Welcome, protect, integrate
Stories, peoples and migration in Latin America. A perspective from Peru.
Interview with Silvano Roggero by Paolo Balduzzi
We are talking of a real exodus. Venezuela has seen the second largest mass migration of a nation’s population in the world. Since the start of its economic crisis in 2014, no less than 4 million people have left this South American country. Escaping a political and economic crisis which has deprived them of the basic essentials for survival, many have fled south to countries such as Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia.
“I would say that the situation is absolutely alarming!”, said Silvano Roggero, born in Venezuela to a family of Italian immigrants. “Over 800,000 people have come to Peru from Venezuela. At its peak, a few months ago 5,000 people a day were crossing the Ecuadorian border into Peru! Now the rate has slowed down somewhat”.
For many years now Silvano has decided to place “fraternity” among his life motivations. So faced with this situation, together with a Venezuelan family in Peru and other members of the Focolare communities in Lima and Arequipa, he launched a project of support for Venezuelans striving to build a new life for themselves in Peru. In doing this, he formed active partnerships with other organisations including the Inter-religious Committee for Refugees and Migrants (CIREMI in Spanish initials), the UNHCR and other NGOs, religious families such as the Scalabrini, Jesuits and Salesians who run refuges for those arriving from Venezuela.
Silvano, from your coordinating centre in Lima, what can you tell us about this phenomenon?
“We no longer speak of ‘migrations’, but rather of people who are fleeing a very complex situation. And when you escape from a place, the only thing you do is grab the few things you can carry and launch yourself into a new adventure. Here in Peru, many Venezuelans arrive with just a few clothes, most of which are not warm enough for any cold weather, with a small amount of food, and with just enough money to see them through the journey across land, to last them about a week. So if anything unexpected happens to them, all they can do is stop!”
In Lima, Peru, your community is striving to offer a positive welcoming experience to those arriving. Tell us more about this.
“Our commitment began precisely on 10 December 2017, when a family we knew arrived from Venezuela. We put together the small amount of money we could manage to meet their most immediate needs. From that moment, we became aware of more and more people arriving from Venezuela, who all hoped for one thing in particular: to feel the warmth of the family. So what we’ve been trying to do ever since is to welcome, accompany, be close to them, try to meet their most urgent needs for food, medicine, clothing, documents, transport and small financial contributions, thanks to the communion of goods among our communities, alongside donations from family and friends. Over the past two years we have received and distributed the value of €20,000!”.
How many people are involved?
“So far we’ve been in contact with more than 200 Venezuelans, mostly in the cities of Lima and Arequipa. Among them, a psychologist and a medical doctor have offered their professional expertise as part of our welcoming project. With them we’ve been able to run workshops and conferences on issues such as depression, the effects of separation, communicating with relatives left behind, home-sickness, how to deal with the extremely cold temperatures in certain parts of Peru. In fact the communion of goods of clothing among the Focolare communities in Lima and Arequipa has been amazing and effective. There is, of course, a WhatsApp group for communicating family news, for information about documentation required for regularisation as residents, for any job offers that come up, and also for requests for medicines and accommodation”.
Welcoming is the first step. What about integration?
“It’s not easy. There continue to be episodes of xenophobia, often enflamed by the media. We have to realise that Venezuelans are here now in huge numbers. Integration is hindered by the fact that the majority hope to return to Venezuela as soon as possible. They think of themselves as “passing through”, so this doesn’t help integration. We try to promote integration by preparing shared gatherings with care. Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can prove to be of fundamental importance. For example, we ensure that Venezuelan dishes are offered alongside Peruvian food. In fact, we see that the dining table can offer excellent opportunities for integration. At a recent shared meal, the Venezuelans got up to sing Peruvian songs for everyone, and the Peruvians responded by singing Venezuelan songs! When we have a children’s party, like at Christmas, all the children receive gifts, no distinction”.
Relating to one another…
“We realise that we have a role in creating awareness among our colleagues and neighbours. We can encourage them to accept and welcome these brothers and sisters who are need. Usually they are quick to understand, once they are enabled to have a direct personal contact with one or two Venezuelans. They start to collaborate with us, to help, to be generous, to get informed. It’s always through building relationships that we can break down the walls of fear, prejudice or indifference”.
What are the challenges you face?
“We have to accept the fact that many are being exploited at work. Knowing their desperate financial situation, employers tend to pay them less if at all. Living conditions are also very difficult. Overcrowding is common, often living with relatives and friends, but also sometimes among strangers. We heard of 14 people living in one room! Some sleep on the pavements, without even a mattress. Lima is a large city, with 10 million inhabitants and chaotic traffic, so it can take over two hours to travel to work. So life is not easy, many need a home and a job, things which we are not able to provide”.
What is the main aim of people arriving?
“They live and work to survive and if possible to save at least a little money to send back to their relatives who are still struggling in Venezuela (often grandparents, children, sometimes wives). It’s moving to see that as soon as someone manages to put together 10 or 20 Euro, they run to transfer it. We’ve noticed how the Venezuelans really help one another. They’ve shown us that living for their neighbour is an intrinsic part of this people, they are generous, open and inclusive by nature”.
You spoke about the value of relationships. Can you give us examples?
“Living in fraternity means to prioritize the building of relationships. From this, communities are strengthened and creative ideas and suggestions can emerge from them. We don’t want to generate any form of dependence. We’re not about ‘us’ and ‘them’, but about being an ‘inclusive us’. Someone who arrives from another country or from a difficult situation can have a role to play, a talent to exercize for the good of others. Our medical doctor and our psychologist are two examples of this truth. Then there’s the example of another Venezuelan, A.G., whom we’ve known for a year and a half. He has serious health problems and we were able to ensure that he received the medical treatment he needed. After a while, it became clear that he should return to his country where members of his own family would be able to provide the best level of care for his ongoing condition. Our group, including Venezuelans, discussed his situation together, and made the joint decision to raise the money to cover his transport home, even though it was costly. This shared process actually led to enough “providence” arriving to more than cover the costs.
“Another example is Axel, a young military trained officer. He was travelling without documents, so he would have been in real trouble if stopped by the police. At first he could not contemplate applying for citizenship because he thought it would be like betraying his own country. Creating fraternity with him meant entering into how he felt, his way of thinking, without trying to force anything. Through this experience of welcoming and listening, he realised he was not alone in this dilemma and eventually decided to start to get his papers in order. This shows the importance of positive relationships because they give rise to something new, where unexpected solutions can arise”.