World Refugee Day: Breaking the Stigma

“I won’t deny that at first there was suspicion,” says Angi Reyes, a Venezuelan migrant living in Barranquilla, Colombia, “there were some people who did not completely accept us.”

Joleth Gil, a local Colombian, agrees. “There was uncertainty. Who are they? What are their customs?” she says.

This World Refugee Day, we sat down with members of the refugee and migrant communities and members of the local host communities at several of our missions across the globe. We asked them what they had learned from one another and what they wished the other knew about them. In Colombia, we spoke with Angi and Joleth. Both women living Barranquilla and have a child that attends IsraAID’s programs at the Ciudad Cangrejo child protection space.

Since 2019, IsraAID Colombia has been working with Venezuelan migrants and the host communities that have taken them in. Some 2.5 million Venezuelans are currently living in Colombia, seeking a better life for themselves and their families in the wake of their country’s economic collapse.

Settling into a new country is never easy, and there are often barriers. Even though Venezuelan migrants in Colombia have the benefit of speaking Spanish, they are still faced with cultural differences. And while they are trying to adjust to their new lives, migrants are sometimes confronted with prejudice and bias against them in the host communities.

“It’s very difficult to leave your country, leaving behind families, your land, your people, your customs, your roots,” Angi says.

“I understand that it was difficult for many Venezuelans to leave their country, though it’s hard for me to understand it completely. I feel conflicted thinking about why people would choose to leave, but I haven’t experienced it,” Joleth said. “It amazed me to learn that most of the Venezuelans who come here are professionals. You’re talking with an engineer or a teacher. I realized that in leaving their country, they may have given up professional opportunities,” Joleth says.

Like many other countries, the Colombian cities and regions that take in large numbers of migrants are often underserved. The local host community is often already facing challenges accessing resources and services. IsraAID works with both the host community and the refugee community to address the needs of all residents.

“After the privilege of getting to know them a little more, I learned that they are the same as us, equals,” Joleth says. 

“As the years went by, they realized that we are people with dreams, with abilities, and even with weaknesses – but all of us have a tough situation that afflicts us,” Angi says. “We have become familiar with each other in a way that makes the whole situation more bearable. We’ve even become a family in many ways.”

Our programs work to help Venezuelan migrants integrate and find their way in Colombia, to combat prejudice and stigma about Venezuelans, and support the local Colombian community. By making our programs accessible to both the refugee and host communities, it also creates opportunities for cultural exchange, for community members to get to know one another and build resilience together.

“I’m not going to say I don’t miss my country. As if I never miss my people, my land, my culture… I miss everything related to Venezuela, my beautiful Venezuela. But I give thanks to the Colombian people who have welcomed us,” Angi says. “When I first arrived in Colombia seven years ago, I came directly to Barranquilla where I met the person I now share my dreams with… Today my partner is Colombian,” she adds. 

“We have to get rid of that wall of skepticism. If we unite, we can overcome anything. Taking away and breaking the wall. There is so much strength between us; together, we can fight for everyone’s dreams,” Joleth says.

“Today, it was my country, Venezuela, but it could be any country. So let’s be kind because, as my friend says, we can break the stigma,” Angi concludes.