A step closer to adulthood, along a cold motorway

On a freezing journey from Venezuela, hardship and hope for a migrant family

Ana María Castro
A girl waits in a line of people waiting to enter Ecuador.
17 December 2018

RUMICHACA, Ecuador – It’s a pivotal moment in every girl’s life, but for 11-year-old Nataly* it didn’t begin in the safety of her home. It started along a motorway, in freezing temperatures, at a border crossing on the outskirts of an unfamiliar city.

Nataly was with her family walking through Colombia to Ecuador when she began to bleed. She had just gotten her first period.

That meant she didn’t have access to toilets or menstrual hygiene products, let alone any pain relief. Her mother, Sara, recalls the moment Nataly felt a sharp pain in her stomach and started to bleed.

“I have mixed feelings that my daughter experienced this change on the open road like this,” says Sara. “On the one hand, I was glad I was with her. But it was also sad because we had to keep walking and Nataly wasn’t feeling well. She didn’t know what was happening – she thought that she was ill. We had to explain to her what was going on.”

Nataly and her family are just a few of the 750,000 Venezuelans that had entered Ecuador formally by late October before continuing their journeys to other countries. Most are heading to Peru, Chile or Argentina.

Migrant children and mothers gather at a rest tent in Ecuador.
UNICEF/UN0253265/Moreno Gonzalez
Migrant children and mothers gather at a UNICEF temporary rest tent in Rumichaca, Ecuadorian side of the border with Colombia.
Cold temperatures, warmer hearts

The journey is particularly tough for children like Nataly, not least because she isn’t used to such cold temperatures. In her hometown of Cagua, the average temperature would usually be around 30° C, but here, the temperature had dipped to 3° C, forcing Nataly to cover herself with a blanket and two jackets. Her eyes betray her exhaustion from walking for days on end, but she manages a smile. At least she is with her family.

As part of its efforts to ease the tough conditions confronting the children making these journeys, UNICEF has been working with national authorities to provide some basic necessities. Around 4,000 blankets have been handed out, and around 2,000 baby kits have been provided. In addition, tents and child-friendly spaces for temporary rest have been set up to help families on their journeys.

Sara says that her family has also relied on the kindness of strangers as they walked for days along motorways in Colombia. Sometimes, they would even hitch a ride with a car heading in their direction, Sara says.

“When we were in Pasto, in Colombia, a petrol tanker picked us up. We had to hang on to the back of the vehicle for almost four hours. It was really hard because of the wind and the rain and the cold. Luckily, Nataly was able to go in the cabin at the front,” Sara says.

“We’ve met a few angels along the way.”

A baby receives a thermal sheet from UNICEF officials in Ecuador.
A baby receives a thermal sheet from UNICEF officials in Rumichaca, on the border of Ecuador with Colombia.
A new start

That was back in August. So, what happened to Nataly and her family?

Sara got in touch with the UNICEF Ecuador team recently to say the family had started a new chapter in their lives in Guayaquil, in Ecuador’s Costa region. She says that although the original plan was to head to Lima, Peru, the family decided to settle there for now because of the support they  had received from people in the city.

“We’re doing well, I’ve got a job with a mobile phone company and we’re doing all we can to make sure Nataly starts school as soon as possible,” Sara says.

A UNICEF worker and children at a Child Friendly Space in Ecuador.
UNICEF/UN0253249/Moreno Gonzalez
Children learn about the importance of handwashing with soap at a UNICEF-supported Child Friendly Space in Ecuador.
Helping hands

While only about 30 per cent of Venezuelans entering Ecuador will decide to stay in the country, it is not without challenges for the new host. With that in mind, UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education on the inclusion of Venezuelan children in schools and on specific programmes to combat xenophobia and discrimination. This complements ongoing work to ensure that all Ecuadorian children access a quality education.

Meanwhile, UNICEF is also working with the Ecuadorian authorities to guarantee the rights of Venezuelan children and adolescents entering the country, including helping with the implementation of the “Protocol for the assistance of children, adolescents and their families in contexts of human mobility in Ecuador”.

The protocol, which was approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility, the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion and the Interior Ministry, will be vital in helping the hundreds of children who have not been registered because they lack the necessary documents or exit permits, or because they are travelling alone, by ensuring protection measures are in place and by helping identify children who are victims of violence, trafficking or exploitation.

As she made the journey to Ecuador, Sara said that she never imagined she would leave Venezuela this way, much less with her daughter.

“She has been so patient and such a brave girl. It isn’t fair that she has to go through all this,” Sara says. “I just ask that Colombians, Ecuadorians and Peruvians have some understanding and try to put themselves in our shoes. We aren’t doing this because we want to. I love my country and I look forward to the day when things are better so that I can go back home.”


*Nataly’s name has been changed to protect her identity.