Chapter 3 + Arriving

A kitchen where Venezuelan migration stories are shared over the fire

In Barranquilla, Colombia, a sorority of Colombian and Venezuelan women have come together to greet Venezuelan refugees with warm food, creating a space where they can also share their migration stories.

In the Simón Bolívar neighbourhood in the city of Barranquilla, Colombia, a group of women welcome migrants arriving from Venezuela with a hot meal. 

The sound of knives against the wooden cutting boards begins every Thursday at 11am. Sandra Milena Vesga and her mother Carlina Sánchez, two Colombian women, with the help of Maicler Fuentes, from Venezuela, have decided on what will be the dinner menu in the Simón Bolívar neighborhood dining room in Barranquilla, Northern Colombia.

“Three years ago, the dining room catered to 12 to 14 homeless people, but as we saw the increasing amount of Venezuelans coming in, people started giving their place to them so we could take care of 21 Venezuelans. Today we will make over 80 dinners on Thursdays,”says Sandra. Before working in the dining room, she used to work as a bank clerk. Today she leads this space created by the civil organization of Venezuelans in Barranquilla. Sweet Sandra, looks after the children who have just arrived with their parents and is on top of every detail. “Sorry if I’m scolding,“ she says in a hurry while taking care of everyone.

That day they are preparing a basic dinner consisting of rice with sardines, boiled potatoes, and papaya that will be paired with sweet panela [brown sugar] drink. Since the dining room started operations, Sandra has lent her small kitchen to prepare the food and many migrant Venezuelan women have begun joining her to be a part of a social collaboration effort that lends a hand to the recently arrived.

Once they have prepared dinner, they get a bicitaxi -a combination of a bike and taxi- so they can get the food and drink to the Santa Marta church square where the dining room is located.

The work area in Sandra’s house is next to the patio. Hope is being cooked in the morning’s boiling heat and humidity; both of which can only be controlled through the air of a fan that passes through a small opening.

“We are asking for help because the stove is already in a very bad condition. It is slowly falling apart,” says Sandra as she moves the ramshackle gas stove, and indeed verifies that it really only remains standing thanks to some improvised pieces of wood where it stands. The dining room is waiting to replace the stove with a new one using a donation that will be received this semester.

Carlina, a woman with short white hair and a smile that rarely disappears from her face, leads the dinner tasks. Although she has some mobility problems in her body, these don’t stop her from working over the fire. She is the eldest of the three cooks and they all consider her to have the best cooking touch out of the group. She also sings boleros that tell stories of unrequited love, stories that make Maicler shed one or two tears, when she remembers the home she left in Venezuela and inevitably turns to nostalgia.

“My eldest daughter will be finally arriving at the end of the month. I came with my younger daughter and husband. My father and the older people cannot come here because they are far too old,” says Maicler. “Venezuela has become a country of empty country roads and ghost towns. Young people and children have left. In Aragua, North-central Venezuela, out of the 20 family houses in my father’s town only five homes have inhabitants, they are all old people” Maicler says. She adds that in the “good years” she was a professional dressmaker and baker. Her personality radiates with warmth, she is tall and robust, she wears her long brown hair below her shoulder and has almond eyes. She likes to dress with colorful tropical tones.

Colombia, due to its geographical proximity, hosts the most Venezuelan immigrants and has become a transit zone for those heading to other South American countries, where people look to start a new life. According to the UNHCR, until September 2nd, 2019, 1,447,171 Venezuelan refugees and migrants had arrived in Colombia; 48% of them have an irregular immigration status.

Until August 2019, El Atlántico, the department where Barranquilla is located, was the fourth non-border department with more Venezuelans in the country. 9% of all Venezuelans in the country live there, according to figures from Migración Colombia. There are 89,823 Venezuelans in Barranquilla alone.

Pabellón Criollo, Colombian style

Every so often they cook the famous pabellón criollo, a traditional Venezuelan dish recognized as the quintessential national menu, Colombian style. Like people, food also changes with immigration; sometimes out of necessity.

“Here we make it with black beans that we recently started finding in local stores, there weren’t any before,” Maicler points out. “We add white rice, shredded beef, and fried plantains.” 

