A Venezuela Without The COVID-19 Vaccine

While the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 has been a boon for some countries such as Australia and Canada, a number of Scandinavian countries have suspended its use. Meanwhile, the economically strapped country of Venezuela, my home country, has rejected the AstraZeneca vaccine outright.

Although the official reasons cited include “effects on patients”, many news sources claim the vaccines have not been sent due to Venezuela’s debt to The World Health Organization.
In Venezuela the impact of the Corona virus has been devastating and will most likely worsen more than anyone dares to imagine. The government stopped releasing health data in 2016, so that no one has accurate numbers. They even cynically welcomed the relative calm that the lockdowns have created, seeing them as an unexpected benefit of Covid.

The absence of the Covid vaccine adds to the countries already fragile situation after years of economic woes. The Venezuelan people in desperation have exploded into all sorts of public demonstrations of dissent. Seven million have left the county.  The majority walking across the Colombian border to the west. And smaller numbers to the south through the Amazon jungle to Brasli.


The government has allowed such an exodus because it has reduced the pressure at home in Venezuela. Those who stayed have taken to the streets in all major cities, protesting the high levels of urban violence, inflation, chronic food shortages etc. The number of deaths, injuries, and arrests by the government forces are unknown.
The outbreak of the virus forced people indoors like everywhere else. Empty streets, reduction in transport activity, and lack of commerce have given the government a time of respite, which they have used to entrench themselves into their stubborn positions of power. Covid has become an ally to those who enslave the people of Venezuela. 
Yet for the average person the results have been devastating; not only are people going without food or medicine, but they now must deal with the insecurity of being locked up in homes with individuals many with unstable mental state.
Sexual and physical violence against women and children have skyrocketed. A survey by Save the Children revealed a desperate situation with almost one third of the surveyed households reporting that the isolation has resulted in an increase of aggression and hostility against mothers and children.
The suicide rates have also skyrocketed. Total suicides increased by 153% between 2015 and 2018 according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence(VOV). The researcher Gustavo Paez pointed out that Venezuela’s suicide rate between 1950 and 2014 shows an average of 4.4 cases per 100,000 citizens. However, the VOV estimates that this indicator went from a low of 2.1 in 2010 to 9.7 in 2018. While there is no data for 2020 it is estimated that the numbers have only increased and the number of suicides among children have reached unprecedented levels.
In response, we are equipping and training qualified people to serve as Amigos a la Mano (Caring Friends) who make themselves available to those in moments of need. Advertising their services through Instagram, they interact with people ,offering them a space to talk and receive care and empathy.
Next Step in Venezuela continues to serve the community.  We are providing affordable produce from our farm.  We also are conducting online education which prepares community leaders to meet the spiritual, and practical needs of their neighborhoods. And now through our Caring Friends initiative a helping hand is available for those suffering increased mental stress.
Your support for our work enables us to stand in the gap at this time. 

Venezuela Conversation at Menlo Church

Last year Next Step hosted an event at Menlo Church which outlined the historical issues and economic problems with Venezuela. We thought the problems would be somewhat short-lived with the possible and immanent replacement of President Nicolas Maduro with opposition leader Juan Guaido. Then things went south. Guaido has been struggling with a scandal that threatens his political aspirations.

So in the meantime. Nothing much has changed with Venezuela. Every day 5000 Venezuelans leave the country. Those who stay behind struggle with an economy that has seen inflation approach 2 million percent each year . Maduro recently raised the minimum wage 300% to $6.70 per month. The Venezuelan refugee crisis (4.6 million) is about to surpass the Syrian refugee crisis in terms of sheer numbers.

In 2019, Next Step partnered with Menlo Church to host a conversation regarding the problems with Venezuela and possible solutions. Speakers included Professor Diego A. Zambrand (Stanford University), Carlos Suarez (Justice International), Diego Travieso (Operation Blessing) and Wolfgang Fernandez (Next Step). I think we raised $40,000 for Venezuela.

Podcast is here.

