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They don't walk alone

Join Lorena and her family on the road to safety

Irisaida Mendez, senior global marketing manager, with Daneal Lightner, content writer

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We walked together for seven miles. Each step was harder than the last for the two young sisters, ages 2 and 4. They’d been walking with their mother, Lorena, since 6 a.m., with hundreds of miles still to go.

They didn’t walk for fun, but out of necessity. Accompanied by Lorena’s younger brother and mother, they were just one family among thousands on foot along the Ruta de Caminantes, the “walkers’ route,” that leads travelers from Venezuela into Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and sometimes as far as Mexico.

As we walked, sweat trickled down our necks. Not even the shawl Abuela, the girls’ grandmother, wore over her head and face could protect her from the scorching heat. Still, Lorena and her family pushed on.

As a global marketer at Bethany, I’m familiar with this route. In partnership with UNHCR, Bethany has strategically set up respite sites throughout Colombia to offer aid to the walkers.

At each Bethany site, we offer emergency assistance—water, food, physical first aid, psychological first aid, shoes, clothing, a phone to make calls to family, and legal assistance.

Some make this grueling trek on foot only once to escape poverty and violence in Venezuela. Others walk back and forth several times for family weddings, births, and deaths. No matter the reason, the walk never gets easier.

Most can’t afford cars or bus tickets, so they walk or hitchhike when possible, sleeping on the side of the road, on a dirt trail, or under bridges as they make their way.

The shortest journey to safety is about 300 miles and can take more than three months on foot. The walk consists of narrow, twisty highways, up and down mountain passes, through extreme weather.

The trip would be dangerous for anyone, especially a young mom and her daughters. The route is littered with gang members, drug dealers, kidnappers, traffickers, animals, and harsh weather.

Packing is strategic—travelers take only what they can carry. It’s a challenge to dress for temperatures above 90 degrees along the lower roads and cold nights that drop below 50 degrees in the mountain passes.

Meeting Lorena

I sat at the Colombian border and watched as groups came and went. It’s a community of people who are strangers but share a common, harsh experience.

When I saw Lorena’s family, the condition of the two small girls struck me. They were resting on the shoulder of a narrow highway, visibly hot and exhausted.

Bethany social workers stationed along the Ruta de Caminantes are trained to identify walkers in distress. They watch closely for those suffering physically, mentally, or emotionally. Bethany’s mission is to demonstrate the love and compassion of Jesus Christ by offering help and protection to those who need it most.

This family needed it.

The previous day, Lorena and her family had taken a bus from their hometown in Venezuela to the Colombian border. Instead of dropping them at the bus stop, the sympathetic driver made an exception. He took them a few extra miles and dropped them as close to the river as possible so they could canoe across.

This act of kindness saved them hours of walking.

Four hours later, they were taking a desperately needed rest when I saw them. I approached Lorena and asked if I could walk with them a bit. She was understandably skeptical, but agreed.

Lorena’s story

As we walked, Lorena told me her story.

“I’m not sure how long we’ll walk today,” she said. “We’re tired. We slept on the street last night. But we’re on our way. I know the trip will be hard, but I want to give my daughters a better life.”

Lorena is a single mom of two girls: Valentina is 2 years old and Ana is 4. They walked with Abuela, Lorena’s 42-year-old mother, and Lorena’s brother, only 16, who had quit school to accompany and protect his mother on her trips to and from Venezuela.

This was Abuela’s second walk to Ecuador. She’d already moved her oldest daughter there and recently walked back to Venezuela to see her ailing father. She spent time with family, rested, and recovered from the journey.

After a few months, she was ready to walk again—this time to help Lorena make the trip.

Lorena packed what she could carry in a pillowcase-like sack. There would be no toys, no teddy bears, no toiletries. Their baggage consisted of blankets and a change of clothes for each of the girls.

Many coming from Venezuela find refuge in Colombia. But, because Lorena’s sister was already settled in Ecuador, that’s where they were heading. They’d have shelter and family support there.

I asked Lorena how they planned to get to Ecuador. She replied simply, “We’ll walk.” She was determined in her response and shared with me her hopes for their new life.

Lorena planned to use her sister’s kitchen to bake empanadas to sell on the street. She was excited about the possibility of earning an income. “My sister is doing well. Her kids are in school. There’s hope. In Venezuela, there are no jobs. I’d try to sell, but no one had money to buy. In Ecuador, there is money and people will buy.”

