Andrés Caro

Peaceful Playing, Peaceful Thinking, and Common Living

Colombia

April 17th, 2019

Hi, my name is Andrés Caro. I am a M.A. student in the University of Chicago, graduating this summer. I am from Bogotá, Colombia, where I plan to live and to work. My academic and professional interests lie in the intersections of the humanities, politics and law, and I am particularly curious about the ways in which violence and human rights violations shape moral and political communities, and how those communities can overcome atrocity and achieve peace.

For this reason, I applied to the IHouse program co-sponsored by the University and by the Davis United World College Scholars Program called “Davis Projects for Peace”, a grant that gives a student –or a group of students– 10.000 USD to develop a program for fostering peace in any region of the world.

The program with which I won the Grant seeks to address ­–in a small scale– the problems that face about one million Venezuelans that have come to Colombia fleeing from Venezuela’s dictatorship and famine. With the arrival of such a massive diaspora, Colombia has shown hospitality but there have been some incidents of xenophobia.

The program will create a safe space for disenfranchised Venezuelan and Colombian children in which they will be able to interact, play sports, and reflect on their experiences in one of the poorest areas near Bogotá, Colombia. In several sessions distributed in the summer vacations month, those children and some of their mothers, will be able to acquire tools to avoid racism, to avoid conflicts, and to manage their emotions in such a way that will enable them to become peaceful actors in their homes and communities. At the same time, those newly-come Venezuelan mothers will gain the tools to prepare themselves for the Colombian labor market, and will learn how to attain social benefits.

I have two amazing partners in Colombia: Tiempo de Juego and Sinestesia, two organizations that have worked with Colombian children and other vulnerable groups but who are new in working with Venezuelans.

These series of workshops, generously sponsored by the Davis Projects for Peace and by UChicago, will enable us to create a pilot of social work with migrant kids and mothers, and to create local knowledge on how to deal with migration. Hopefully, we will be able to create a space that will be replicated in other regions of Colombia, encouraging partnerships with other actors.

The Grant will enable such a space of peaceful coexistence in which the experience of past violence and repression will be transformed in a series of personal and communitarian narratives that will promote hospitality and conflict resolution.

I will keep writing and posting. If you have comments, questions or suggestions, please write to me (andrescaro@uchicago.edu).


June 13th, 2019

The project is underway in Colombia. But I find myself here, in Chicago, closing what has been my home for the last two years in South Chicago: a small and beautiful apartment I shared with my girlfriend (another Colombian student –brilliant Colombian student– at UChicago). Everyone who has stomached moving from one house to another can imagine what it takes to move from one country to another: my living room is full of plastic bags, bubble wrapping, boxes, old magazines and pillows. The books (OMG… the pounds of books) are in overweight, overpacked bags that I fear won’t fit in any airplane in the world.

The first stages of the project (planning, recruiting, etc.) are ongoing in Colombia. I’ve never worked with kids nor with mothers so I looked for a team, an A-Team to help me with the planning of our project. I now say “our project”, because from being a two-page document that I presented to the Davis people, it became a project not only mine, but one that also belongs to the team of the IHouse at Chicago and also, and quite happily, to my partners and my team in Colombia. They are all also speaking of “our project”. And they’re right in doing so.

In order to use the resources in the best possible way and given the fact that the humanitarian emergency has not diminished (the dictatorship in Venezuela keeps taking repressive measures and creating the socioeconomical conditions that have forced more than one million Venezuelans to take refuge in Colombia), early in the project I decided that in order to work with vulnerable kids and women I had to look for the help and support of expert social workers and engaged project managers in Colombia. The project now includes three different NGO’s, the Human Rights division of the city of Bogotá, a Family law and gender studies professor from the Universidad de los Andes, a Harvard graduate expert in Public Health, two managers who have experience in media, summer camps for vulnerable kids, and resource management, an ad-hoc group of lawyers from one of Colombia’s foremost law firms;  we are also working to engage Semana, the most important magazine in Colombia.

The scale of the project has grown to include not only intensive work with Colombian and Venezuelan children in conflict resolution, but also prospective social work with more than two hundred Venezuelan women. The work to do is vast, but we are all exited. If I succeed in packing, cleaning and leaving this apartment, I’ll be in Colombia soon. I’ll keep you informed of everything that is happening to our project.


June 24th, 2019

As I write this post, more than 1.000 Venezuelans are entering Colombia. Fleeing from threats and armed combats in their native Boca de Grita (VEN), they got into Colombia during last Saturday’s night. Colombia’s migration office attended some of the families and children and arranged a sports coliseum in Puerto Santander (COL) for them to sleep and get some food.

This group is added to the more than one million Venezuelans that are now living in Colombia. Some of them are in transit, trying to go to the southern part of America (to Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) or to Ecuador and Perú, and some of them are just trying to settle here, in Colombia, while the dreadful situation in Venezuela gets back into normal.