We are thankful to Menlo Church and Senior Pastor John Ortberg for allowing this conversation to take place. And to Missions Director Dave Shields who emceed the meeting.

More at tallskinnykiwi

Harvest time

As life continues to be very challenging in Venezuela, we are thankful for our partners who faithfully continue to work hard as they seek to meet needs under unpredictable circumstances. 

This year, we have seen bountiful crops in the 10 acres of land available for us to use. We lost some crops, including 3,000 tomato plants, due to weather related difficulties yet have seen amazing results with black beans, onions, corn, peas, leeks and various other herbs that provide food to a community where scarcity has become the norm.

We recently planted 5 kg. of Peas and harvested 150 kg within 14 weeks .

This is Juan Carlos who is an Agronomist and overseas the planting work.

We also planted 1 kg. of corn seed yielding a lovely harvest of 300 kg in just 12 weeks!

We are currently ready to harvest leeks and onions. Renyer, is a student learning how to work the land. We are anticipating a good harvest with these as well.

These are some of the practical ways your support enables Juan Carlos and Renyer enabling the ministry to feed their community.

On this Thanksgiving season, we are also thankful for you and your involvement in Venezuela. Thank you so much for your help!

An Upside Down Reality

These days in Bogotá, Colombia, one can find Venezuelans everywhere. Many are roaming the streets looking for work, others are asking for a coin to buy bread. It is heart-wrenching to see young kids in odd-sized clothing and dirty faces with either Mom or Dad looking sad and forelorn.

Colombia, with over 20 million more in population than Venezuela, has welcomed over 1.5 million Venezuelans that have simply walked across the border seeking food, medicine and safety.

In spite of its own problems and financial limitation, the local government has offered healthcare, education and even breakfast, lunch and a snack to families that process a permit to stay and legalize their documents.

In the the most amazing turn of events, Venezuelans who once hosted hundreds of thousands of Colombians now come seeking the most basic of necessities.

In the 70’s and 80’s the Venezuelan economy thrived as millions of barrels of oil were sold daily. During the same time, Colombians faced a relentless war against insurgents and drug cartels. Scores lost their lives while the rest lived in constant insecurity. With a stagnant economy, Colombians, mostly illegally, crossed into Venezuela and performed the lowest of jobs.

Colombians, a hardworking and entrepreneurial people, soon were prospering; large amounts of money were flowing back home.

Today the situation is playing out in reverse. After a tenuous yet hard-won peace agreement, Colombia is growing and its economy is expanding. Now the Venezuelans have come there, but competition is fierce and the opportunities are few.

Yesterday, I sat down with Ronald Torrez (28) from Barquisimeto. A father of four ran a successful Patacones business, a fast-selling snack. The crisis in Venezuela made it impossible for him to carry on so he sold his equipment and his house and came to Colombia with his wife and two youngest kids. Grandma took in the two older ones.

Ronald has been working as a mason. He needs to make $14 daily. He pays $7 for a small room for the family and the rest is for food. However, he often falls short and has to beg in the streets.

I offered to buy him some food and he thankfully agreed. He asked me to buy him a bread roll and when I said you must also ask something for your boy, he said okay, two rolls. His humility touched me deeply. 

Refugees share similar experiences globally. They are often not welcome in the host county, they are misunderstood and looked upon with suspicion. They are exploited and they suffer trauma. Refugees do not choose to leave home; rather, they flee for their lives.

On the other hand, they come prepared to work hard. Thankfully, Ronald and his boys are in a place of safety. 

Over 10% of the Venezuelan population have already fled their country in the last two years. As the crisis gets worse, the numbers relentlessly continue. The largest group are coming to Colombia. 

While in Bogotá, I met with my partners and other interested parties to talk about abating the refugees’ plight. We kicked off a process to develop technology to asses the skills of people like Ronald and match them to local job opportunities.

Refugees represent a grim reality and we must proactively help them to help themselves. 

