“I buy hair! I buy hair!” This is one of the cries heard in the anarchic informal market encountered by migrants who have just crossed the border from Venezuela to Colombia. They cross either via the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, if they can pay the fees and present the proper permits, or through the various informal and illegal routes (trochas), a no man's land where traffickers, coyotes and abusers of all kinds proliferate.
“I buy hair!” shouts the man again. A trembling Venezuelan girl, almost a teenager, approaches him and negotiates the sale of her hair for 50,000 Colombian pesos (about $13). She has just crossed, accompanied by her sick mother, in the hope of finding treatment on this side of the border. She will continue along the route into Colombia’s interior, leaving a piece of her life and her beautiful hair behind.
This is one of some 1,700 stories about the Venezuelan diaspora that non-governmental organisation TodoSomos has collected from the 200 kilometres of road that separate the Colombian border city of Cúcuta from Bucaramanga, the regional capital. It is a dangerous road that goes deep into the green, cold mountains of Colombia’s Norte de Santander department. The young migrant and her ailing mother are sure to find food and rest in one of the shelters, which have been set up to provide humanitarian assistance along the way since this crisis erupted in 2014. And perhaps one of the TodoSomos volunteers will approach and invite the girl to write down her story in one of the books that collect testimonies of some of the 6,000 migrants who pass through each week.
This collection of testimonies is the initiative of TodosSomos’s founder, Douglas Lyon, an epidemiologist from Oregon, USA, and a long-time collaborator with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Africa, Asia and Latin America. “The testimonies of the victims,” says Lyon, “are valuable in that they document a tragedy that plays itself out day by day before our eyes. For refugees, telling one’s own story, writing it down in a book, also has a therapeutic value.” Through his work with MSF, Lyon has learned that people can find sharing their stories to be a healing experience.
Beyond the historical and ethnographic importance of collecting testimonies, Lyon points to the importance for the victim of feeling heard and valued. This comes not just through talking, but also through the act of writing by hand. Recording stories on paper to be read multiple times, transcends the fleeting nature of spoken words.
Moreover, Lyon says: “the Venezuelan crisis offers an opportunity that does not exist in Sudan, the Republic of Congo or Myanmar: most of these refugees can read and write because they were schooled in a country that was rich until recently and where universal public education was a reality.”
While many people might not have written by hand for years, the fact that most are able to put their experience on paper offers a rare opportunity to capture the reality and depth of the Venezuelan migration crisis. “It’s important for the world to know,” says Lyon, showing the seven volumes of testimonies he has accumulated since the project began.
Lyon has strict ethics about how information is collected and processed. “Our methodology will ensure that those who choose to write can trust in our respect for anonymity – if they wish – our appreciation of handwritten testimonies, and the main purpose of our work in defending and creating a permanent archive,” he says.
From his headquarters, set up in a rented house in the village of Chinácota, some 40 kilometres from the border, Lyon coordinates the weekly collection of testimonies. He organises the various volunteers, whom he dispatches every morning to some of the humanitarian shelters for migrants along the route to Bucaramanga.
According to the UN, by October 2021, more than 5.9 million refugees and migrants had left Venezuela. Of these, more than 80% are in Latin America and the Caribbean. When economic elites left the country in the wake of the Chavista revolution of the 2000s, they could afford to fly to Miami, New York or Madrid. But the worsening of the situation inside Venezuela – especially since 2018, with the outbreak of violence in the streets, the closure of civic spaces, harsh repressions, hyperinflation and shortages of basic supplies – has pushed millions of ordinary Venezuelans to take more precarious routes.
“The Venezuelan exodus is the largest that Latin America has seen in modern times,” Filippo Grandi, head of the United Nations Migration Agency, said in 2021. It is the largest refugee crisis in the world after Syria, and of the more than five million Venezuelans now spread across Latin America, 1.7 million are in Colombia. A large part of these migrants cross – many of them on foot – through the Eastern Cordillera of the Colombian Andes, whose passes reach heights of more than 3,500 metres above sea level.
For Lyon, the work of TodoSomos is unprecedented. No one to date has been able to collect so many handwritten personal and family experiences of a diaspora. He believes this fulfils a double function: to provide migrants with a space for empathy amidst the hardship of the journey and to document an ongoing humanitarian disaster.
Knowing he has an important mission on his hands, Lyon has managed to create a small community of volunteers from Venezuela, Colombia and further afield, who gather at his house at the end of the day to share their daily experiences.
Each time the group collects another 300 or so testimonies, they hold workshops, in which the texts are read aloud. They identify key ideas and relevant phrases from each testimony, collect each other’s comments and enter the details into a database.
The sampling they carry out is semi-random. The volunteers find migrants willing to write by approaching them during their rest breaks in the shelters. They ask migrants to tell them “The story you would tell your friend, your mother, your father, your brother or your sister. It is important the world knows what is happening, that your story is not lost – that it is not forgotten.”
We don't know if the girl who sold her hair at the border will ever write about her traumatic experience. But we do know that Lyon’s books contain priceless evidence of the scale of this tragedy.
This article is part of the series 'Walking on the edge of migration', which is supported by the Ford Foundation. It was previously published by El País (Planeta Futuro). Read the original here.
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