Young leader helps fight xenophobia and promotes children's rights in Colombia
Vanessa*, 18, was born in Venezuela, but her family is from Colombia. Four years ago, they decided to move back to Colombia because of the economic crisis in Venezuela.
"We were going through a very deep crisis in our home,” says Vanessa. “We did not have enough food; we did not have the resources that we really 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 had other habits, and people told us ‘here comes the Venezuelans.’ My younger siblings also suffered a lot of xenophobia when they went to school.
To raise awareness and confront xenophobia in the population, SOS Children's Villages in Colombia and other organizations hold workshops in the community where she lives. They learn that no one can make them feel inferior without their consent 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 were doing, like their studies."
Today, from her wooden house in Uribia, Colombia's Guajira region, Vanessa fights for equality and spreads messages against xenophobia in her community.
She has also become a community youth leader. "Being a community agent 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 those children who have no voice."
With almost 7 million Venezuelans emigrating to different regions of the world, xenophobia is one of the main threats they face. For her, coming to Colombia has not been easy.
"Emigrating to an unknown country is something completely overwhelming for any child, even for some adults, because it is about leaving behind friends, acquaintances, family and what we all knew as a community. And well, many times we actually say that when we were united, we were rich and we didn’t realize it."
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 from Venezuela to Colombia.
The area where Vanessa lives is called “Aeropuerto” and is home to more than 1,400 families, most of whom are from Venezuela. The families have been settling there under informal arrangements, so the houses do not have access to basic 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."
Her 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, and she has never allowed barriers to stop her. She doesn't see obstacles and if there are any obstacles, she says there will be others. That's Vanessa, she doesn't see difficulties."
In her calling to work for children and young people, Vanessa is also part of the educational spaces and when she finishes school, she will go to university to become a teacher, "because I like working with children. With all the foundations I have worked with, I always enjoy working with children and young people."
And what she likes most is to motivate them to get ahead: "We are never alone, there is always a helping hand that will be there, sometimes people forget this, but there will always be someone to show them the right path, telling them that they should not be guided by what is wrong in the world, that vices are bad and 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."
Her efforts are recognized by the children in her community. One young boy, 8, told us: “She is good because she helps the children, she helps them for their future.”
*Name changed to protect the privacy of young people