DOUGLASTON — For Miguel Guilarte who works for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as the manager of public affairs, what he witnessed last week at the border of Venezuela-Colombia border was harrowing.
There, near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge on the border, he saw thousands of hungry, displaced Venezuelan refugees lined up as they waited to get food and supplies. The scene reminded him of his own family members who live in Venezuela.
“Being from Venezuela, it was disheartening, very sad, to see what is happening there,” Guilarte said. “I read the news every day, or my family tells me … When you have the opportunity to see yourself directly on the news, it’s totally different. You see the dramatic situation they are living in, and it was very sad for me.”
Guilarte was at the border as part of a four-member delegation from the USCCB that went to Venezuela from Jan. 27-31 to visit local Catholic organizations, children centers and charities and to learn how the U.S. church can help.
The trip was led by Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros, who is chairman of the USCCB’s Subcommittee for the Church in Latin America.
“Our visit to the border in solidarity with the church in Venezuela and the church in Colombia, the Diocese of Cucuta, was heartbreaking,” Bishop Cisneros said in an interview on Feb. 5 at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston.
“You see thousands of people who come daily through the border. Some stay in Colombia, some move on to other countries, some stay and buy food to go back to Venezuela because they have no food… so they rely on whatever money sent from other countries, especially the U.S.” he said.
“It was heartbreaking — so many people, their faces are empty. What’s the future? What’s coming next?”
For years, Venezuela has been facing an economic crisis that has prompted 4.5 million Venezuelans to flee from the country, many of them to Colombia. Venezuela has a population of about 32 million.
Thanks to donations and worldwide church collections, the USCCB has donated $50,000 in relief funds, some of which has paid for a food bank at the border.
Bishop Cisneros recalls one old woman whom he met on the trip.
“(She) could have been my grandmother,” Bishop Cisneros said. When he saw the woman, she was nursing a malnourished baby.
“I looked at her and asked, ‘Why are you here, what do you want?’ She said all I want is to be in an old-age home,” Bishop Cisneros said. “Now that’s heartbreaking — a woman in her old age. She doesn’t ask for anything, just to be in an old age home, and she could not find that in her own country. It’s very difficult.”
Bishop Cisneros himself is a refugee. At the age of 15, he fled Cuba as a political refugee as part of Operation Peter Pan, a Catholic humanitarian project that brought 14,000 unaccompanied minors to the U.S. from Cuba in 1962.
“For me, it was once again living my own experience and the experience of so many Cubans who fled Cuba because of communism, and now it’s Venezuela going through the same, sad situation,” he said. “Though the physical aspects were different, the emotional is the same — leaving your home because you are forced to leave, not because you want to. Leaving family, friends, everything that is dear to you to [go to] an unknown land.”
Bishop Cisneros said he wants Catholics to know that they are making a difference through their prayers and contribution to second collections.
“Sometimes when we hear bad news, it’s easy to turn everything off,” he said. “But the reality is there, so close to the U.S., and it impacts all of us.
“The church has taught us, the body is one. When one member is suffering, the whole body suffers, and we should never become complacent into the situations of others, but always be aware and do what we can. We can only do what is possible with a generous heart and an open mind, with arms that are ready to embrace.”