Bogotá presents a great opportunity for this

Back to the Future

A few days ago I met Eitaro and Tamae originally from Osaka. Common friends Boon and Cheryl Lim brought me over to their apartment to bid them good bye. Eitaro and Tamae have been living in Singapore enriching lives through their artistic gifts. After several years, they are now relocating to Okinawa.

Back in 2001, I went to these beautiful islands together with Kenny Mitchell, a DJ who  came alongside locals to learn of the existential conflict Okinawans faced. We were encouraged as we connected well and together inspired local Okinawans on how they could make a difference.

I first heard of these Japanese islands through the stories of a World War II veteran who was stationed there. He told stories of difficult battles and scenarios. Nolan McDaniel was my kids’ grandfather and he was a big man with a bigger heart. 

Like many groups all over the world, their own heritage, culture and language had been swallowed up by a much bigger nation. The Okinawans’ case is further complicated by many years of US rule (until 1975). Today, they face a fractured existence defined by allegiance to their national identity as Japanese while at the same time recalling the rich inheritance from their ancestors, all in a world saturated with American influence. 

A few days earlier as I went back to the US, my plane flew right over Okinawa and I was stirred as I recalled my visit there. From 30,000 feet in the air, I took a picture. Little did I know then how meeting a Japanese couple in Singapore would be woven with my past there. 

Taketomi one of the islands of Okinawa

Eitaro and Tamae plan to establish themselves in Okinawa and bless the people there with their artistic gifts, allowing normally introspective people to express themselves in fresh ways. Their theme is Love and art is their medium.

As I listened to them it made so much sense to use art as a way to integrate fragmented hearts. Eitaro agreed with me and we committed to stay in touch as they explore how to heal hearts, restoring the elusive dignity and destiny that people there are craving

Death has free reign in Venezuela

Dr. Carlos Bravo knew what fate awaited him. Sebin (Venezuelan Secret Service) had been harassing him for broadcasting videos and commenting on the situation at the University Hospital, one of many hospitals whose capacity to serve patients has effectively been stripped by a government who does not care for the needs of its people.

The funds required to purchase medicines have been depleted, largely as a result of widespread corruption. At the same time, citing “outside interference”, humanitarian aid has not been allowed into the country. The remaining lifeline is individual parcels of the most elemental of resources sent by family and friends from outside the country.

Dialysis patients are not able to have the routine procedures needed to preserve their lives. HIV/AIDS patients long ago stopped receiving their needed medicines. Cancer sufferers have no access to any kind of treatment. People regularly utilize social media to request antibiotics, other basic medicines, and even ointments. On average last year, 31 Venezuelan infants died every day. Many were victims of diarrhea, bacterial infections, and other diseases that, according to the local pediatric society, could have been prevented or easily treated.

“There are vaccines and antibiotics available, but Venezuela is so lacking that these illnesses are coming back,” said Dr. Huniades Urbina, president of the Venezuelan Society of Childhood and Pediatrics.

Deaths of babies younger than one year jumped to 30% in Venezuela in 2016, according to the last available government figures. That is a stark contrast to declines across the rest of Latin America.

The government has long since stopped releasing data on all basic metrics of life in the country. No one is able to know the facts – from inflation and hard currency reserves to causes of death.

On October 20, Pastor Marcelo Coronel, leader of the Merida (main city in the Andes region) Pastors Fellowship learned that one of his church’s members had been detained by the security services. She had with her two boxes of medical supplies to distribute among the needy. She was accused of trafficking and taken into custody. Pastor Coronel voluntarily went to speak on behalf of his church member and has now been kept in jail for over a week.

There is a war against anyone trying to help the people in Venezuela.

This crisis is what drove Dr. Carlos Bravo to give all he had to serve at the hospital where he endeavored to preserve life. Starting as a nurse, then an assistant in surgeries, then a researcher in basic sciences and finally as a general surgeon, he became one of the best in the country.