Maicler arrived in Barranquilla with her husband Carlos and six-year-old daughter Karla, three years ago. It was because of Karla that they decided to leave. When she was four they detected a small murmur in her heart. As the situation in Venezuela got worse, more doctors fled the country, many child cardiologists included. “There are general doctors and nurses but no specialists,” she says, “there are no medicines, serum, or gauze for bandages and then it got worse.” The Pan American Health Organization “stated in July 2018 that 22,000 or close to a third of the 66,138 doctors that were registered in 2014 had left Venezuela when the crisis got worse, many of them have left since,” according to “La emergencia humanitaria en Venezuela”, a report published on April 4, 2014.

Sandra and Carlina start to fry the vegetables to make the dish, the smells fill up the small kitchen. Garlic, onion, and carrots sizzle over low fire creating a sound.
When Maicler is asked about the Venezuelan exodus, she turns to look at her phone and answers terrified while she reads out a message sent by her family in Venezuela, “the price of flour went up again. A pound of flour to make arepas is half the minimum wage, that’s why everyone is leaving.” She explains that those who don’t have connections or work in the government have no opportunity of surviving in Venezuela.

“If a family has connections, like three or four people, they receive bonuses and can go to State markets, so they claim the bonus at the end of the month so that the family can survive. But, what about the rest of the people who were left without livelihood after the blockade, how do they survive?” asks Maicler.  In August of this year, the U.S. government decided to freeze the assets of the Venezuelan government in the country, a measure described as "economic terrorism" by the Venezuelan government, who attributes the food shortage to this measure.

Maicler’s Story

Maicler migrated with her husband and daughter so that she could receive medical care.

Maicler’s hands understood crafting from a very young age. She learned how to sow from her grandmother on an old Singer machine and fell in love with it. She left school to become a seamstress, enrolling in all sorts of courses until she was able to perfect her craft with an Haute Couture Colombian fashion designer who came to visit Aragua.

“I learned everything I had to know about making informal and etiquette garments,” she remembers as her eyes light up. From “the good times,” as she calls those years, she still keeps a cellphone with the pictures of the catalog of her products. As her business became more successful in La Victoria, in Aragua, she was able to buy a machine where she did all sorts of sewing jobs and a great variety of bags and shoes for men and women.

“I would create an entire outfit for my clients, from the clothes to the purses, the wallets, everything that they asked for. They were so happy.” With the crisis, however, prices started going up and everything began changing for this entrepreneur. “There was no more yarn, leather for the bags, or rubber for the shoes, everything became so expensive. I wasn’t able to find anything to work with. Before I came here I had to throw out an entire garbage bag full of damaged shoe soles because I didn’t have the equipment to make them,” laments Maicler.

Meanwhile, her younger daughter’s health wasn’t improving, Maicler prayed tirelessly to Jesús Nazareno and dressed him in a purple tunic with a crown of spines on Good Friday, she recalls. They managed to get to doctors to make a first heart intervention while still in Venezuela. The doctor who was looking after her only managed to tell the parents, with tears in his eyes, that it had been a “miracle”, that Karla had survived because the operation had been extremely risky.

In 2016 they would travel for an hour to Caracas so that Karla would be able to see a child cardiologist or get an electrocardiogram, which were not only scarce but also very expensive. “Something inside me knew that Karla had no opportunity of surviving in Venezuela, so in the midst of my despair I sold my machine and with that money we left with my husband and daughter; we traveled three days by bus until we got to Barranquilla,” she remembers.

Maicler heard about the dining room through word of mouth from other Venezuelans. This is how migrants started showing up to the Santa Marta church’s square on Thursdays. There, with the help of the community of Venezuelans in Barranquilla, they began to look for solutions to Karla’s heart problem. They connected them to a journalist, Jorge Cura and his local radio show, Atlántico en Noticias, where they shared the girl’s case. A child cardiologist at the General Clinic of the North heard the show and offered to see Karla for as long as it was necessary.

Having solved this priority, the family slowly began to settle in Barranquilla. They were able to rent a house, however, they have yet not found a place for Karla at the public district school. She says they have felt discriminated against at the different schools they have been to. “We feel pointed out for being Venezuelan, they have told us that the places are for Colombians and not for us and that’s sad,” says Maicler. “We hope to find a school next year. We’re getting help.”

