What does it mean to “stay at home” when you’ve been spending months or even years searching for one? For Venezuelan migrants and refugees, recent events have further complicated their ability to create a sense of home.
Federico is from the Venezuelan state of Miranda, next to the capital district of Caracas. “I was a farmer. I planted bananas and vegetables, and I worked in Caracas as a security guard,” states Federico. “But the income was not enough to support my family, so I had to come to Brazil. My family stayed there and I send money whenever possible.” Many Venezuelan migrants and refugees have stories similar to Federico: when life became impossible, they had to leave to survive.
Over 5 million Venezuelans have fled their home country to escape hunger, scarcity, a deteriorating political situation, and violence in the largest mass migration in the region’s history. Helping displaced Venezuelans integrate into their newfound communities has become a great humanitarian challenge. While many have sought refuge in neighboring Spanish-speaking countries, almost 900,000 have migrated to Brazil. In addition to challenges obtaining employment and shelter, Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Brazil also struggle to adapt to a new language.
Brazillian grantee partner Associação Rede Rio São Bartolomeu de Mútua Cooperação (Rede Bartô) has welcomed displaced Venezuelans with invaluable services. Since 2013, Rede Bartô has worked with rural young people in the Federal District to increase economic opportunities within the agricultural sector and conserve natural resources. As part of this work, Rede Bartô noticed that many Brazilian employers were reluctant to hire Venezuelans because they lacked proficiency in Brazilian Portuguese.
Addressing this challenge, Rede Bartô now offers Portuguese classes to Venezuelan migrants and refugees. Communicating effectively in Portuguese allows displaced Venezuelans to better integrate into their new communities and generate income. In addition to these classes, Rede Bartô has integrated Venezuelan workers into their existing sustainable agriculture and marketing projects with local producers. With 12% unemployment in Brazil, the job market is highly competitive. Rede Bartô provides migrants with training and seed capital to start small businesses, contributing to local economic growth and reducing competition between Venezuelans and locals that could provoke xenophobia and conflict. This approach also lets the organization accommodate migrants and refugees with a range of professional skills, like those who were mechanics, salespeople, or clothing designers back in Venezuela. These activities provide Venezuelans like Federico with the skills they need to earn an income to support themselves and their families.
Our work with Rede Bartô is part of our regional strategy to help Venezuelan migrants and refugees integrate economically and socially into their new homes. We consulted with grantee partners in high-receiving countries last year to learn how communities had been impacted by increased migration. At that point, many grantees had already begun to include Venezuelan migrants and refugees into their standard programming. We initially invested an additional $1.6 million dollars in 2019 into specific programming to address the needs of Venezuelan migrants and refugees across the region, as well as support the needs of the local communities where they have settled. This year, we plan to invest an additional $3.3 million. Through these investments, our grantees are helping migrants and refugees generate income, combating xenophobia, and facilitating access to important health and psychosocial services.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for Venezuelan migrants. IAF Deputy Managing Director, Marko Dolan, states, “They’re a vulnerable population and even more so now with COVID-19. There are cases of Venezuelans returning back to unsafe circumstances in Venezuela because they can’t access the resources they need.” In the case of Rede Bartô, stay-at-home orders mean that migrants cannot attend their language classes or enterprise development training in person. It’s also a terrible time to try to launch a microenterprise.
Our agency’s nimble structure is invaluable when addressing these challenges. We have worked with Rede Bartô to redirect over $8,000 of existing IAF funding towards its COVID-19 response. Taking advantage of this flexibility, Rede Bartô has shifted its classes to a virtual format that participants can access on their smartphones, focusing on key medical and health vocabulary to help migrants obtain medical treatment and stop the spread of COVID-19. With other microenterprises stalled due to the crisis, Rede Bartô was able to support a group of migrants to launch a business producing cloth face masks. Demand for these masks skyrocketed within the Federal District, which has been locked down with a stay-at-home order since late March. By producing, selling, and donating masks, Venezuelan migrants and refugees are not only finding a way to earn income, they are also supporting their area’s health and safety. By donating half of their initial production to their neighbors, they have strengthened their relationships with Brazillian community members.
Rede Bartô’s continuous support has been a touchstone in the ever-changing lives of displaced Venezuelans. During this crisis, we continue to support organizations providing services to more than 75,000 Venezuelan migrants across the region. As the pandemic progresses, we are working with grantee partners to redirect funding they had intended for other purposes and dedicating ever-increasing new funds to changing community needs throughout COVID-19 response and recovery.
These efforts strengthen communities, whether online or in-person. Displaced Venezuelans like Federico can find the support they need to be successful in their new homes. For migrants and refugees like him, their sense of home can grow stronger, even during a crisis.