“The situation in Venezuela is so awful,” says Cibel Ortiz, one of the one million people who have left the country to find food and earn money in neighboring Colombia. “People are dying of hunger. People are eating from the garbage.”

The mother of two boys, Cibel left the oldest with relatives while she and her husband set out on the arduous journey to the city of Cúcuta. They took their two-month-old son, Matías, with them.

“We left because we could not provide for Matías,” Cibel recalls. “We walked for seven days to reach Colombia. We suffered through rain, sun, everything.”

Life for the Ortiz family did not get much better. “We lived on the streets for the first week,” says Cibel. “We came here to get a job, but we struggled to find work.” Cibel labored 12 hours a day selling seeds as snacks on buses to scrape together enough money to eat and to send something home for her first-born.

We walked for seven days to reach Colombia.

“On the best days, I earned 30,000 Colombian pesos,” equal to about $9.50, she recalls. “And the worst days, 5,000 pesos.” Often she failed to earn enough to adequately feed Matías.

Cibel Ortiz looks out over a balcony in Cúcuta, Colombia.
Cibel Ortiz in Cúcuta, Colombia, where she is making a new life for her family with a cash card, health care and other support from the IRC.
Photo: Andres Brenner/IRC

Cibel became pregnant again; her husband abandoned the family. She could not return to Venezuela as the crisis there grew worse daily.

Then a friend suggested to Cibel that she talk to the International Rescue Committee.

In 2018 the IRC launched an emergency response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Cúcuta, the principal crossing point for the 5,000 Venezuelans who leave every day. We are focusing on protecting children and adolescents, empowering women, providing access to health care, and supporting people’s economic wellbeing


“Cibel’s story is heartbreaking but it is not unique,” says Marianne Menjivar, the IRC’s country director for Colombia. “Every day our teams meet women who have endured extreme hardship and are struggling just to put food on the table.”

When I found the IRC, I no longer felt alone. I knew there was someone out there looking out for me and supporting me.

“When I found the IRC, I no longer felt alone,” says Cibel. “I knew there was someone out there looking out for me and supporting me.”

The IRC provided Cibel with a cash card that enabled her to pay rent and feed herself and Matías. An IRC counselor helped her process the trauma she had experienced, and we provided her with prenatal care, otherwise unavailable through Colombia’s health system.

Matías with his mother Cibel at home
“We left because we could not provide for Matías,” Cibel recalls of leaving Venezuela with her younger son. "We couldn't find milk or diapers or food."
Photo: Andres Brenner/IRC

“In Colombia, Venezuelans can receive emergency medical care, which includes childbirth, but not ongoing prenatal care,” explains Menjivar. “There simply aren’t enough resources for the government to be able to meet the full spectrum of needs, and that’s where the IRC is working to fill those gaps. To date, we have provided more than 2,000 people with health care, but there are still huge needs.”

A recent IRC assessment found that only a third of Venezuelans surveyed had tried to access health facilities in Colombia. Of those who had sought care, only 14 percent received medicine. Many Venezuelans assume they can’t afford treatment, or even know where to find it.

Cibel and an IRC nurse, Diana, sit on a sofa and talk.
Cibel receives a visit from IRC nurse Diana during the final trimester of her pregnancy. Many Venezuelans assume they can’t afford medical care, or even know where to find it.
Photo: Andres Brenner/IRC

Throughout her final trimester, Cibel was supported by an IRC nurse. The two women bonded during Cibel’s check-ups. “My baby is going to be called Diana, because of her,” says Cibel. “She has helped me so much with all my medicines and everything else. She has truly become a friend.”

Cibel has since given birth to healthy baby. Mom and baby Diana are doing well and receiving postnatal care from the IRC, as well as ongoing psychological support for Cibel.