CUCUTA, Colombia — It’s 9 a.m., and volunteers at the Divine Providence Dining Hall are already busy making lunch. Women in red aprons chop dozens of carrots on a large wooden platter, while a man in his 50s flexes his muscles as he tries to mix pasta in a cauldron half his size.
The volunteers are making 1,000 meals a day for Venezuelan immigrants who have been streaming into Colombia to escape poverty and violence in their country. Many are desperately short on cash and rely on the church-run dining hall for their only daily meal.
“We are saving a lot of money here,” said Daisy Blanco, a former shopkeeper from the Venezuelan state of Guarico, who arrived in Cucuta in October. Blanco said she’s now making around $5 a day in Cucuta, selling coffee in the street. It’s more than she was making in Venezuela in a week, but money is still tight.
“If I bought lunch here in Cucuta, I’d have to pay almost $2,” she explained. “So, we are really fortunate to have this place.”
Colombian immigration officials say more than 30,000 Venezuelans are crossing every day by foot into the border town of Cucuta in search of medicine, food and work. Some 2,000-3,000 of these daily arrivals do not return to their impoverished country. Instead, they try to settle in Colombia, or use it as a platform to head to other South American countries.
Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says there already are 470,000 Venezuelans living in the country. Government agencies have attempted to help these migrants with medical assistance and have helped some of them to get temporary residence.
But there is no government aid for migrants who are going hungry, or for those who have nowhere to sleep. In several parts of the country, the Catholic Church is trying to meet that need.
In Cucuta’s neighborhood of La Parada, right across the border from Venezuela, the Divine Providence Dining Hall has been serving daily meals for six months.
Father Hugo Suarez, one of the leaders of this initiative, says it started as a monthly meal for the needy. But within three months, it turned into a daily service, staffed by a dozen volunteers from local parishes and church groups, due to the huge demand from Venezuelan migrants.
“We are getting lots of professionals from Venezuela who have fallen on hard times and now survive here peddling sweets and soft drinks in the streets,” said Suarez. “I’ve met former journalists, lawyers and translators who come here for a meal.”
Some people are even crossing the border just for the free meal, because food shortages in Venezuela are also making it hard for families to feed themselves.
Jaime Angulo, a former accountant, came to the dining hall in November with his wife and three young children. Angulo said he’s now fumigating homes in the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio to survive, but the income he makes from that is not enough to properly feed his family of five. So, his family makes the trip to the dining hall several times a week.
“We take advantage of the church’s generosity,” he said as he waited in line under the scorching sun, carrying his smallest child in a stroller. “There is somewhat of a wait here, but it’s better than going hungry.”
The food cooked at the Divine Providence Dining Hall comes mostly from church groups and local businesses that have decided to help the Venezuelan migrants, after seeing so many of them working and sleeping in the city’s streets.
“We get nothing from the government,” said Father David Canas, who has helped to raise funds for the dining hall and also collects food at his own parish. “Lots of officials talk about acting, but nothing happens, so we decided to do something for ourselves.”
Elsewhere in the country, church personnel have been rolling up their sleeves to help the large migrant population.
In Barranquilla, a large city on the country’s Caribbean coast that has received at least 20,000 migrants, the archdiocese is regularly delivering food and clothing to a vulnerable group of 160 families, says Caritas Colombia. The archdiocese also is organizing a two-day donation “marathon” in its 156 parishes, to gather nonperishable foods for Venezuelan migrants.
In Bogota, Colombia’s capital city, the church has announced plans to open a second shelter for Venezuelan migrants. Its current shelter in downtown Bogota has already hosted more than 400 people this year.
According to Caritas Venezuela, 82 percent of Venezuelans currently live in poverty. Inflation in that country is expected to reach 2,000 percent next year, according to International Monetary Fund estimates, because the ruling party, which has misspent the country’s resources for years, is printing massive amounts of money to try to cover public debt.
A change in economic policies or in government is unlikely in the short term, as the ruling Socialist Party controls the electoral system and the military, said Ronal Rodriguez, a Venezuela analyst at Colombia’s El Rosario University.
That means that Venezuelans most likely will continue to head into Colombia and other countries in the region to seek a better life.
In Cucuta, Canas and Suarez say their dining hall is ready to keep on providing relief, as long as donations last.
“The pope has asked the church to look toward immigrants and the poor,” Canas said. “And as the grass roots of the church, that is what we are trying to do.”