Wilfredo, humanitarian hero
Wilfredo probably wouldn’t describe himself as a hero. But to us, his own three children and the many children who call him ‘Teacher’, that’s exactly what he is.
We first met Wilfredo, originally from Venezuela, when he noticed a Save the Children tent in his community in Colombia’s border city of Arauca. He learned that the tent was one of our Child Friendly Spaces, where Venezuelan refugee and migrant children find joy through learning and play.
For these children and adolescents who have fled hunger, sickness, poverty and violence in Venezuela, our Child Friendly Spaces provide a vital safe place to play and participate in activities, learn about their rights and support their psychosocial well-being and resilience.
Having previously worked as a teacher, predominantly with children of primary school age, in both rural and urban areas back home in Venezuela, Wilfredo applied for a role as a tutor in our Child Friendly Space. “When I saw that they were working with children… it called to me,” he says. “Working as a tutor… I know that I [could] help these children.”
Wilfredo knows first-hand how tough it is to have to leave your home. About three years ago, he and his wife Alba made the difficult decision to move their family to Colombia.
“We could see that the situation was becoming difficult,” he tells us, sipping a hot coffee outside his family’s home in Arauca. “So, we got ahead of it and we came here, because of the economic situation. The food scarcity, even then we were already feeling the food shortages. And we knew that soon it was going to be worse.”
The family fell on hard times soon after arriving in Colombia and Wilfredo struggled to find work. While he was awaiting the outcome of his job application to Save the Children, we supported his family to buy school uniforms, baby clothes, diapers and more through our multipurpose cash programme. “We were really in a moment of need,” he shares. “This assistance helped us so much in that moment.”
When Wilfredo found out he had been selected for the role, he was faced with a choice: he could continue as a beneficiary of the cash programme or he could accept the job offer. “They said I could think about it, but I said no, I would like to accept the job, of course!”
So, after receiving just one delivery of assistance as a beneficiary, Wilfredo withdrew from our programme and began working with us. “It was a good day,” he says with a smile.
Missing out on education
The UN estimates that 7 million people in Venezuela are in need of assistance, with food, health, nutrition, protection, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) assistance among the priority needs. Since 2015, more than 5.2 million people have fled the country’s rapidly deteriorating economic and political situation, driven to leave by hyperinflation, widespread unemployment, food and medical shortages and violence.
Colombia is one of the countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region that is most affected by the migration, hosting nearly 2 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, hundreds of thousands of migrant children throughout the region were missing out on education, unable to enrol in school because of their migration status, the fact they were on the move or countless other barriers.
Crisis within a crisis
Now, the global coronavirus pandemic has created a crisis within a crisis. With much of the region still in some form of lockdown, schools in Colombia closed until the end of the year and our Child Friendly Spaces temporarily closed to mitigate the spread of the disease, dedicated tutors like Wilfredo have had to find new ways to interact with vulnerable refugee and migrant children.
Wilfredo explains: “[Virtual education] is a challenge for all families, but especially the most vulnerable families who do not even have access to a telephone for communication. So, we work with [education] kits and guides so that children can work from their homes. The education system is also delivering materials to students at home.
“We have been working, implementing all of the recommendations that our security team gives us and all the safety protocols [related to COVID-19] to reach the houses of the families that we cannot contact by other means.”
As well as safely conducting home visits and distributing education kits, we have been strengthening digital education tools – like podcasts and radio broadcasts – so children can continue their learning safe at home to ensure they don’t miss out on their education during the pandemic.
And we continue to provide multipurpose cash assistance, enabling families to pay for essentials, such as food, shelter and basic household items.
Wilfredo shares his concern for children who are vulnerable at home: “With this confinement situation, children are more exposed to physical abuse. Domestic abuse and gender-based violence are the majority of cases that we have seen.”
In response to this rising threat, our case management staff in Colombia continue to provide support to the most vulnerable families – including survivors of gender-based violence, which has increased during the time of lockdown – by telephone to ensure children are protected.
Eager for education and fun
Wilfredo and the children he works with are eagerly awaiting the moment that Child Friendly Spaces can re-open safely.
“They always ask, ‘Teacher, when do we start?’ It’s difficult for me to tell them that, unfortunately, we still do not know for sure when we can re-start the activities that they enjoy. I want this to happen soon…
“Our Child Friendly Space was one of the places that migrant children had to entertain themselves and access self-care tools,” he explains. “For a moment – for the time that they are in the Child Friendly Space, at least – they can be distracted from the challenging situation that they are living through, the tough things that are happening to them.
“It is the greatest satisfaction to know that you are contributing your little grain of sand to make a better world.
“My dream is to see some of these children who have attended our Child Friendly Spaces… to see them graduating and later becoming great professionals. And when they see you, they tell you, ‘Teacher: thank you.’ ”
This World Humanitarian Day, on behalf of all the refugee and migrant children who benefit from Wilfredo’s spirit and desire to continue their education, we say: ‘Wilfredo: thank you!’