Too little, too late for one Venezuelan family

By Gerald Barr March 28, 2019
Geomar, Rosangela and their son fled Venezuela for a better life in Colombia, but ended in tragedy. Photo: Gerald Barr

Our writer’s efforts to help a migrant family fall flat.

“Rosangela is dead,” says a voice on my phone early on a Sunday morning, a voice cracked with grief. I unscramble my thoughts as the story unfolds: the young Venezuelan mother was rushed to a rural hospital in La Guajira, in Colombia’s northern reaches, after a frantic battle to get antibiotics for infected sores on her body.

“We couldn’t get the drugs on time. Blood poisoning took her,” her partner Geomar explains. He breaks off to comfort their young son, Geomar Junior, at his side.

I had first met Rosangela six months before while she was begging for coins on the beachfront of Riohacha in northern Colombia. Confined to a wheelchair after an accident as a teenager, the Venezolana had nevertheless managed to live independently. She married Geomar in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s oil capital, and together they fled after hearing stories of hundreds of sick children dying in local hospitals. Their own son, Geomar Junior, was constantly sick with diarrhoea from polluted water.

Like many migrants, they took the heartbreaking decision to leave their home and loved ones, selling their last possessions to gather funds for the dangerous trip across ‘trochas’ – illegal crossings – into Colombia, in their case “watched over by eight-year-old bandits with machine guns.”

Related: Venezuelan voices: long walk to the unknown

In Riohacha, their life was little better: a bitter cycle of begging, sleeping in shop-fronts, or paying to bed down on hard floors in makeshift overnight shelters. That was if they could get enough money in the daytime.

Maybe today

That was a big ‘if.’ Every morning in Riohacha I found Geomar pushing Rosangela in a rickety wheelchair down the malecon with little Geomar Junior on her lap, their worldly possessions hung around them in small bags. They would greet me with broad smiles and a wave of positive energy: today they’d find work, somewhere to stay. Today they’d get lucky.

But luck was not on their side. Geomar, an IT consultant back in Maracaibo, was constantly turned away at the local immigration office.

“They always tell me to come back next week,” he told me. “Then the next week they say come back next week.”

“Still, it’s better here than Venezuela where there’s nothing,” he would say. “Here in Riohacha there’s some hope. And stuff in the shops.”

Geomar tried selling snacks at traffic lights, but informal trade in Riohacha was controlled by a local mafia that screwed down the margins. “We were hardly welcome, and made tiny profits,” he told me.

Taking its toll

Caring for his disabled partner and young son was taking a physical toll on the former martial arts expert. Geomar had been an MMA champion for his home state and won black belts in several styles. Now he looked gaunt and sunburnt. Rosangela was in even greater discomfort in a wheelchair and had developed sores from the heat and rough living.

Related: Venezuelan migrants ‘in limbo’ while waiting for work permits

Their main reason to migrate had been health care, non-existent in Venezuela, but hardly accessible to them in Colombia now either. Local health clinics constantly turned them away – many services were ‘for Colombians only,’ or they had to pay.

They did get some help, often in the form of food, mostly from the church. And sometimes handouts from local townsfolk. But with more migrants pouring in every day there was less to go around, and international NGOs and UN agencies were only slowly grinding into gear.

My time in Riohacha done, in September I flew back to Bogotá. My work had taken me to many border towns – Arauca, Cúcuta, Maicao – where I saw much hardship among migrants and displaced Colombians alike. Bogotá was hardly better for migrants arriving cold and penniless, and I had been down dozens of times to the makeshift shelters to deliver food and clothes to families. But at least the capital city was safer than the border areas, with a better-functioning health system and potentially more work.

Back home, Riohacha was on my mind. Before leaving, a church worker there had told me of lynchings – local gangs murdering migrants, which the authorities passed off as ‘suicides.’ There was no hard evidence, but enough doubt to cause me sleepless nights. How was the young family faring? In October I had a week off, so I got in my old car, loaded up with clothes and bars of soap donated by friends in Bogotá, and drove to Riohacha to find Rosangela, Geomar, and Geomar Junior.

It took two long hot days of driving to reach the desert state of La Guajira from Bogotá. I arrived in the worst downpour in recent memory with Riohacha and the surrounding desert under swirling brown water. I quickly found the family, damp and miserable – considerably thinner than when I last saw them – camped in a small tent on waste ground close to the beach.

