Where education has no borders

Each day, almost 3,000 Venezuelan children cross the border for the Colombian city of Cúcuta – just to get to school.

By Alfonso F. Reca and Santiago Arcos
31 May 2019

CÚCUTA, Colombia – The daily school run – when parents escort their children to and from school – is a familiar ritual for families around the world. It’s more unusual for that journey to involve traveling to another country. Yet for almost 3,000 children crossing the Francisco de Paula Santander International Bridge from Venezuela into Colombia that’s what it takes every day to do something that can sometimes be taken for granted: accessing education.



The Francisco de Paula Santander International Bridge is closed to vehicles, meaning parents and children have to cross on foot. During the rainy season, that means children trudging through torrential rain in their school uniforms, carrying their backpacks. The journey is the same for those with disabilities.



Children crossing the bridge between Ureña on the Venezuelan side and Cúcuta on the Colombian side often use plastic sheets and tarps to shield themselves from the periodic heavy rain.



Around 10,000 Venezuelan children and adolescents are enrolled in school in Cúcuta, and around a third of them live in Venezuela. For thousands of children that means crossing the border each day if they don’t want to miss classes.



Buses provided by Colombia’s Ministry of Education, and supported by UNICEF, wait for students on the Colombia side of the border to take them to schools around the city.



The growing number of students has placed a strain on Cúcuta’s education system. The Colombian Government, UNICEF and other partners are helping train teachers, as well as providing schools with educational materials.


© UNICEF/UN0304106/Arcos

Misael Pastrana school, in Cúcuta, is a good example of how Venezuelan children are being integrated into the city’s education system. About 70 per cent of students at the school are Venezuelan, but here that is not important: students are treated the same.



UNICEF is supporting Colombia’s Ministry of Education in implementing flexible educational programmes that allow Venezuelan students to follow a regular curriculum, despite their exceptional circumstances.



Soccer and volleyball are the two most popular activities during break times. Students also take the opportunity to catch up with each other.



Classrooms in this school in Cúcuta are considered safe spaces for children, where, for a little while at least, they can set aside the worries – and dangers – of the outside world and focus on studying and spending time with their classmates.



So far in 2019, more than 130,000 Venezuelan children are enrolled in schools across the country, compared with 30,000 in November 2018.



UNICEF needs US$29 million to support basic needs in nutrition, health, education, water, sanitation and hygiene, and to provide protection services for families crossing from Venezuela to Colombia.

This photo essay has been adapted from an essay that originally appeared in El Pais here.