ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Nearly 5 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, many from neighboring Colombia. They fled Venezuela's economic collapse, but now they find their lives once again upended as the coronavirus shutters the economy. John Otis reports.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In the Colombian town of La Calera, Alvaro Callama receives bags of rice and lentils at a local charity. Like most of the needy who show up here, he's from Venezuela.
ALVARO CALLAMA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In his home country, Callama worked as an electrician, then tried farming. But he couldn't earn enough to buy food.
(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)
OTIS: So two years ago, he moved to La Calera, a farm town on the outskirts of Bogota, the Colombian capital. He picked fruit, laid bricks and even guided tourists on horseback rides.
(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)
OTIS: The income allowed him and several relatives to rent a cramped apartment. He then sent for his wife back in Venezuela. They now have a baby boy. But his family's march towards stability has come to a sudden halt. As the number of coronavirus cases increase in Colombia, the government is enforcing a nationwide lockdown. Businesses have closed, throwing Callama and several family members out of work.
CALLAMA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "My mother works in a restaurant, but all the restaurants have shut down," he says. "My uncle is a welder, but he was laid off. We're trying to figure out what to do."
They're not the only ones. Nearly 2 million Venezuelans have settled in towns and cities all over Colombia.
ALEX AGUIRRE: I am from Venezuela - Maracay.
OTIS: Among them is Alex Aguirre, a chef who sends money to his two kids in the Venezuelan city of Maracay. He used to own two restaurants there, but food shortages and hyperinflation forced him out of business. When he got to Colombia five years ago, he was so broke he slept on park benches.
AGUIRRE: It was very difficult for me try to start again in a new city, a new country.
OTIS: But he did start again. He opened a seafood joint in the Pacific Coast town of Tumaco. Now he's had to close that restaurant down, too.
AGUIRRE: I don't know, man. I don't know. I don't know. No. It's very, very big problem for me.
OTIS: Last week, the Colombian government announced it would start distributing food to Venezuelan migrants.
OTIS: For now, however, the only helping hand in La Calera comes from private charities like the one where Alvaro Callama picked up his rice and lentils.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: But it's a shoestring operation, and donations have slowed to a trickle. The charity has also suspended its program that pays Venezuelans to pick gooseberries. Maria Victoria Garcia, one of the founders of the charity, points out that few Venezuelan migrants have health insurance. So, frustrating as it may be, she says it's especially important for them to spend the next few weeks at home.
MARIA VICTORIA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "It's no good to be earning money," she says, "if people are getting sick or exposing themselves to the virus."
But rather than staying home, some are heading back to Venezuela, with the poorest migrants making the journey on foot. Though they have little hope of finding work in Venezuela, they can live rent-free with relatives. Among those considering the trip is Edixon Alvarez, who lost his job in Colombia washing cars.
EDIXON ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "In Venezuela," he says, "at least we'd be with our families and in our own country."
For NPR News, I'm John Otis in La Calera, Colombia.
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