Dr. Bravo knew that the Sebin basements were waiting for him because they had already called him to tell him that they were waiting outside the hospital to take him away. Terror and the panic destabilized him, for he was claustrophobic and he feared the darkness. Knowing that Sebin would leave him in the basements without light, he injected himself with a solution that ended his life.

Venezuela has lost a servant who loved his people till the end. The country’s human capital continues to be eroded as those who choose to stay and serve are slowly being decimated by a government whose intent is to create a North Korea-like pariah state… even as North Korea starts to reverse its decades-long failed policies.

Alive in Athens

Kypseli Square – the gathering place

Yesterday on my flight out of Athens, I was asked what was I doing there. I had a chance to tell this local expat about the work Philemon and the StreetLights team is doing serving refugees. She was surprised to hear that refugees were being cared for by locals! Once again, I found that there is a huge misconception between reality and perception.

With regular reports on the negative refugee experiences, it’s no wonder people only know of the bad news. There is no doubt that 65 million refugees represent the one of the most significant challenges the global community faces today. Yet, they also represent new possibilities. For example, the elderly who are often alone can be served by properly trained newcomers who mostly come from cultures where their grandparents are treated with veneration and great care.

The Streetlights team has been serving in Kypseli, the largest refugee community in Athens. They have gained the support of the local community as they watch them teach the refugees Greek and also English. They have encouraged their own kids to join the many games they play in the square.

Instead of fear of hijabs and burkas, of new faces and languages, of competitors and potential enemies, everyone feels relaxed and content. Something very special is happening here.

Philemon’s passion to welcome and help integrate these newcomers has inspired a number of young people to come and work alongside him. During this short visit, I got to know Spiri, a woman on fire to get things done and get them done well. She manages hundreds of details necessary to meet needs and motivate workers to do their best. Her capacity to motivate others is remarkable.

The StreetLights team

I also spent time with Stefan Vass, 17, who came as a 5 year old to Greece from Romania and Aris Nemir, 16, who was born and raised right in Kypseli. Both are high school seniors, rugby players and they do it all with speed and joy! These kids humbled me with their compassion and love for the new kids. All the action takes place at night when the temperatures dip from the 35°C we had during the day.

As we walked around, I met locals who warmly greeted Philemon offering encouragement and practical ways they wanted to contribute.

Two days before I left, the skies over Athens grew brown. Strong winds just 20 miles away had spread fires, burning 1000 homes and causing the loss of at least 80 with hundreds injured. The speed with which the flames grew and spread left everyone astonished.

Philemon and his team went immediately into action contacting authorities offering their services to the kids affected. They now await confirmation to help kids in an orphanage near the devastated area among several possibilities.

I made a commitment to help them raise funds to mobilize people and equipment to the affected area. Will you join us and encourage StreetLights to continue to help make a dent into the mega need refugees represent now?

Papuans in USA

From the most remote regions of Indonesia, they have come to the USA to prepare themselves to bring change to their communities.
Populated by tribal groups, Papua is home to around 312 different tribes, including some un-contacted peoples. The ancient cultures of Papua have remained disconnected from all forms of modern progress. This isolation has given them a sense of identity and autonomy which would be challenged at every level as outsiders began to approach them. Under the jurisdiction of Indonesia since 1969, Papua lies hundreds of miles to the east of Jakarta. It is the last in the string of Indonesian islands.

In recent years a new generation of Papuans has emerged who are committed to their people and land and preparing themselves to bring 21st century leadership to their communities.

Veronica grew up in Sentani. She lost her father at a very early age and her Mom worked very hard to support her and her other five siblings. She worked at an airfield and began to learn about airplanes and airport management. Today, she is studying Business Management and wants to continue to study Aviation Administration management for a masters degree and dreams of providing air transport to remote areas of the vast island.

Anis comes from the remote Highlands, an area surrounded by 3,000 meter high mountains: the only place where one can find snow in Indonesia. He is studying Aviation and Political Sciences and dreams of creating transportation systems that will ease commerce lowering the prices of goods and services.