Our project has gained an unimaginable size. This week, after visiting a proposed facility to work with children, I found that the group that my partners in Colombia had founded was not constituted by migrant kids. For this reason, and because the purpose of the project has always been to work with Venezuelans migrants in Colombia, I decided to end that partnership. After that setback, my collaborators, aided by the Human Rights office of the City of Bogotá, got in contact with a large NGO that is working with UNHCR, and we are now well underway in creating a multi-session project for more than 500 Venezuelans who are newly arrived into Bogotá. This new order of magnitude has given me and my Colombia-based team a new force.

We will provide knowledge about human rights and about social opportunities in Colombia; we will give seminars and workshops on self-care and on the prevention of sexual abuse; and we are in the path of securing food from two of Colombia’s most important companies: Nutresa and Ramo. Ramo (or one of its owners) is set to provide the food for all the activities, allowing us to spend more funds in the actual seminars or in getting more Venezuelans into the program. I have meetings with them and a planned talk with a bank, hoping that this financial institution will provide the children with education kits (bags, notebooks, pencils).

If we succeed with these partnerships, the project will provide information and aid to around 1 in each 1000 Venezuelans in Colombia.


July 2nd, 2019

Hi y’all! It’s me from Bogotá.

After the worrying news I gave you last week, now I can tell you that the project has been saved and for good! Today, and after the uncompromising and fortunate support of the IHouse leadership, I signed the definitive agreement with Bethany, an NGO that has worked with Venezuelan refugees from the start of the emergency. With their knowledge of the conditions of the Venezuelans who arrive into Bogotá (they have installed mobile attention points in the Bus Terminal of Bogotá, just to mention one of their migrant attention centers), I am confident that the project will be successful and will have an outreach that I never thought of in the first place. We will be attending around 500 migrants in a project co-designed by me and which focuses on hospitality as a seed for peace in Colombia, a country that faces extremely difficult humanitarian and moral challenges. This, of course, has been inspired by the “Home to the world” spirit of the IHouse and the outcomes expected for a Davis Project which I will try to impress on all the stages of the implementation.  

Besides this, I wanted to tell you about a couple of meetings I’ve had. The first one was with Revista Semana-Proyecto Migración Venezuela. Semana is one of Colombia’s foremost news organizations, and its leading magazine, SEMANA, is one of the most respected and read in Colombia. Their project around Venezuelan migration is chaired by a former colleague of mine –a kind of hierarchical superior and clearly a mentor and a role model–. Her insights about the importance of the kind of work we are trying to do with the Davis prize were amazingly useful. Furthermore, she will give us some of Semana’s printed publications for the Venezuelan community in Colombia to support our programs. She also mentioned the possibility of the project being highlighted and covered in their webpage! 

In another meeting with one of the executives and heirs of RAMO, one of Colombia’s dearest and more respected corporations of the food industry, I’ve now secured the refreshments for all the assistants to the program, giving us more space to receive more Venezuelan mothers or children or the option of offering them a richer experience in the activities of the project. This person also secured the collaboration of a network of volunteers which he founded in Colombia that will provide help in the development of the project. He was very pleased when we spoke because he is trying to create networks of volunteers, NGO’s and causes (such as the Venezuelan migration in Colombia), in order to promote the social sector of Colombia. Our project will be one of the first steps in developing an initiative that mixes the best of Colombia’s hospitality, of the generosity of its modern industrial complex, with the creativity and resolute work of its NGO’s in order to face the country’s immense challenges. Soon, I hope to share with you a short interview with this person, so he can explain what the project meant for him. 

By now, the dates of the project activities have been decided. We will start on July 13 and will work through August 10.


July 15th, 2019

Last Friday we finally started our Project! 

More than 100 Venezuelans, including mothers, children, and a couple of fathers met with me and the team of Bethany, an NGO that has worked with migrants since the start of the crisis in the border. With Bethany, I designed the content of the activities and with their professional expertise we came to design a booklet that we are handing to each Venezuelan adult that comes to our program. This booklet includes not only the basic information about the project but, perhaps more importantly, information about how Venezuelan migrants can enforce their basic human rights in Colombia. We are providing information on how to take kids to school, how to visit a physician, and how to take care of their children and themselves in a context that presents threats of exploitation, hunger and sickness. 

The first day was a success! We managed to secure a room in the Mayor office in Bogotá, and we offered not only a safe-space for the kids to play with volunteers and psychologists, but also several information sessions for the parents. With the money of the project, I bought food for them and also basic hygiene kits for them to take care of the first days of their migration journey in Colombia. With the help of two of Colombia’s biggest companies, BBVA-Colombia and RAMO, the project got school kits and refreshments and water for the assistants.

