Providing stability and support for Venezuela’s child refugees

The number of refugees entering Colombia from Venezuela has now surged to 1.3 million. These mothers, fathers and children have walked for weeks in search of safety - some only to find refuge in a Bogotá bus terminal. War Child is active on the ground in Colombia to meet their urgent needs - through our TeamUp programme…
Venezuela gevluchte kinderen Colombia War Child

Girl, fleeing from Venezuela, is traveling through Colombia - looking for safety, food and medicine

Photo: War Child

Colombia straatbeeld War Child project

In Colombia, all the misery for many Venezuelan children and their parents is still not over yet

Photo: War Child

Far from home: Venezuela

In search of food, shelter and medication, millions of people are leaving Venezuela, leaving everything behind. Their money is worth nothing anymore. This is a crisis. The bus terminal in Bogotá is a temporary resting area for Venezuelans passing through. They receive some water, a medical check, information about routes that lead to their destination. Patient social workers from a local foundation have their hands full. The flow of refugees has continued for months and is not likely to stop anytime soon.

A mother is sitting in one of the many chairs in the room, surrounded by her three children and countless bags. There is a hole in her black left shoe - probably due to tens of kilometers of walking. A blue backpack and a large plastic bag are lying next to her chair, her left hand clasps the backpack tightly. She is leaning back and can hardly keep her eyes open. The children, two girls and a boy, are staring straight ahead. Dozens of people and children are staying with them at this transit location, far from home, every single one has their own story.

TeamUp session on a few square meters

In a corner of the large hall is a few square meters where children can play. We are here with a local team from TeamUp to do a movement session with the children. One of my War Child colleagues walks over to the parents to tell them that we'll be organizing some activities for their children. I can see the mother with her three children looking at the play corner. She nods. Her children walk over to the corner. Within a few minutes, we collect a group of children aged 6 to 11 ready to play. From where they are sitting, parents can keep an eye on their children, which helps put them at ease.

Vluchtelingen Colombia Venezuela

Our TeamUp sessions provide children and their parents a moment of relaxation and fun

Photo: War Child

All children share their dream trip

The children are greeted with a "box" or a "high five". We start the TeamUp session in a circle, clapping and singing. Most children smile, their eyes starting to sparkle, shaking off their dullness. Except for Guillermo, he is still closed off, just observing and listening. One of the boys, Enrique, likes to sit next to me. He smiles. His younger sisters are having a lot of fun.

We sit in a circle with our legs stretched out and we tap a toy, in lieu of a ball, towards each other with our legs. The toy (an airplane) makes it around the circle. The children concentrate, follow the plane, completely absorbed in the activity. “One more time!” one of the older children in the group, Sofia, shouts after three rounds as the toy leaves the circle.

Now, the toy plane can be picked up and thrown into the hands of another child - after you say, if you want, where you would like the plane to take you. Sofia says she wants to go to Brazil, Enrique wants to go to the United States and Felipe wants to go to the moon. In this way, all the children can share their dream journey with each other. Then Guillermo says "I want to go to Venezuela." It goes quiet for a moment.

Venezuela gevluchte kinderen Colombia War Child

Mother with daughter in one of the places in Colombia where TeamUp is active

Photo: War Child

Sport en spel voor vluchtelingen in Colombia

Despite everything, Venezuelan children get the chance to play and forget - for a moment - with TeamUp

Photo: War Child

The fruit salad game

We start to play the ‘fruit salad’ game. Some children are a banana, others are a mango or guava. When I call 'banana', all children who are bananas, change places. Even though it's not easy in this tiny space, it is going well. Children move quietly past each other and can hardly wait until their fruit is called again. During the game, Eva tells us she has to go. She is already starting to walk away when my colleague says: "Wait a minute! We want to thank you for playing." We all do the 'love-clap' routine and say goodbye to Eva. She joins her family who is already waiting with bags in her hands. She takes her younger brother's hand and continues her journey.

The fruit salad game is still going. From the corner of my eye, I can see the mother of three surrounded by bags. She is sleeping. Her head is resting against the wall, her left hand relaxing on the backpack. Knowing that her children are in good hands, just for a moment, she gains a little moment of rest. She probably has a long journey ahead of her. Where is she going? Where will she and her children sleep tonight?

Moeder en kind in Colombia

Resting from the difficult journey from Venezuela, in the temporary refugee center in Bogotá

Photo: War Child

Game forms and breathing exercises

"We have a 'profesora', a teacher, in our team!" Sofia knows a game and wants to show it. We immediately appoint her as a teacher, which causes her beam. The smile remains on her face until the end of the TeamUp session. We play 'papa caliente' or 'hot potato'. All the children already know it. They undoubtedly learned it at school or on the street in Venezuela.

One activity after the other. The games are deliberately low-intensity. The children likely arrived at the bus terminal feeling tired, but they are not showing any signs of it during the session. Just sparkling eyes, radiant faces. Jokes are being made, they're laughing. Even the silent Guillermo has thawed. He laughs and seems to relax as we imitate jungle animals. Game forms are alternated with moments of rest during which we do breathing exercises. Sometimes we sing a song, supported by clapping or stomping.

Gevluchte kinderen uit Venezuela in Colombia

Children enjoying one of our TeamUp sessions. Face paint, play and laughter.

Photo: War Child

Kinderen maken muziek in Colombia

Children can recharge thanks to the games and relaxation exercises

Photo: War Child

"Muchas gracias"

The mother of three is now awake and turns her head in our direction. A vague smile appears on her face. Looking at her three children, she doesn't move. What's going on in her head? How long has it been since she has seen her three children laughing, playing and carefree?

The children are completely engaged in the game, their energy level is rising. They want more, they want to continue. They all have ideas. They are all 'profesores' and 'profesoras'. My colleague and I decide to draw an end to the TeamUp session after forty-five minutes of moving, playing, laughing and listening. We want to protect them, not return them to their parents exhausted. We end the session sitting in a circle on the floor. Everybody gets quiet.

A calm, concluding breathing exercise is followed by a short conversation about what they liked most. “Animals in the jungle! Fruit salad! Papa caliente!" We all say goodbye with a high five. The children get back to their parents, we clean up and pack our bags. Two volunteers who observed part of the session during their break, thank us with a big smile. "Muchas gracias".

War Child Colombia helpt gevluchte Venezolaanse kinderen

Venezuelan girl during a TeamUp session in Bogotá, Colombia

Photo: War Child

War Child Colombia helpt gevluchte Venezolaanse kinderen

Fruit salad, hot potato, the dream travel game - the children get completely engaged with the TeamUp activities

Photo: War Child

"I've never seen this before"

Five minutes later my TeamUp colleagues and I find seats in a white van, just outside the bus station. Jaime, the driver, is asked not to start the engines yet. We want to share our initial reactions, our feelings, before we continue to the next stop - another resting area for Venezuelan refugees. "Nunca he visto esto" - "I have never seen this before", a psychologist says quietly. We share our feelings and emotions. It was not the first, and certainly not the last TeamUp session for these experienced field workers, but this session was both intense and special.

TeamUp in Colombia

In Colombia, War Child and Save and Children puts together and trains teams that can be deployed quickly, are flexible and always think in terms of possibilities. These teams lead TeamUp sessions under the most challenging circumstances. In informal settlements, in a hot, dry area, in refugee centers in the city, in schools, and yes, in a five square meters' space in a Bogotá bus terminal.

By: TeamUp trainer Willem Vriend