Carlos, Maicler’s husband, began a carpentry business and dreams of providing a better future for his family. The pictures that Maicler shows in her cellphone show her husband’s attention to detail when working the wood and making kitchen furniture. In the beginning, many clients wanted to pay him less for his work for being Venezuelan. “They wanted to pay him less than half of what it costs to make a door in the local market and that was very unfair,” says Maicler. He currently works with a Colombian carpenter trying to charge his work at a fair price.

With time, Venezuelans start adapting to Colombia and integrating into their new home. In August, the Colombian government decided to nationalize all children from Venezuelan parents who had been born on Colombian territory since August 2015; a total of 24,000 children that up to then had no nationality since they were unable to go back to Venezuela to get registered. This move also makes it easier for the arrival of Venezuelan families whose children will be born Colombian. 

The women in the dining room celebrated the announcement. Maicler feels its good news for her fellow Venezuelans that the Colombian government will grant nationalities to their young ones. This way they will be able to go back and forth to Venezuela without the need for a government permit. 

Sharing Nostalgia

They began by handing out about 20 meals. Today, they can deliver over 80 dinners.

Maicler checks the rice and waits for it to cook and not burn. She takes turns lifting up the lid of the pot so she can keep an eye on it. “It has to cook because otherwise it’ll be too hard and you can’t eat it. There’s nothing worse than unpopped rice,” she points out.When the rice is ready, the cooks arrange it in portions and serve it in over 80 disposable containers around the dining table. They distribute the food and have an iced Thermos ready with drinks. Every Thursday they hire two bicitaxis to pick up the warm dinner and take them to the church square. There, after saying a prayer, the food is handed out to the diners, some nights there are over 100 people, most of them from Venezuela.The Simon Bolivar neighborhood has learned the value of cooperation. Towards the end of the evening, many restaurants offer food to the recently arrived and bakeries sell their bread at cheaper prices. “With the help of other Venezuelans and Colombians, we have felt very welcomed,” concludes Maicler. “With their support, we have been able to build a home away from home, thinking of those who will still continue to come.”

Recipe for Pabellón Venezolano, Colombian style

Ingredients 6 portions

1/2 kg Venezuelan black beans (caraotas) or Colombian black beans (fríjoles), lentils or red beans depending on what you can find in the local stores. There are not many caraotas in Barranquilla.
2 medium onions
6 green and red sweet peppers
1 garlic head
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, cumin and bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground oregano1 stalk of chives
1 tbsp of aji
1/2 kg beef skirt or boneless chuck. In Colombia, protein is sometimes replaced with ground meat.
1 1/2 cups of rice
Salt to taste
1/2 cup of oil
2 ripe bananas

El pabellón is made up of four different preparations consisting of shredded beef, rice, grains, and fried plantains. In a pot, you put enough water to cover the meat (use skirt or boneless chuck, a cut that can be shredded), add a bit of salt, onion, and garlic. Set to boil over medium fire for two to four hours. Let the beef cool down and start shredding it slowly. In a pan, put minced onion, sweet peppers, aji, cilantro, and tomatoes. Add salt and spices to taste, since its an adobo [a wet rub, like for a barbecue]. It is advised to use cumin, bay leaves or pepper. Let it simmer for 30 minutes until the meat becomes juicy. 

The grains, which may be substituted according to the season, must be left to soak for 24 hours or overnight. Take the beans out of the water and wash them, then set them to boil with a piece of onion and aji. Set them to cook in a high flame, and add more water if necessary. Lower the fire once they have softened. In a pan, repeat the onion mixture that you used for the beef. Wait for the broth to thicken and add spices if needed.

Heat oil in a pan with a piece of pepper and ají, then add rice and move so as to get all of the grains oily. Add water and salt and set the flame high until it starts to boil. Cover. When it has boiled set the fire low and wait for the rice to dry. Leave covered so the steam cooks up the rice.

Fried Plantains
Heat oil in a pan. Peel and cut bananas y pieces. Add them to the oil and fry them, turn and make sure they are golden on both sides.

Recipe from blog Charvenca

Lina Robles Luján is a social communications officer, journalist, and writer. She lives in Barranquilla, Colombia. She is a correspondent for Publimetro and has covered the Venezuelan exodus in the Caribbean for the past three years. She lives with her parents and her six-year-old son, Oliver, to whom she dedicates this piece.  

Pictures by Jairo Cassiani (Publimetro-Barranquilla)