The aim of the International House is to be a Home to the World. This project has proved to be a realization of that spirit in the terribly unfair context of the Venezuelan migration in Colombia. Speaking with mothers who have arrived to Colombia in the last couple of weeks with all their belongings, leaving some of their relatives (parents and children), and looking for a better future, has been an amazing experience for me. Mothers and kids were incredibly kind and supportive of the project. They enjoyed it and told us that they will be using the information and supplies in their daily live. By teaching them their rights and the opportunities they have in Colombia, the project is looking to foster peace by hospitality in the near future.

Our next activity will be this Friday on a small town near Bogotá. We will work with more than one hundred persons and I am going to try to interview one of the mothers in order to share her courage and her migration experiences with you.


July 30th, 2019

We had our third activity last Saturday. Now, the project has served 250+ people, including children and mothers from Venezuela who have arrived in Colombia. By getting extra funding from different partners (school supplies from BBVA, food from RAMO and ROA, volunteer work from FRATERNIDADE, free locations from the Office of the Mayor of Bogotá and from different churches and communitarian organizations around Bogotá, and free administration and intellectual services from BETHANY, our main partner) the project has got to more people than we ever thought possible, and we have spent less than 60% of the total funds. Now, I am trying to extend the project for the future, providing more Venezuelan migrants with the booklet we’ve prepared, or by creating either a semi-permanent leisure space for newly arrived migrant children in Bogotá’s bus terminal, a food bank for migrants in one of the poorest neighborhoods we’ve been working on, or some extra sessions for different groups of migrants (if you have suggestions about this please write to me at andrescaro@uchicago.edu ASAP!). 

During the second activity we encountered the terrible phenomenon of xenophobia in Susa, a town close to Bogotá. The migrants that were present in the session are scared from the municipal officers and even fear violence. However, they are mostly hopeful about the prospect of normalizing their migration status in Colombia. Thus, the subject of our second workshop was based on avoiding violence and xenophobia by empowering the Venezuelan migrants with knowledge of their fundamental rights, and by offering means of self and institutional protection against different threats. 

When we got to Usme, one of the poorest, more violent, and more diverse localities of Bogotá, we were expecting to find the same situation. However, Bogotá has proved to be more hospitable than some other towns in Colombia –of course, it is a richer city, with more services and resources to share. A couple of communitarian leaders offered their large home for our daily program. There, I had the chance to personally interview two migrants who told me about their experiences. I want to briefly tell you about them because their stories show the courage and dignity of the Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. 

First, I met a gentleman from Valencia, Venezuela. His wife is Colombo-Venezuelan (a destiny shared by thousands of inhabitants of the border towns of both countries) and thus his family prospects of getting normal social services in Colombia are better than the chances of almost every other migrant. He left Venezuela six months ago. There, he used to work in a factory. One day, the guards of the factory didn’t allow any worker to get inside to work. They told them that the owners had left to Spain. When he arrived to Colombia with his two children, he met his wife, who was living in Usme. Although the kids have been attending public school, their father’s prospects are far from encouraging. He has tried to get a regular job in construction, but he only has had the chance to work as a journeyman in different, underpaid tasks in the neighborhood. The family is currently living in a house they share with other migrants from Venezuela. There, they have rented a room in which all four live. In total, there are 21 persons living in their house.

Then I met a lady from the coastal part of Venezuela, who arrived one year ago with her three children, leaving behind a fourth one with her parents. She decided to leave Venezuela because even while having a job, food scarcity forced her family to eat just arepas and a little bit of rice every day. The kids were usually telling her how hungry they were until one day she decided to leave to Colombia without any papers. In Colombia, where she came with almost no money (she had to make a deal with the bus ticket vendor in order to get the three kids in the bus to Colombia with her), she encountered her partner, who has been working in the rusa, as they call construction works here in Bogotá. She hasn’t found a job and she is clearly depressed, wishing to go back to Venezuela as soon as the socioeconomic situation gets better there. She told me that what saves her every day is the sight of her kids, wearing their uniform to attend the public school in Bogotá. There are days in which she doesn’t leave her room (her family also lives in a single room) and she just stays there. The kids, as most children in Bogotá’s public-school system, get breakfast, snacks, and lunch in the school, and so they are getting to eat good proteins and calories (something that did not happened in Venezuela). However, in their house they can only afford to buy pasta, rice, or some grains like beans or lentils. Some nights, the lady I talked to told me, she sleeps without having eaten dinner in a mattress on the floor. 

I didn’t want to decorate or modify the stories because it seems to me that they offer a glimpse of the lives of the people that the project is trying to positively affect. The magnitude of the problem (more than one million and a half Facebook accounts that were created in Venezuela have been accessed from Colombia for the first time in the last two years) is yet to be discovered by the public institutions of Colombia and by Colombians themselves. The project seeks to give insights and ideas to a relatively small number of migrants and is just one of many first steps that have to be taken in order to guarantee the wellbeing and dignity of persons that are facing similar conditions to the ones described above.