Through the project Integrados, funded by the US Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, AVSI provides legal protection, housing, and livelihoods assistance for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in three regions of Ecuador: Pichincha, Manabi, and El Oro.
There is a good reason why the stories emerging from this crisis almost always focus on the experiences of refugees and migrants. They have risked everything for a better life; and now in the cities and towns they wish to make their new homes, they face prejudice, xenophobia, and barriers to accessing work, housing, and education. This certainly deserves our attention.
We rarely get to hear about their experiences working in such a difficult environment. Surely, they could work in other jobs that pay better, require fewer hours, and cause less stress– so, why did they choose this path?
On a recent trip to Quito, I sat down with AVSI field staff from the Integrados project to try to get a better sense of their stories, experience in the job, and perspectives on the mass migration phenomenon in their country. Coincidentally, we talked over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant run by a family who immigrated to Ecuador. It was packed.
Marcelo, who is from Quito and directs AVSI’s protection services in El Oro province, described how his own experience of migration influenced his career path: “Why work with migrants? Because I was a migrant. Maybe I didn’t have the same conditions [as the Venezuelans]. It was planned. It was to go to school. But I did arrive in a country where I didn’t know anything or anybody. And in my experience, no one helped me. It’s important that someone is there for the migrants, someone to say to them ‘you have to bring this form here’ or ‘make sure you get these forms signed in a particular order.’ I wasn’t necessarily planning to work on migrant and refugee issues, but I would like to continue working in this field because it has helped me build a new vision of the world.”
Several of the Integrados staff members gave similar reasons for getting involved in the work. Irenia Gamez Perez, the project’s Protection Coordinator, told me about her difficult journey to Ecuador from Cuba. “I’m an immigrant. I came here from Cuba with my daughter when she was only 8 months old. I saw the opportunity to have a different life, and I came. And I also had to go through many hardships. I needed to get an I.D. for my daughter. I went to the government office with all my papers, stood there, and said ‘I’m not moving from this spot until they attend to me.’ Even though I had all the right papers, they didn’t want to give me an I.D. for my daughter because we were Cuban. They didn’t want to recognize my educational credentials either. So, I can easily put myself in the shoes of the Venezuelans who are arriving now. I’m going to do anything I can to make sure these injustices they face are not normalized.”
Antonella Del Vecchio Uzcategui, Integrados’ Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, sees the Venezuelans she works with playing out a modern-day version of the same story her family lived in the past: “My paternal great-grandparents had to leave Italy because of the economic crisis after World War II. My maternal grandmother left her hometown in Venezuela so her kids could have a better education. Her decision and her hard work made it possible for four of her six children to graduate from university. Every person has a right to migrate in search of new opportunities to improve their quality of life and to grow.”
Whether it’s a new country, a new town, a new job, or a new school, we’ve all had this experience. Can you remember your first day at a new school, when you had no one to sit with at lunch? Or being the new co-worker, working extra hard to prove yourself to your suspicious coworkers? Take that feeling and imagine multiplying it by ten and feeling it every day for weeks or months. That’s what many Venezuelans arriving in Ecuador are experiencing.
As we ate, I asked my new friends what lessons they had learned from working on this project. They pointed to things they learned from watching and talking to the Venezuelan families. Irenia said she drew inspiration from “their resilience and ability to rise up in the face of their many obstacles to inclusion in Ecuadorian society.” Betsy Rodriguez, social promoter for Manabi province, said she has learned “how we fit together, and how our diversity opens us up to new things. Doing this work allows you to identify your capacity to give, and to receive, because you receive very much from them.”
It was clear to me that each of them derives meaning from the work they do, and they view it as a privilege.
Still, doing this kind of work is not happy all the time. AVSI’s staff members deal with people in very delicate and difficult circumstances, and they see things that challenge them and make them feel sad, because there are some things that are out of their control to change. NGO workers also face their own challenges – like physical threats, defamation, and a lack of job security. In that vein, I asked them about the biggest challenges they have faced in the job. For Irenia, the hardest challenge is, “seeing the poverty of the children, all the things they lack, and the violence they are exposed to in their families and communities.” For Shirley Solorzano, AVSI’s social promotor in El Oro province, a challenge is the insecurity and uncertainty of the moment. The laws and international conventions around migration are always changing, the migrants often move multiple times before settling in their destination, and they are at constant risk of legal trouble.
When I asked them about the biggest challenge they have faced on the job, I was expecting – and kind of hoping – that at least one person would tell me about feeling exhausted, or feeling unsafe, or having a steep learning curve. I realized as I listened to their answers that this is the last group of people who would complain or try to make the narrative about themselves. They had no interest in talking about their own personal difficulties; their focus was on the vulnerable population that they care so much about.
Whether it’s in Ecuador or in the United States, it’s common to see xenophobic reactions to migrants. The fear of the unknown leads people to worry that migrants are going to take their jobs or commit crimes, even when these fears are not supported by any evidence. I asked the group what they would say to someone who is suspicious of migrants and refugees. “I would tell them that they should try to get to know some Venezuelans.” said Maria Fernanda Gavilanes, AVSI Ecuador’s Communications Director. “We often let ourselves be carried away by public opinion, but we don’t do the work of analyzing things in depth, of getting to know people. It’s very beautiful to understand their stories, but you have to ask them about their lives before you make judgements. ‘How did you get here?’ ‘What is your work?’ Ask the kids, ‘are you studying?’ I believe that once you get to know someone you will start to really love them.”
Irenia said, “Venezuelan migrants are exercising their human right to migrate. I would tell people who are suspicious of them that human history has a strong basis in migration. I’ve had enough of people making them out to be criminals when the statistics show that they are not the group responsible for crime in our country. Cultural exchange enriches our people – I wish they would embrace it!”
Maybe growing up in one neighborhood and moving to another makes someone a ‘micro migrant.’ In my neighborhood, my neighbors know me by name, but on the other side of the city I’m just like any other stranger. Most people can relate to this experience. Our culture is ever-changing, too. A few years ago, no one in Quito was eating arepas, and now they are super popular – I make arepas for breakfast! You learn so much by living together with people from other places.”
The story they told wasn’t about them, it was about the people they served. This is their WHY: why they wake up excited to go to work every morning. Their focus on the true goal of the work was so clear that talking to them shifted my focus back to what is most important. This genuine humanitarianism, the desire for the good of the other, is evident across AVSI’s team in Ecuador. It’s what they all have in common; a contagious drive that encourages all of us to think more about our beautiful common humanity.