Photos: Arnaldo Espinoza
Five young men knocked on the door of Mitad del Mundo shelter, in San Antonio de Pichincha, 20 minutes from Quito, Ecuador. They’re from Yaritagua, Yaracuy State, Venezuela. They left on December 6, along a sixth companion who left them on the way. He was their guide, but he decided to take a ride near Cali on his own. They didn’t see him again.
The journey became 15 days of march, sleeping in gas stations and eating thanks to the help of Colombians. In Rumichaca, a black-haired woman told them of a shelter where they could spend Christmas. There were no beds, but there were mattresses. Four more people arrived after them: They couldn’t leave them in the street during the Christmas celebrations.
The smell of stew is familiar. The noise, the children trying to get into the kitchen, the sound of furruco and drums through the speakers are etched in memory. Also the flour, ready to become ham bread or hallacas. Everything is familiar until you look outside. The GPS marks 0° 0’ 16”. The arid mountain and the dry Andean cold burst the bubble. It looks like it, but it’s not Venezuela.
“Today, there’s no other accent in the middle of the world: all the posts are occupied by Venezuelans, from management to the kitchens, the library and infrastructure maintenance.”
Luis received those five people and led them to the common room. There’s no space in the bedrooms. There are 45 beds for 68 people. Luis himself knocked on these doors only five months ago. Now he helps manage the place with military discipline. He was born in Barinas and joined the National Guard at 19. The protests of 2017 in Caracas, where he was part of the repression against citizens for four months, left a mark on him. Now he focuses on the shelter, on keeping the bedrooms clean and the kitchen working, on handling donations and making as much space as possible livable. There’s also a warehouse where they hope to install machines to give refugees some work.
Today, there’s no other accent in the middle of the world: all the posts are occupied by Venezuelans, from management to the kitchens, the library and infrastructure maintenance. Only two people, the head of the shelter and the doctor, are Ecuadorian.
“They know they’re just passing by the shelter, because they need to heal their wounds, and the company is good during the holidays.”
Miguel, Francisco, Ángel, Pablo and Juan look at the camera. The girl in the group, Pablo’s sister, decides not to appear in the picture. They try to pose, but don’t hear the click, they remain still. All of them have relatives in Peru. That’s their destination. They know they’re just passing by the shelter, because they need to heal their wounds, and the company is good during the holidays.
Ángel’s feet are scarred from walking. He’s thankful that he didn’t have to walk “even for a kilometer” in Ecuador, because in Colombia “the socks stuck to my feet and I couldn’t walk because of the pain.” The wounds have healed, but his shoes bear the marks. He bought them the day before departing. Now unusable, he dumped them at the entrance in front of the kitchen.
“Ángel’s feet are scarred from walking. In Colombia “the socks stuck to my feet and I couldn’t walk because of the pain.” The wounds have healed, but his shoes bear the marks.”
Oswaldo cuts the pepper for the hallacas. He arrived in Ecuador two years ago and went through several jobs until he got to the Middle of the World. He was a waiter, he worked as a mover and as a cab driver, until one day, in August, he gave a ride to a passenger who was the assistant of Isabel Rodríguez, from Fundación Nuestros Jóvenes. She needed a clinical psychologist for a shelter for Venezuelans outside of Quito. “I’m the man,” he said in his Barquisimeto accent. His general diagnostic for the people who arrive in the shelter is laconic. “I see them very disoriented, because they come with expectations and Ecuador quickly destroys their illusions.”
“People who arrive at the shelter seem very disoriented, because they come with expectations and Ecuador quickly destroys their illusions.”
Nobody gives away anything here, everyone works. And the programming of Venezuelan socialism isn’t erased by 15 days on the road or eight days on a bus. A week ago, they received a donation of toys for children in Christmas. The mothers wanted to get the presents immediately, instead of waiting for the date. The culture of scarcity installed by chavismo brings out the most primitive instincts in people.
Nerio, who chops bacon in little pieces for the Christmas dinner, is an oil industry veteran who, after 45 years living in Santa Bárbara, Zulia, convinced his wife to leave Venezuela. She’s the shelter’s “granny” and, by tradition, she’s in charge of the stew. Her eyes oversee the most complex operation: the exact amount of spices, oil and meat; the right temperature for the burner, the appropriate reduction of the broth. She gestures with her hands for the plantain leaves to be unpacked while she cuts olives. The ones they bought have seeds and “that’s dangerous for the teeth.” Both feel relieved of having left Venezuela, but their eyes don’t lie. Their melancholy of the first year outside their country is palpable.
