Reflections from Colombia

by Christine Samuel, Save the Children US

Save the Children staff members from the US and Colombia smile together for a photo

Christine, left, and Adelina Uriana, a project assistant with our La Guajira team and a member of the local Wayuu community.

As I reflect on the people I recently met and the communities I was privileged to visit in Colombia with four of our committed donors, I’m overwhelmed by many emotions.

I was so inspired to see hope in the eyes of young children who long for a better future and believe they can achieve it, if given a chance. Also striking was the evident sense of unity among the Colombian and Venezuelan people living side by side in numerous informal settlements along the border. There is a cooperative spirit, despite the crushing poverty in areas severely lacking basic services, including many without running water. 

I feel immense gratitude for our partners, donors and staff who make it possible for Save the Children to be here, providing an array of much-needed programs in response to the Venezuelan migration crisis, which has prompted millions to flee violence and economic turmoil in search of a better life.

Again and again, moms and children showed their appreciation – with smiles, direct words of thanks, and eager participation in trainings and health clinics. Such enthusiasm reinforced the importance of the work we’re doing in health, education and child protection.  

One of the many informal settlements where Venezuelan migrants are living in Colombia.

One of the many informal settlements where Venezuelan migrants are living in Colombia.

A staff member works with kids at a Save the Children program

The service fair welcomed children to a technology learning session.

Up close, it’s difficult to grasp the vastness and complexity of this humanitarian crisis. One statistic that struck me was that the number of settlements where Venezuelan migrants live has grown from nine in 2019 to 53 in 2023. Even more striking is that Colombia hosts the world’s second-largest number of refugees – 2.5 million – second only to Türkiye. Colombia is also experiencing internal conflict and has suffered several natural disasters over the past year, resulting in a significant number of internally displaced people. 

The conditions are dire yet little-known outside the region, seemingly overshadowed by other global crises. At times, it felt as if we were traveling to the end of the world, where children could be truly forgotten. I’m proud to have seen how Save the Children, through dedicated local staff and partners, is showing up to these places every day. We are ensuring that families have dignified access to services, along with an opportunity to provide feedback so we can keep improving.

Some additional reflections on our work include:

We’re Making Critical Services Convenient and Accessible

We visited a rural border community in La Guajira in the northeast known as Airport Settlement (previously the site of a military airport) with homes made of mud, tin and wood. Save the Children was running a remarkable service fair with multiple programs, workshops and health clinics offered in several well-organized tents. 

A Save the Children reads to a group of young children

Story time at a dedicated child-friendly space at the service fair.

A Save the Children staff member take a photo together.

Meeting Jennifer and baby Alice. 

In one tent, I heard the heartbreak in a mom’s voice as she shared that her own mother did not let her go to school. She wanted desperately to get an education but was kept locked inside their patio, unable to leave. She told her daughter, “You will go to school because I could not.” This mom was participating in a Positive Parenting class where participants were sharing stories of their own childhood in order to take forward lessons about the types of parents they want to be for their children.

There was so much going on everywhere I looked, with over 100 people present. We could hear children playing and laughing, as well as babies crying upon receiving vaccinations. Other services include a breastfeeding workshop for pregnant and new moms; a water and sanitation station emphasizing the importance of handwashing, a child-friendly space with rainbow parachutes, computers to program small robots and materials for handcrafting; and a training session for volunteers learning how to identify and help children at risk for trafficking and sexual abuse.

Our Programs Supporting Moms and Babies Fill an Urgent Need

On another day, we got to see Save the Children’s bustling maternity clinic in action. A doctor told us that 100% of the women have high-risk pregnancies due to poverty and the stresses of migration. Many have hypertension or gestational diabetes.

We went into the lactation (breastfeeding) room and met Jennifer, a 22-year-old Venezuelan mom to 17-month-old Alice. Jennifer told us she was very thankful for Save the Children’s support and services. Things were hard for Jennifer, who came to Colombia with her sister, looking for a better life. She heard about us through neighbors in the slum settlement where she lives.

She accessed cash help, post-natal care and breastfeeding support, and also learned how to take care of her newborn. She was at the center that day because we were doing a workshop for new moms, and she was sharing her experiences and what she learned with the other moms. Jennifer had a huge smile, and little Alice was super busy playing with the toys in the room.

While we don’t know what the future holds for the challenging situation of Venezuelan migrants overall, it was heartwarming to see that Alice, Jennifer and so many others are receiving the support they need right now to persevere and thrive.

To learn more about our programs in Colombia, please reach out to your Save the Children representative or to Christine Samuel at [email protected].

Photos: Yaira Danesa Ojeda Mengual/Save the Children


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