By Susana Madera
Imbabura, Ecuador, Jun 15 (EFE).- Known as “Mother Courage” for taking Venezuelan migrants into her humble home since 2017, Ecuadorian citizen Carmen Carcelen is continuing to offer shelter to displaced persons, with 50,000 of them already having received temporary shelter from her, some in search of better living conditions and others on the return trip to their homeland.
As a vendor of fruits and vegetables at a market in the Colombian city of Ipiales, Carcelen began working with Venezuelans six years ago when she ran across 11 migrants walking along the highway and took them in her truck to her house in the town of Juncal, a poverty-stricken community of about 2,500.
Most of her “guests” remained with her between two and three days. They ate there, rested and then continued their journeys, but others lived with her for up to three years, while still others ultimately rented nearby apartments but continued to come to her home to obtain food.
“But as the years have gone by, the people have begun moving on more quickly: They stayed for the afternoon, washed up, rested, had a little something to eat and then the next day, after breakfast, they went on,” Carcelen told EFE, recalling that “most of them at that time (in 2019) were going to Peru.”
Taking care of others is not something new for this woman who, at age 10, found herself out on the street because her alcoholic father threw her out of the house.
The biological mother of six children, the 53-year-old Carcelen also raised two nephews in Juncal, where she has a four-room house with a kitchen, living room, dining room, terrace and patio that she converted into a true refuge for migrants.
The Covid-19 pandemic hit migrants doubly hard “because they were practically the lepers of our country since people persecuted them, mistreated then and didn’t let them remain in the towns,” Carcelen, a seamstress by profession, said.
“They hid under the bridges, they (lived along) the river. That was a very tough time because they didn’t allow me to have them in my house, so what we did was to cook, to go looking for them at the bridge, at the river, in the mountains, on the roads and give them food,” she said.
She was not alone in that effort. She was supported by other Venezuelans and received donations from Ecuadorians, including those in the “Light Mountain” community, a nearby Eco-spirituality Home in Ecuador’s northern Imbabura province, which provided money to her and her colleagues, along with vegetables and fruits from its organic gardens.
She said that many organizations asked her to close her home to the migrants to prevent infection and other health issues.
“I was a disobedient person. I certainly used facemasks, chlorine, ammonia and disinfectants, but I never stopped looking for food, giving (the migrants) clothes and so on. Sure, I jumped into the void … but I always said that if I was going to die, I’d die doing lovely things,” she said.
Carcelen said that at a certain point the townspeople began to persecute the Venezuelan migrants but she and her colleagues were able to house 27 in the local church, 13 of them kids, along with a pregnant woman, who gave birth while traveling with a 16-month-old girl.
The little girl lived with Carcelen for three months, during which time the mother and newborn were receiving medical care in a local health center.
The Venezuelan migrants were the collateral victims of social protests in Ecuador that lasted for 11 days in October 2019, during which time they could not move around outside because the protesters had blocked off the streets and roadways.
Carcelen fondly recalled two elderly Venezuelans who arrived after being abandoned in Cucuta, Colombia, by people smugglers they had paid to transport or guide them to Quito, where their children were waiting for them.
“They came walking in with a group of young people. They arrived at the Juncal bridge and an 8-year-old boy took them by the hand” to Carcelen’s house, where they remained for two weeks.
Carcelen – a happy, strong woman with a powerful voice – recalls that during times when there was a heavy inflow of migrants, they slept in the rooms in her house, on the terrace, on the patio and even in her truck.
“I don’t know, I haven’t found an answer in all these years,” she said when asked how she paid for providing all the help she has given. “What I do know is that when more (migrants) arrived, more (local) people made the decision to bring food to my house. They even sent me food, medicine, milk and water from Guayaquil…”
Now, she says she has thousands of “children” who send her messages from Peru, Chile, the United States, Canada, Quito and elsewhere. “I have a big family,” she declared.