“I can’t help you”
José is sitting in the entrance to the common room, in one of the wooden chairs near the door. He arrived in Ecuador in November, after three months of digital conversations with a suitor. “That guy promised me a house, economic stability, helping my family. I decided to come. He told me he’d wait for me at the Iquitumbe terminal, in Southern Quito. I arrived at four in the morning, waited for two hours. He saw me and I saw him and immediately he said:
“That guy promised me a house, economic stability, helping my family. I decided to come. He told me he’d wait for me at the Iquitumbe terminal, in Southern Quito. I arrived at four in the morning, waited for two hours. He saw me and I saw him.”
-I have something to tell you.
-What, you’re not going to receive me?
-Something like that.
“I felt in a limbo, I’d wasted my time. He took me aside and explained that, coincidentally, his mom and sister were in the city. ‘I can’t help you,’ he told me and gave me $1.50. ‘I can’t help you,’ he repeated. I never saw him again.”
He slept for two weeks in Iquitumbe, without coats or protection against the rain. He saw drugs, alcohol and prostitution among his countrymen until, at the end of the month, a foundation visited the terminal to deliver cereals for Venezuelans. He asked to be moved to a shelter, any shelter and, in a couple of days, he arrived in San Antonio de Pichincha.
“I’ve felt discrimination, for being Venezuelan and homosexual.” He emphasizes both terms. Early that month, he went to look for a job as an assistant in a dog grooming salon and ended up in a room with a man who asked him for a massage but who actually wanted something more. He refused. “I’m like an avatar: I fought against the rain, the sun, xenophobia and rejection, and I learned to value things. Perhaps that’s how I had to learn.”
Lorenzo’s wife helps decorate the dining room for the dinner. They’ve made paper stars and wrote “Merry Christmas” on the blackboard. Their 3-year-old daughter runs all over the place. She doesn’t talk much, she’s focused on her task. She’s also helping fill the piñata with donated candy. It’s a poorly concealed surprise, because the first attempt was weak and a couple candies hit the floor with a sound that any child could identify.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo waits outside. He’s a welder from Chivacoa, Yaracuy. He left the country with his two friends, Lenti and Ángel, on August 18, days before Nicolás Maduro slashed another five zeroes off the Venezuelan currency amidst the worst hyperinflation in the continent’s history. In his backpack he carries two large, black garbage bags he got from his mom before he left, to protect him from the cold. He says that saved his life in the mountainous trail between Cúcuta and Bucaramanga. The Páramo de Berlín is the greatest challenge for travellers. “Now they’re kind of an amulet, that’s why I still have them in my pack,” he says. He walked for 13 days before stopping in Medellin. On September 26, he arrived in the shelter and looked for a job immediately. His friend Ángel didn’t make it. “He went back to Venezuela, defeated,” says Lorenzo, regretfully.
He worked in a roller factory until the raw materials were depleted. They already called him to get back to work in January. With his savings, he managed to bring his wife and daughter, so they didn’t have to go through his experience. The first week of December, he got his early Christmas present. Now they live in one of the shelter’s seven family rooms and they hope that, with a bit of job stability, they might leave as soon as possible. “I came here to work hard, to build a better future for my family.” The girl approaches, smiles and hides behind a door. “She’s a different person. She laughs and plays,” he explains. In Venezuela, she had no strength to do that. With luck, she ate once a day.
ut he’s the exception, not the rule. José Gregorio Balza is the shelter’s janitor. He left Venezuela in 2017, lured by dollars. “I really wanted to go to the United States, but it’s very difficult. And when I heard that Ecuador’s currency is the dollar, I decided to come here and save to reach my destination.” A disease changed his plans: bacterial meningitis. He’s still recovering from the aftermath. After a month in hospitals, he had nowhere to go. On June 28, he arrived at Mitad del Mundo and he’s seen hundreds come and go through the shelter’s doors. What does he see? “Exhaustion, despair. It’s sad to see those kids coming in with their backpacks. But it’s even sadder to see people with no spirit to work for their future. They only wait for the bell to ring three times a day to eat, take a shower and go to bed. Sometimes they don’t even help with the shelter’s tasks. That’s not the way.”
Ecuadorians only seeking to take advantage of immigrants isn’t helpful either, he says. “Many have been left with several unpaid workdays. Their employers tell them that they’ll pay them an amount and then they get less. That’s all over this place.” Still, he remembers that progress is possible. “There was a kid, Michael, who worked as a mechanic. He started as an assistant in a workshop and now he earns enough money per week to pay for a house and start bringing his family. It’s all about organizing.”
The sun falls and the smells from the kitchen fill the entire shelter. The hallacas are ready to serve. There’s also ham bread. Some 15 people, who had left to sell juice, water and other things on the road, return for dinner. The boys had been trying to put together a music player with old parts, but they end up using an RCA cable to play music on a TV in the common room.
The Maracaibo gaita plays, along with salsa and reggaeton. The thermometer drops. 15°, 14°, 13°, 12°C. Inside, they’re in Venezuela. Outside, just for tonight, the location doesn’t matter.
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