“We have the opportunity to save children’s lives!” Martha Duque, hosts migrant Venezuelan families in Colombia
Martha Duque’s white house sits in the Andes at a height of 2300 meters on the route taken by Venezuelan migrants between the border city of Cucuta and the transit city Bucaramanga. What was once a quiet place in a sleepy town is now crowded; people gather indoors, and families sit on the roadside with their bags. Martha looks at the Tdh social workers, smiles and jokes: “You’re very good… or I’m very good.” As the night temperatures drop to zero, she takes in hundreds of mothers and children and hands out 500 lunches a day to people on the move.
How did you start helping Venezuelan people on the road?
More and more people from Venezuela were arriving in our town. It got very cold and I couldn’t believe there were women with children, whole families and people with disabilities sleeping in the street. I took the car out and put mattresses into our garage so they could sleep there. I said to my husband, “The car won't get sick, but these people will”. The migrating families arrive very unprotected, for example without shoes. The children are malnourished and there have been pregnant women who went straight to hospital to give birth after having walked for kilometres. We support them until they’re well enough to continue their journey.
As more people kept arriving, I opened up the downstairs in my house. I moved the furniture out of the living room, then out of the dining room to make space for anyone who needed a place to sleep. I prioritised women and children, the men slept outside. In the kitchen, we cook meals for everyone. I did all this with difficulty, but with a lot of love and the intention that people receive at least one meal a day. The most important thing in life is not what you have but helping the next one, covering a need, bringing a smile to a sad face. People say to me, “Why are you doing that? It's your home, your life, your privacy”. Why would I want privacy if others are so anxious and in such need?
What were the challenges of this decision?
The main difficulty is coping with the neighbours who are unhappy with the noise and the officials who tell us that we don’t qualify as a shelter. I usually tell them that we’re not a shelter; we’re a home of peace. Above rules and laws, there must always be humanity.
What touched you personally?
It hurts me to see what people are going through. One day, a family arrived with a sick child on the bus. At the petrol station, where they’d found somewhere to sleep, the child began to convulse and had symptoms of illness. They went to the hospital, but the doctors couldn’t save the child. We looked after the parents - the mother was a 17-year-old girl - and we helped them get to where they were heading. I couldn’t sleep that night and it made me think that any one of us could be in this situation. Almost everybody here has a relative in Venezuela. I used to live in Venezuela. My children were born there. It upsets me a lot to see a country that had so much good continue to deteriorate.
How do you work with Tdh?
Tdh visits every shelter along the road to identify people in need, trying their best to help them. In the workshops they do, they give out very important advice because the people arrive here uninformed. Families are robbed at the border, on the road and they’re overcharged for their transport, they experience all these problems because they have no information. They think that they lose their rights if they cross the border irregularly. Tdh teaches people how to protect the rights they have because they are human. They also provide supplies such as baby nappies and food. This help is lifesaving for the people who arrive here with nothing. There’s a lot of talk about aid at the border which creates expectations, but when they get here, they realise that there aren’t actually many NGOs.
What is your motivation to continue each day?
This crisis has changed my life completely, it’s become my destiny to help. I had a normal life, one of a person of a certain age but this has given me renewed energy. The most important thing for me is that if you have something, you share it with those who don’t. I ask myself: “What would I do in their situation? How would I feel if I brought my kids with me or if I left them behind, my home and everything I’d built?” They don't stand a chance of surviving if they don't get aid. Here, we have the opportunity to save children’s lives!