These two, among the 14 other Papuan students, are preparing themselves to make a difference in their communities. The enthusiasm and commitment to their people is evident in the way their plans were explained.

FICA (Fellowship of Indonesian Christians in America) in an organization dedicated to bring students, in this case – Papuans and mostly Chinese-Indonesians – to work together represents a major step forward in forging a better future for the nation.

The people of Papua feel colonized by Indonesia. The political and economic injustices that have ensued as a result of being ruled by outsiders have nurtured anger and resentment. The attempts by the central government to be of assistance and encourage development have constantly been marred by the corruption that is endemic in all governmental endeavors.

In the mean time, socially, Papua is unraveling. People coming to the urbanized centers from their remote villages experience such clash of civilizations that it overwhelms them. The rates of HIV-AIDS, drug abuse, and promiscuity among young people are among the highest of the nation. A whole generation of young people is being lost. Unfortunately, the traditional safety nets no longer hold society together.

In these uncharted waters there are no road maps that can assure a stable and prosperous future for the people of Papua.

This 24th annual FICA gathering represents a fresh wind of hope for the people of Papua. By bringing together Indonesians from diverse backgrounds FICA is laying a great foundation for the future. I experienced this firsthand as students interacted with each other, both in discussion groups as well as simply sightseeing at night in downtown Chicago.

The plans being crafted between students in the USA will define working partnerships that could last a lifetime, representing real hope for unity and progress.

A Tsunami ten years later

Ten years ago, this week, I was getting ready to go to Banda Aceh, Indonesia to evaluate how our team could contribute to the recovery of that city after the devastation of the 9.2 earthquake and ensuing Tsunami which took the lives of over

This boat was 4 miles inland

This boat was 4 miles inland

170,000 people and displacing another 150,000 in this region alone.

On that Christmas Day back in 2004, I heard the news of the earthquake and my thoughts went to my coworker Hengky who had gone to that city the day before to celebrate Christmas with his wife’s family. For a few agonizing days I could not find them anywhere and then word came that they were safe in Medan, a safe distance south of the affected area.
I had no idea what we could do to help but I knew that I had to go and express the love of God to this, one of the most closed Muslim communities in the country.

I flew to Jakarta and then found a flight on January 19th to the devastated city. I flew with mostly emergency workers. There was nothing that could have prepared me for what I was about to witness.

Stunned with all we saw

Stunned with all we saw

Bodies were still awaiting burial in one of the many mass grave sites. The smell of death penetrated everything.

I joined a group of locals who tirelessly had given of their time to help recover bodies and guide people who were coming to help. As I walked towards the beach right in the city, I looked out into a calm seas in an beautiful evening adorned by a stunning sunset. I tried in vain to imagine, just a few days before, folks standing on the same area watching waves up to 100 feet high coming at fantastic speeds towards them. It was all so unthinkable but I was standing in the rubble of what was once a busy community and beyond me stood the light house tower which has lost the large lamp that sat 90 feet up.

In partnership with United Nations Volunteers, a group of five local organizations developed TRIBAL

Our evaluation team

Our evaluation team

(Tsunami Rehabilitation In Banda Aceh Livelihood). Our contribution focused on Trauma Training. We trained 610 children (50% girls), 26 teachers (45% female) and 413 parents (50% female) on how to cope and help others deal with their fears. Here is the UN evaluation.

The TRIBAL project also built 700 homes and trained folks with new job skills so that they could face life with new skills.
Today, Banda Aceh is thriving and has been totally rebuilt. The roads are wide and the communities are living in peace with themselves and the power of the sea right next to them.
This experience led us in Next Step to explore fresh ways to relate with the Muslim community in Indonesia. The PERTIWI MicroLoan project in Medan benefits from the many lessons we have learned over these last years.

Jakarta gets new leader

For the first time in 50 years the people of Jakarta have installed a new Governor rejecting discrimination on the basis of religion and instad focusing on proven effectiveness.

Those who thrive in hate and discrimination are always a minority. The citizens of Jakarta have choosen the better way.