Young leader stands against xenophobia

Vanessa* is an 18-year-old Colombian born in Venezuela. Four years ago, her family decided to move back to their native country. 'We were going through a very deep crisis at home in Venezuela,' says Vanessa.

'We did not have enough food; we did not have the resources that we needed.' So, they said: 'Let's go back to Colombia, where you have uncles, grandparents, where we can look for a better future'.

Adapting to a new reality has not been easy. Vanessa has seven siblings who, like her, suffered discrimination due to the place where they were born. 'It was a very difficult change for our family, but the hardest thing was not so much packing up and coming here. The most difficult part was how they received us. Since we came from Venezuela and even though we have our families here, we have different habits. People say: 'Here come the Venezuelans', even to my younger brothers and sisters. 'As soon as they started going to school, they suffered a lot of xenophobia.'

SOS Children's Villages in Colombia and other organizations hold workshops in Vanessa's community to raise awareness and confront xenophobia in the population. People learn that no one can make them feel inferior and that ill-intended comments are not worth responding to. 'We share everything we have learned with the children, and they grow up with that,' explains Vanessa. 'So, when people say things to the children because of their nationality, they no longer pay attention and simply carry on with what they are doing, like their studies.'

Today, from her wooden house in Uribia, yet another indigenous concentration area in Colombia's Guajira region, Vanessa fights for equality and spreads messages against xenophobia towards her community.

She has also become a community leader. 'It means you are the voice of the community. We can have our local protection committee in which we learn about violence against children and the violation of their rights. As community agents, we are the voice of children who have no voice.'

For over 7 million Venezuelans migrating to different regions of the world, xenophobia is one of the main threats. Vanessa says: 'Migrating to an unknown country is completely overwhelming for any child and even for some adults. It is about leaving behind friends, acquaintances, family and what we all once knew as our community. And well, many times we actually say that when we were united, we were rich, and we didn't realize it.'

The area where Vanessa lives is called Aeropuerto. It is home to more than 1,400 families, mainly from Venezuela. Colombian returnees make up a significant percentage of the population in this settlement, and although conditions are not the best, they say they are much better off than in Venezuela. By the end of 2021, some 645,000 Colombians had returned.

The families have been settling there under irregular arrangements, so the houses do not have access to basic utility services or adequate infrastructure. 'When it was raining, we had to find scraps of sheeting for protection or to build a small house. But, at the end of the day, as we say, you have to move forward and look at the bright side of things.'

Vanessa's mother Ana sees her daughter as an example for other young people. 'I am proud to say that she is my daughter. She always conveys this message of honesty and equality. She has never allowed barriers to stop her. She doesn't see obstacles or difficulties.'

In her work for children and young people, Vanessa is also part of the educational spaces. She will go to university to become a pedagogue when she finishes school. 'I like working with children. With all the organizations I have worked with, I have always enjoyed working with children and young people.' What she likes the most is motivating them to move forward. 'We are never alone. There is always a helping hand. Sometimes people forget this, but there will always be someone to show them the right path, telling them they should not be guided by what is wrong in the world. Telling them that they should never drop out of school and that, if they have problems with education, there is always something in which they can excel.'

Vanessa's efforts are recognized by the children in her community. 8-year-old Pablo told us: 'She is good because she helps children. She helps them prepare for the future.'


*Names changed for privacy protection

*Text by Monica Garcia Zea. Photos by Mónica Ossorio