“I’ve come to take you to Bogotá. We’ll leave at dawn,” I announced.
They were surprised to see me, and even more surprised by my offer. I bought them some hot food, and time to think, and went off to deliver my car’s contents to a shelter of migrant families, just metres from the UN’s headquarters, where I knew dozens of kids had skin infections but no clean clothes or soap.

Next morning Geomar was worried. Perhaps they should stay put, he said. Bogotá was a long way away, even more out of reach of his home town of Maracaibo.

Losing hope

And he was still illegal in Colombia. It turned out the vaunted ‘work permit scheme’ was on hold. For families like Geomar’s, the ‘welcoming migrants with open arms’ touted by the Colombian government – and retold by world media – was a chimera. For the first time I saw him losing hope.

In my quixotic charge up to the coast from the capital it had never occurred to me they would reject my offer of transport back. So we agreed a Plan B: I would give them a cell-phone, so we could stay in touch, and collect them once he had his work permit.

I gave them a wad of cash – “spend it as you wish, but don’t waste it” – and drove back to Bogotá with plenty of other migrants crammed in my car, and at one point several Colombian displaced looking for work along the dusty road.

Back in Bogotá, a friend set up a GoFundMe page for Geomar and his family. Contributions dribbled in. For the next two months, until Christmas, we regularly sent cash transfers to the young family in Riohacha, and they sent me news and photos by phone: they had rented a room, bought some medicines, and managed to celebrate some sort of Christmas with Geomar Junior.

But life was still hard. At the beginning of the year there was still no work permit, no work, and Rosangela’s body was badly infected. She needed more than the corner pharmacy could cover. The clinics kept turning her away. Then the crisis hit.

The human body can only take so much hardship. The long months living out in Riohacha’s harsh tropical climate had eventually triggered sepsis, a chemical imbalance that quickly turns deadly. When it became clear Rosangela’s life was in danger, she was transported across the state to a distant hospital where she died the same night.

Too little, too late

A week later Geomar and his son were back in Maracaibo mourning their loss. I was in Bogotá feeling useless. How could we have got it so wrong? I was smugly certain our GoFundMe effort had changed the game for this young family, easing the burden of guilt for the collective crisis in Venezuela while I tucked into my pizza in Parkway. In the end we were too late, with too little.

Two weeks passed, and Geomar called me from the border. He’d crossed back into Colombia – this time on his own – but on the illicit trochas “they took everything I had.” By this he meant the human traffickers. There was some cash left in the GoFundMe pot which I wired him.

The next day he was back in Riohacha looking for work, but again drew a blank. Now immigration said to get a work permit he needed a passport: an impossible task. But at least he could volunteer at a day care centre for some free food, he told me, while he “waited for the lucky break.”

Then last week my phone rang, another call from Riohacha; an international NGO looking for Rosangela. They had my number as a contact. Rosangela had registered for assistance and now, months later, “must report to their day centre for an induction in future medical and financial support. Tell her to be at the centre at 8am sharp tomorrow morning, or she’ll lose her registration,” said the NGO official.

“Sorry, she died last month,” I replied. “But thanks for the offer. She would have wanted to know you care.”

How to help the Venezuelan migrants

Geomar and his family can be helped at Any funds are transferred to Colombia then given directly to Geomar through cash transfers.

The Catholic Church’s Fundación de Atencion al Migrante (FAMIG) can be supported through financial donations to the following account: Banco de Bogota, Cuenta de Ahorros de Fundación de Atencion al Migrante, No. 018309997.

The following items can be donated directly to the CAMIG, Calle 17 # 68-75, Barrio Granjas de Techo, Bogotá:

  • Second hand clothes, shoes and jackets. Items should be clean and in reasonable condition.
  • Food: raw food in good condition and tinned or packed food within use-by date.
  • Hygiene products: soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, toilet paper, children’s nappies, sanitary towels, etc.

The following items can be donated directly to the CATTT, Module 5, Local 123, Terminal de Transporte Terrestre Salitre, Tr 66 no. 35-11, Bogotá

  • Snack kits: juice cartons, biscuits, crisps, sweets (bocadillo) in a plastic bag.
  • Hygiene products: soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, toilet paper, children’s nappies, sanitary towels, etc.