Her eyes lit up as she discussed the possibility of her kids enrolling in school and having the opportunity for an education.

As we walked, I could hear the rocks and gravel crunch beneath my hiking shoes. I was keenly aware the plastic flip-flops each of them wore were not ideal for the 300-mile hike they were determined to complete.

The sight of walkers wearing make-shift shoes tied together with string or walking in no shoes at all with blistered and bleeding feet is common on this route. But the pain is worth it to them, so they walk in whatever shoes they have—or don’t have.

I asked Lorena if she was afraid. She said, “No. I pray all day. I ask God for people to open their hearts to us, to give us a ride, to give us some food or money for a bus ride. He’s with us on this journey.”

Lorena’s brother carried Valentina as we walked. Exhausted, she slept on his shoulder, undisturbed by the bugs and sun. Although it made the walk more difficult for him, he didn’t mind carrying her. It was quicker. And they had a long way to go.

Luna, the family puppy, trotted and panted next to us. Most of the time Ana would carry her. Lorena explained that Ana didn’t want to leave Venezuela. At four years old, she was asked to leave behind everything she had.

She agreed to the trip—not because of promises of a fun road trip and hotel stays, but because her puppy could come too.

The courage of this little child moved me. She walked on without complaint.

Each family member carried something: a sack with no handles or straps, a child, the family dog, or a bottle of water. They had no stroller, no suitcase on wheels, no duffle bag.

They walked and they carried. Our pace was even. We didn’t move slowly, but we were careful not to exert ourselves too quickly. There were weeks of marching ahead.

Lorena and her family expected no help from me, or anyone else. “If anyone can help us, great. If they can’t, that’s okay. We’ll make it.”

For seven miles we discussed the conditions that compelled them to walk. The dangers they’d try to avoid as they journeyed. The hopes they had once they arrived.

There was healing in the conversation. Lorena tried to explain things she’d felt, seen, heard, and understood.

Speeding up the journey

We finally reached Bethany’s truck parked alongside the road. I offered them a ride. I could see her skepticism and shock. But once she realized my offer was sincere, and that her family would be safe, she accepted with relief.

When we arrived at Bethany’s respite site, they laid down out of the heat. They refueled with food and water, and the little girls played.

I was relieved to know they had valid documents confirming they were in Colombia legally. This meant they would be allowed on a bus.

I’ll never forget the joy and shock on their faces when we offered them another ride to the next respite site, four hours up the road by car.

Surprised by the offer, they continued to ask, “Really? Is this really happening?” This ride would save them a week of walking.

When they arrived at Bethany’s second respite site in Y de la Antioqueña, they were welcomed with a warm meal, their first since leaving Venezuela, and a second bus ticket to Bogotá. This distance would have taken months to walk, leaving time to stop and rest, heal an injury, or find food or money for provisions. But by bus, it was a 12-hour ride through the night.

In Bogotá, the family rested briefly, gearing up to walk the final part of their journey. However, God, as he often does, had other plans. They were blessed with the offer of one last bus ticket to Lorena’s sister’s hometown in Ecuador. A three- to four-month journey by foot, turned into a 36-hour trip by bus. The kindness and compassion of others spared these little girls and their family months of malnourishment, dehydration, and a long, hot, dangerous walk.

And the total cost? $133. That’s all it took to cover the family’s transportation and food along the way. What is $133 to some? A dinner out? A movie night? A shopping spree? For others, it means transportation, shelter, and safety.

They don’t walk alone

Some hike for fun, with overflowing backpacks, suitable footwear, clean water, and expensive cameras. But around the world, refugees hike for survival in hope that something better awaits.

Bethany’s network of respite sites along the Ruta de Caminantes welcome approximately 1,000 people a day. Although we can’t help everyone in the same way, I’m grateful for the difference we made for Lorena and her brave family.

Their safe journey was made possible by Bethany’s family of donors, volunteers, and staff—dedicated to serving as the hands and feet of Jesus.

I’m grateful for those who give generously to provide a stranger across the world a bus ticket, stroller, or other much-needed supplies. I’m grateful for those who pray and walk in spirit alongside vulnerable kids and families.

Since 2015, six million people have left Venezuela on foot due to hunger, poverty, and violence. I’m grateful they don’t walk alone.