By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published March 7, 2019 | En Español
RIOHACHA, Colombia—Amid political unrest in Venezuela, those opposing embattled President Nicolas Maduro fight to deliver humanitarian aid into the country. Malteser International steadfastly labors to provide medical and other care across the border in northern Colombia to desperate refugees and impoverished indigenous people in the departments of La Guajira and Magdalena.
In Riohacha, La Guajira, Latin America program coordinator Jelena Kaifenheim conducted a recent site visit with Venezuelan refugees awaiting free medical treatment through Malteser at the city hospital. Their ailments ranged from eye and respiratory infections to chicken pox and malaria.
In this city teeming with mothers and children who managed to reach Colombia from Venezuela, Kaifenheim also visited their mobile health brigade serving 300 that day. She spoke with a woman named Alejandra seeking medical care for her feverish baby and two preschoolers—their first doctor’s visit since arriving from Venezuela a year earlier. Alejandra rents a room with another single mother while selling sweets and coffee on the streets. Others erect tarpaulin shacks in slums forming on the city outskirts—given the department has only one accommodation center housing 150 people.
Because of the collapsed Venezuelan health care system, many pregnant women never before received care, children have missed vaccines and chronic diseases have gone untreated.
“The hospital does the triage of the patients that come if they are emergency, like a wound or delivery. Everything that is respiratory infection, skin infection, dengue, for all those people would come to us—urinary infections, vaginal infections, eye infections. There are a lot of eye infections if people cluster together 17 people all in one (rented) room,” said Kaifenheim on a Skype call after returning to Malteser headquarters in Cologne, Germany. “A lot of the people coming are single mothers with their children and they really live in shacks, in terrible conditions without any protections or services,” she said. “There is a lot of despair, a lot of suicide attempts of single mothers who despair and don’t see any other way out. In La Guajira alone in 2018 there were 217 suicide attempts registered and 365 babies who died at birth or in following days because of inadequate pre- and post-natal care.”
One dire need is ultrasound equipment.
“No one is providing ultrasound checks for pregnant women. So, a lot of conditions aren’t detected so when the women come to deliver it’s too late because they have emergency complications,” said Kaifenheim.
Atlantans encouraged to help
More than one million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia and Malteser has intensified its relief work, building on sustainable development projects there since 2014 in bee cultivation, crop diversification, health and hygiene, and home construction. While the global media spotlights Norte de Santander, the largely indigenous La Guajira has received 120,000 Venezuelans through the official border crossing, plus tens of thousands more through informal entry points.
Health teams are working with local hospital and mobile units there and in Magdalena, providing medical care and nutrition packs, medicines, sanitary items and health and hygiene education to reduce diseases. In La Guajira, Malteser provides the only non-emergency health care to refugees, and with two staff doctors and volunteer physicians has treated 7,000 people over the past year, reported Kaifenheim.
Malteser International was established following World War II as the relief agency of the Catholic religious lay and chivalrous Order of Malta, founded in 1099 to defend the faith and aid the sick and poor during the Crusades. Malteser International Americas opened formally in 2013 following the Haitian earthquake.
Retired Maj. Gen. Tom Wessels of Atlanta leads the humanitarian mission as Americas president. He held a February board meeting at their Colombian headquarters south of Riohacha in Santa Marta, where they interacted with over 300 families awaiting medical checks.
“These are people who come in and don’t have any health provisions at all,” said Wessels, a member of Holy Spirit Church. “We can provide health and nutrition relief and give some development opportunities to not only the indigenous people but also the Venezuelan refugees who are coming in there. It will be good for Colombia, for the people, to give them a healthy life with dignity. You’ve got 8 to 10,000 people coming in a day to that area. It’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
While Malteser receives generous German support and works in over 25 countries, Wessels strives to increase awareness and financial support in the United States of their work in Colombia as well as Haiti, Mexico and Peru. He oversaw their Americas headquarters relocation from Miami to New York, near the United Nations where they have consultative status, and signed a memo of understanding with the US Agency for International Development.
“We’ve accomplished a whole lot around the world but we just need to make that more known in the United States. One of our missions is to take care of the poor and sick and we have malnourished children. If they don’t have any health care that is a reason to get involved,” said the volunteer president. “We’re basically trying to bring dignity to everybody, respect and understanding and love for all the people we help.”
He invites Catholics of Atlanta to support and spread the good works of Malteser.
“It’s been a challenge to implement what we’ve been doing and now it’s been multiplied by this million and a half people that have come in almost our back yard in Colombia…Because they’re not official refugees you’re not getting the big bucks,” he said. “We’re still applying for grants.”
And the crisis continues to escalate.
“Millions of Venezuelans are suffering and now life-saving aid is being withheld and the humanitarian imperative of neutrality is not being upheld. The result is the lives of children and mothers are a stake,” said Americas executive director Ravi Tripptrap in a statement.
The Wayuu and other indigenous communities in remote areas of La Guajira have been internally displaced and are also “severely underserviced,” said Kaifenheim. Plus, the BACRIM criminal gang network and guerillas operate there. And as the agency works to purify polluted water, train midwives and provide nutrition to the malnourished, villages are doubling in size.
“So you have super poor and vulnerable migrants coming to poor and vulnerable host communities who have nothing to give because they already have nothing,” Kaifenheim said. “A lot of actors have withdrawn from Guajira due to the more complex context and we sadly stand alone with a lot of responsibilities and a lot of needs with a very committed staff and also a staff that’s frustrated. They say there’s so much need and so much more we have to do. We can do more we just need more funds to hire more staff and buy more medicine.”
Malteser staff prays and perseveres to uplift the poor.
“As terrible as the conditions are in Colombia they don’t go back to Venezuela,” said Kaifenheim. “One of the women she told me ‘I hadn’t been eating for days and no matter what I did I couldn’t find any food for my children so I packed up everything I had and left. And here as terrible as it is most days I manage to get at least one meal for my children.’”