In the 1990s, Colombian teenagers were escaping slavery to which criminal gangs trapped them. In the 2000s, it was starving Venezuelan families, hard hit by the economic crisis. Cùcuta, a sprawling city of 750,000 inhabitants, is the busiest of the eight official border crossings between Colombia and Venezuela. A border town in northeast Colombia, it is a place of pain and dashed hopes. Ninety-four per cent of people cross the border on foot.
It is here that Marìa Soledad Arias, a tireless and passionate sister from the Sisters Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament Handmaids of Charity, exercises her mission. For 27 years, she has been assisting migrants pass from one side or the other, embodying, together with her fellow sisters, that “Church of the margins” on which Pope Francis insists so much. “When we arrived here in 1995”, Sister Soledad recounts, “our work consisted of accompanying teenage Colombian girls on the run, who were victims of sexual exploitation in prostitution and armed conflicts. We have assisted more than 4,000 of them, by working on spiritual, artistic and integral formation”.
Since 2013, the needs have changed. In Venezuela, mainly as a result of the collapse in oil prices, a very serious economic, social and political crisis has erupted, and resulted in a humanitarian emergency due to the lack of basic goods. As many as 5.6 million Venezuelans have fled the country, almost two million of whom have fled to Colombia. Sister Soledad and her sisters could not leave the women alone as they marched forth to find bread and medicine for their children and instead fell into the trap of the vilest sexual blackmail. Today, years later, the flow of Venezuelan women has not diminished. “The deterioration of the economic and social situation is still being felt”, Sister Soledad, says. “The devaluation of the Venezuelan currency [the Bolívar] has not favoured families, and the dollar exchange rate is insufficient to survive”.
In Cùcuta, Sr. Soledad divides her time between two listening centers, work and entrepreneurship training workshops and the shelter for trafficked women. “At the Centro di capacitaciòn integral we are lucky to be very close to the Venezuelan border. This makes it easier for us to approach Venezuelan migrant women and repatriated Colombian women. This means doing what Pope Francis says of going to the peripheries, working side by side with them, seeing the problems first-hand, the pain, the uprooting, the adventure they experience when they leave their land and enter into the unknown. They do not arrive alone, as the vast majority migrate with their very young children. I always ask the women why they come in these conditions and they tell me that they are tormented by hunger. It is gratifying as a religious community to be able to support and accompany women who come to an unknown country with no family support network. Being able to contribute a grain of sand to the life of each one of them strengthens us as a Church and as an apostolic community”.
This “grain of sand” has arrived to 3,000 women, and reached in the places of marginalisation where they live. They have been embraced in the listening centers, assisted with home visits, strengthened with workshops in cooking, cosmetics and aesthetics, corsetry, jewellery and bag making. They have learnt sewing, and been protected with a dense network of attention when they are victims of sexual exploitation rackets, while being rescued together with their children from imminent danger to their lives in the “Safe House” shelter.
Sister Soledad is a woman who is in love with her mission, with the lives she encounters, with the collaboration she has established with the Oblate Sisters. After 27 years of service, he confesses that she feels like a young woman of 20, and still full of energy and eager to continue her work among the women on the margins of Cùcuta.
I ask Sr. Soledad, where is God in this frontier land? “We encounter God in women. They discover, through us, that God loves them and has always been with them, even in the darkest moments. This excites me. It gratifies me to realise how sensitive these humiliated and wounded women are. They bring God to us, when we listen to them, when we teach them manual labor. Here, they give us more than we offer”.
By Antonella Mariani
A journalist with the Italian national newspaper, “Avvenire”