Working Outside the Box to Help Displaced Venezuelans

Sebastian Leal had only two trimesters left in his business administration program at Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB) when, he left his home in Caracas, Venezuela for Santiago de Cali, Colombia. Initially, Sebastian had planned to stay in Cali for only three months to work so he could help his family back home financially. But as he watched Venezuela’s crisis deepen from afar day-by-day, Sebastian finally made the tough call to stay in Colombia indefinitely and has been there for almost two and a half years.

A few months before he left his country, Sebastian felt compelled to assist people in his community who were facing severe food and medicine shortages as Venezuela’s collapse deepened. This feeling turned into an idea that would soon become his grassroots organization, called Fundación Afuera de la Caja (or Outside the Box Foundation). “People tend to trap themselves in boxes with their problems,” Sebastian told Refugees International last month. He envisioned that Afuera de la Caja could help people break down these boxes and “see the many possible solutions to life’s greatest challenges” by organizing food drives, coordinating sports days for children, and providing mental health resources.

Fast-forward to his new life in Colombia: Sebastian noticed the increasing number of Venezuelan caminantes (people who migrate by foot) and other Venezuelan migrants in his new city. He saw the needs of these displaced people and decided to restart Afuera de la Caja’s mission to support and empower those he encountered. What was once a single person’s vision turned into a team of eight volunteers that receive food, medicine, and clothing donations from local businesses.

Afuera de la Caja’s work has become even more important as the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affects displaced people and destabilizes local communities. Since March, Afuera de la Caja has hosted socially distanced food drives to provide lunch, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and feminine products to over 400 displaced Venezuelans.

Because the pandemic has heightened the humanitarian needs of displaced people, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have made the difficult decision to leave Colombia and return to Venezuela due to job loss, food insecurity, and evictions exacerbated by the lockdowns. “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to decide to go back home at this time, knowing that the pandemic has only worsened conditions in Venezuela,” said Sebastian.

This reverse migration is doubly alarming because it demonstrates how some migrants are forced to decide between staying in a host country that lacks the capacity to address their many needs or return to Venezuela where they face human rights violations and an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus—not to mention Venezuela’s own compromised capacity to meet basic needs. Though there are people deciding to return to Venezuela, Sebastian has also encountered Venezuelans who—struggling in Colombia but unwilling to return to Venezuela—planned to journey in the direction of the southern borders with Ecuador and Peru in spite of the border closures and lockdowns.

Afuera de la Caja’s work is critically important as it provides essential support to Venezuelans in Cali during this pandemic. Grassroots organizations, like Afuera de la Caja, already exist to provide essential services, but they need more resources to scale up and meet the challenges communities face. “With more collaboration between local initiatives, the Colombian government, and international community, we can be builders of peace, solidarity and justice,” said Sebastian. He added, “[I]f you would have told me two years ago that Afuera de la Caja would be where it is today, I would not have believed you. This organization started out as a simple desire to help people, and it has grown into a network that inspires all people and organizations to step outside of their boxes in order to create a more just society.”

Pandemic or not, Sebastian’s story is a reminder that we can all be a force for good within our local communities.

“I am thankful for the support and motivation that my family, especially Valentina Arbeláez, has provided me and Afuera de la Caja.” — Sebastian Leal