The Venezuelans Have Arrived | Opinion

I recently took a profoundly moving trip to Colombia with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. I was able to experience firsthand, the largest exodus Latin America has seen in recent history. I walked across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge with Venezuelan men, women and children - a route that sees 30,000 people crossing every day. Many of them come into Colombia for the day, looking for food, medical care or opportunities to make a little bit of money. Others continue on deeper into the country, some even as far as Peru or Ecuador where they hope to find the food, medicine, and safety they can't find back home.

These brave Venezuelans know this path will be long but many of them are not prepared for the magnitude of the journey, not always taking into account the changing climate as the road into the heart of Colombia climbs through the mountains. They leave their homeland, sweaty from the humid heat of Venezuela only to be pelted by the bitter cold of the mountains just days later. Their choice to do this is life-threatening, but it is better than a certain death in Venezuela. My heart breaks for every soul that has to make a choice like this.

There's another factor that can bring the peril to the next level. Being a Venezuelan leaving everything behind and also being a member of the LGBTQ community. My husband Justin and I met a young gay Venezuelan named Jesús who opened up about his journey from student to asylum seeker. He spoke of his fear of showing affection toward his loved ones in public and how much it meant to him to see Justin and I together. He told us about Venezuelans living with HIV. If you have HIV and your country has run out of antiretroviral medication, you have a choice: you run or you die.

He introduced us to Juan Carlos, who is not only a mentor to Jesus but is also a nurse. Juan Carlos proudly showed us his makeshift clinic that was a far cry from anywhere I have received healthcare but certainly no less vital. He showed us kitchen cabinets full of HIV tests, HIV meds donated by generous organizations, and loads of information to teach those who came by how to stay alive.

From the clinic, we traveled the few blocks to a 10-bed community house, funded by UNHCR and run by the Censurados Foundation. Never has the term "chosen family" felt more appropriate. This tiny slice of the local LGBTQ community was truly keeping each other alive, not only physically, but spiritually. Months ago, each of them had to make the most difficult decision of their lives. "Do I stay in Venezuela? Do I leave behind everything I've ever known? Or do I flee to Colombia in search of a better life even if I have to risk living on the streets?" And here they were, welcoming my husband and me, two complete strangers to them, into their new home.

I was seeing people who had endured the unimaginable but were empowered to be exactly who they are and feel safe and content about it. I'm learning that this isn't the case for so many others, but I'm glad I got to see what life can look like when these operations are supported. When we connect those in need with what they need.

And that's really what I saw UNHCR doing firsthand in Colombia. I saw a community kitchen, once capable of cooking only 500 meals a day, now providing 5,000 meals a day, thanks to a renovation provided by UNHCR and other support provided by the international community. I saw shelters providing weary Venezuelans with a place to rest and receive medical attention, even if only for a couple of days.I saw daycare centers that provide education and psycho-social support, allowing them to be much more than just a babysitting facility. I saw small Colombian communities that have literally opened up their homes to Venezuelans, finally getting access to electricity and running water for the very first time.

And in every case, UNHCR is there. They're the catalyst that allows the communities to do more. When they need to lead, they set up shop on the border and they go to work. When neighbors, churches, or local charities step up first, UNHCR has their back.

And so, the Venezuelans have indeed arrived. They've arrived by the millions - in Colombia, in Peru, in Ecuador. They've arrived in big cities and small towns. They've arrived after crossing sub-zero conditions in mountains on foot wearing sandals and t-shirt's. They've arrived with their babies in their arms and what's left of their life in a suitcase.

Now what? Their "home' is where their feet have brought them. So, as so many Colombians have personally shown me, they should be welcomed.

To learn more or donate to UNHCR's Venezuela emergency appeal, please visit https://bit.ly/2HOBMrN

Jesse Tyler Ferguson is an Actor, Activist & UNHCR Supporter

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​

The Venezuelans Have Arrived | Opinion | Opinion