By Felipe Herrera-Espaliat – special correspondent in Colombia – Vatican News
Cleiry Solózano still feels a surge of nostalgia whenever she sees young medical students wearing white coats. She too, once wore one when she was studying medicine in her native Venezuela, but was forced to interrupt her university studies just a semester away from graduation to become a doctor.
The precarious economic situation she, her husband and their three children found themselves in, forced them to leave everything behind and cross the border into Colombia in search of new opportunities. They were not asking for much, only to ensure their daily livelihoods, something that, in that sad 2018, they were unable to do in Guárico, one of the country’s 23 states, known also as the Heart of Venezuela.
Their first odyssey took them some 1,500 km to the Pasto region in southern Colombia. But here they were unable to find the hoped-for opportunities for work or shelter. Like so many of the more than six million Venezuelans who have left their homes in the last five years, Cleiry and her family kept moving around the coffee country, from town to town, until they settled in Bogotá. There their fourth child was born.
Outstretched hand of the Scalabrinians
The Colombian capital counts over 7 million inhabitants, of which 400 to 500 thousand are Venezuelans who have lived there since 2017. The figure is not accurate because many of them have still not obtained residency and continue to be undocumented, although the local government offers facilities to regularise their status as immigrants or political refugees. However, a lack of support and networks that offer assistance makes the paperwork more complex for Venezuelans. There are some, however, who do much to help Venezuelans legalise their stay in Colombia, they are the officials of the Centros Integrados de Atención al Migrante (CIAMI), run by the Scalabrinian religious congregation.
“There are many people with chronic illnesses who need treatment or medicines that are essential for their lives, but since they are not regularised in the territory, it is hard for them to obtain them. Similarly, they are required to have a residence permit to access formal work. If they do not have one, they are forced to do informal work that does not guarantee them any income, and because they work for their daily needs their lives are affected,” explains Camila Motta, legal advisor at the Scalabrinian Center in Bogotá.
But the outstretched hand of these religious and their lay collaborators goes far beyond legal issues, as they also take care of technical training for migrants so they can find employment or start their businesses. This was Cleiry Solórzano’s experience in one of the CIAMI centres where she and her husband received training in baking and pastry making. Thus, albeit informally, they were able to work and generate income to support their family. However, there have been times when sales have been poor, and she who was once on the verge of becoming a doctor has been forced, like thousands of people in Bogotá, to spend hours rummaging through rubbish bags in the streets to collect material for recycling to then sell it at a lower price.
From training to stable employment
Although there are more and more opportunities for Venezuelans coming to Colombia to learn trades that are valued by the labour market, it continues to be difficult for them to obtain stable employment. This is not only because of legal aspects but also because until now there has been no organic link between the religious congregations that offer technical training and the companies that can offer employment. This was precisely the situation identified by the Global Solidarity Fund (GSF) charity, which is currently investing resources in Colombia to bridge the employment gap that stops migrants from accessing stable employment. This will allow them not only to survive but also to gain greater autonomy for their own lives and that of their families.
The GSF promotes this initiative through a Hub for Social Innovation, i.e., a collaborative network that accelerates and facilitates contact between training projects and companies. These companies value the quality of the training obtained by Venezuelans after passing through the religious congregations’ training centres.
The Scalabrinian religious have been included in the Hub for Social Innovation, which helps them run three large training centres in Bogotá, Cúcuta and Villa del Rosario. They are experts in accompanying migrants and they know that the chances of finding a job increase when one can present an official diploma from a training institution. “Our mission is to promote entrepreneurship and employability through basic courses, from the perspective of work skills, which means widening the possibilities of venturing into the labour market based on a certification issued by some higher education institution,” explains Alejandro Torres, training coordinator of the CIAMI training centres.
It was in one of these centres that Cleiry Solórzano trained, and today, despite life’s difficulties, she looks to her future with hope. “This type of project helps us to be trained, to obtain employment because we cannot think of staying informal workers. We have to try to get more stability for the future. These projects helped me to get by, to open up new horizons, and to develop the idea that, beyond being a doctor, I could open a bakery and a pastry shop. These are new talents that I didn’t know I possessed and that this journey has helped me to explore and exploit,” concludes Cleiry, who is now also, enthusiastically, attending a manicure course at the Uniagostiniana University in Bogotá.