Brodie Hopkins, a photographer and reporter from Australia, spent a week with us last October and made a documentary about our organization and projects. In this article, he chose to tell the story of Maria and Reiner, Venezuelan restaurant owners in Pamplona with whom OTGI has been working for a long time. Since last April, we also started a language exchange in the courtyard of their restaurant allowing locals to practice their English and French with our volunteers every Sunday.
Maria and her husband Reiner were both born in Venezuela. They worked in Maracaibo’s thriving tourism industry for many years, before finally saving up the funds to follow their real dream – owning a restaurant. “Venezuela is a marvellous place, it’s a marvellous country,” Maria explains. “It used to be very… How can I say it? Prosperous.” Maria and Reiner’s restaurant flourished as they raised their three young boys. Their life was simpler back then. Their family was safe, happy and healthy. They never imagined that just a few short years later, they would be forced to flee the country they love, and everything they had built there. Maria still remembers the night they decided to leave. “Just go,” she said to her husband, “if you don’t do it, I think we’re going to starve.”
Reiner came to Colombia before the rest of his family, hoping to chart a path for Maria and their kids. He began selling coffees in the plaza of Pamplona – a small town close to the Venezuelan border. On a good day, he would make two US dollars.
For four long months, Maria cared for their children in Venezuela. “It was hard to find food for them,” she recalls, pushing through tears. “I wasn’t earning any money from the restaurant… Some days I didn’t have food for them to take to school.” One morning, a woman named Bethani offered Reiner some work as a chef for On The Ground International – a grassroots not-for-profit organisation in Pamplona, working on the frontlines of the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Over time, Reiner was able to save up enough money to send for his family.
Almost four years later, I found myself sitting in Maria and Reiner’s new restaurant, just two blocks from the plaza where Reiner had been selling coffees. Their three boys were at school as I spoke with the couple about their arduous journey. Watching their dog Laika bounce playfully around the cobblestone courtyard, I couldn’t help but feel that Maria and Reiner’s life had finally returned to its original equilibrium, after an unimaginably difficult period.
But while Maria and Reiner’s story is undeniably heartbreaking, it is by no means unique. The Venezuelan refugee crisis is one of the most pressing humanitarian emergencies on the planet, and it’s also one of the most overlooked. Since 2014, over 7.1 million Venezuelans – more than a fifth of the population – have left the country, fleeing starvation, disease and violence. Each has their own version of Maria and Reiner’s story, although most are still searching for their happy ending.
A few weeks after Brodie’s visit, Maria and Reiner sadly had to close down due to dangerous damages caused by the rain in the courtyard of their restaurant, Roots. They are currently in the process of finding a new place. We are looking forward to inaugurate their new restaurant and to continue collaborating with them in the future with the language exchange.