough funds to contribute financially as the number of people needing assistance in Ecuador is higher than they anticipated.
Carcelen was not entirely sure if the new visa restrictions would affect the number of people that come through her home in the long run. Numbers have dropped over the past weeks, but she continues to receive up to 20 Venezuelans a day looking for temporary shelter. Most of them have entered the country through irregular routes, since they do not have money or the necessary papers for a visa. To apply for any visa, Venezuelans must now show a valid passport, a criminal record check and a $50 processing fee.
Arcentales warned that more people are likely to seek out these alternative ways into the country, which will lead to increased cases of human trafficking, and higher levels of insecurity for migrants and refugees.
Carcelen said she will keep her doors open to Venezuelans passing through, until “it all ends … and they can finally go home to their things”.
Credit: Al Jazeera, www.aljazeera.com