I reach the health clinic on the Venezuelan-Colombian border at 7:00am. There’s already a long line of girls and women waiting outside. Most cradle babies or small children. Others lean against the fence, a protective hand across their pregnant bellies.
Many women here started their journeys well before daybreak. They crossed the border from Venezuela into Colombia under the cover the darkness, often running a gauntlet of armed groups, human traffickers and thieves. Once they have had their appointment at the clinic, they will return home to Venezuela.
They are forced to make this dangerous journey because the healthcare system in Venezuela has all but collapsed. Years of political and economic turmoil have run basic services into the ground.
Nineteen-year-old Jesereth told me: “Healthcare [in Venezuela] is very, very bad. The hospitals are contaminated. There’s no medicine or medical supplies. There are black outs, there are no incubators and babies die. It’s horrible.”
Inside the clinic is now buzzing – it’s the busiest time. Save the Children’s nurse weaves through the crowd checking on the women and girls and calling for her next patient.
A staggering 61 percent of the pregnant women who come to the clinic have high-risk pregnancies. More than half suffer from anaemia due to the unavailability of affordable, nutritious food in Venezuela. Life is also tough for Venezuelans now living in Colombia.
“The principle problem Venezuelan migrants have to face every day is they are out of their country, their home, and they don’t have a place to live or shelter, so they have to live in settlements in very bad conditions,” Save the Children’s Dr Elia Martinez Mercado tells me. “They don’t have water; they don’t have showers or a proper bath. The children and babies have a lot of skin and gastro diseases.
At around 10am I meet 15-year-old Diosdari from Venezuela who is living with her mother Mildred in Colombia. Diosdari gave birth to baby Luigi and is now receiving postnatal care at the clinic.
Mildred is worryingly thin. And as their story unfolds, it’s clear Mildred has been sacrificing her own welfare for the sake of her children and now her grandchild.
“I sell bags of water. In the morning, I fill up the container with bags of water. I fill it up 10 to 15 times a day. That’s how I pay for the room we rent. But sometimes I have to pay the electricity bill and then we find it hard to have dinner,” Mildred says.
Diosdari had a high-risk pregnancy and has been closely monitored by our medical staff. “I had to have a c-section because I had preeclampsia and a haemorrhage,” she tells me. “I’m here today for the second check-up for my baby. I’m very thankful for the clinic for opening their doors to us to take care of my baby.
Lunchtime brings one of the most heart-breaking stories.
Isabel*, 46, is a Venezuelan migrant who was living in Colombia trying to sell small items to make money for her two children and mother who were still in Venezuela.
“I was sleeping [on the streets] in the centre of town and an acquaintance said let’s go find a place to stay. We were meant to pay to be protected. But it was a lie. She handed me over to some people. Five men put a knife to my throat and took me to a field. They raped and assaulted me,” Isabel says, her words broken by sobs.
A couple found Isabel in a field the following day and took her to their house and nursed her back to health. Isabel didn’t tell anyone about the attack until months later when she was at Save the Children’s clinic. She has now had several counselling sessions and been treated by the gynaecologist.
“I received treatment here and now I’m no longer in pain. I feel better and I’m really thankful for the care provided to me. They have given all their support and affection to me and my children.
I still think about Isabel now, weeks after I met her. I think about the horrendous injustices done to her – but also about her warmth and her strength.
By 4pm the waiting rooms are starting to thin out. Baby Nicole is next on the list to see the nurse. She barely opens her eyes as she’s placed on the scale to be weighed.
“She’s a good eater,” Nicole’s mum, 27-year-old Chirly, proudly tells me.
“I had three prenatal check-ups at the clinic, and this is my first postnatal check-up. My husband’s sister called me when I was in Venezuela and told me about the clinic. She said I should come here and that I’d receive better care.
“I needed a c-section and I was worried about the blackouts and having the operation in Venezuela. It’s very expensive and there’s no aid there.
“I’m at the clinic today for family planning, to have my c-section stitches checked and to have a check-up for the baby. I’ve been treated well, and I’ve been given medicine and it’s been a great help.”
As it reaches 6pm I’m exhausted. I can’t imagine how our staff at the clinic do this day after day, week after week.
I am humbled by their incredible dedication and compassion to the girls and women who need their help.
It was also an honour to spend time with Lilibeth, Diosdari, Mildred, Isabel, Chirly and all the other Venezuelans I met during my time in Colombia.
They have been through so much – poverty, harassment, exploitation, fear, starvation – to keep their family and children safe. They are survivors.
When I leave the clinic, all I can think is: Wow, what amazing women.
Author and photo credit:
Sacha Myers, Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit