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. 

The Refugee, My Sister, My Brother

Let me introduce you to five friends and family who are courageously seeking to make life work in nations much different from theirs.  They carry the ‘refugee’ identity with great honor and responsibility.

Haitham and Abeer with child

Haitham and Abeer are Syrians now living in Germany. They live with a local family with whom they now share very close bonds. 
Living in Germany, they treasure democracy, freedom and care for everyone. Safety is of great importance. They appreciate the kindness shown to them and the order Germans experience in normal life. They were taken by surprise by the bureaucracy of the system, there is paper work for everything! They believe that Germans could learn how Syrian families care and support one another. They also think that Syrian food would be good for Germans!

Yaser Naseri

Yaser Naseri is an Iranian living in Australia. I asked him to share some insights into his life.
I miss many things. The family and friends, the neighborhoods, the streets and little alleys where I grew up. The trips with close friends and the smell of different seasons which is very different back home. The little villages I used to go for holiday. Gatherings with families and friends. I really miss part of Iranian culture. I love the freedom and the diversity here. I love the fact that people work hard for their goals and it seems they are more goal orientated and have plans compared to people of Iran. I love the advanced Tech which make people’s life very easy. I also love the beauty of this country at each corner of it whether it is the beach or bush or in the middle of the CBD. I love how they respect human rights at least for their people and provide all sort of support for people with different needs. I love that religion doesn’t rule here. Great democracy! I also love the education system with all the support they provide for their citizens.What is something that has really surprised you there?Well, cultural shock has happened to me for sure. High level of freedom was the first thing. The way people dress, the beaches that I was not used to full of girls with bikinis. One thing that was a real surprise for me was when I learnt what had happened to aboriginals here and a greater surprise when I figured it was so recent, (maybe 50 years ago). it was shocking and still is! The level of directness people have here is surprising too.
One aspect of Iranian culture that Aussies should adopt and why?I believe individualism is killing people here. It is mentally effecting people very badly. I found many people are lonely and suffering from anxiety. I personally can feel it here. On the other hand, in Iran we are the opposite. The culture is based on togetherness. Respect to elders, lots of gatherings, close relationship with relatives. I would drop a bit Iranian culture here and would make it perfect!

Amir Solangi

Amir Solangi is a Pakistani living in USA. He misses daily (family??) members and the respect that people generally give one another. In America, “I can live without being afraid for my life”. 

Angel Rafael Arellano

Angel Rafael Arellano is my cousin living in Bogota, Colombia. His successful consulting business had to close down and at 48 years of age, he had to start from scratch. He misses his wife, kids, parents and siblings. He also misses his friends and close acquaintances. He has enjoyed the prosperity of the city and the strong economy of the country. Most pleasant surprise is the fact that all basic services are available. Loneliness is an ever present challenge. 

Daniel and Dayana Fernández

Daniel and Dayana Fernández, Venezuelans living in Paris. Daniel is my cousin. He is a chef. They recently got married. Life has been safe but hard. Work, work, work. Dayana arrived recently and after her documents were in order they got married. She has struggled with language and a sense of fitting in. They live very modestly in a very small studio with a table and a bed for furniture. The costs are very high but in Paris they need not fear for their lives. They dream of returning home. 

World Refugee Day 2019 and the 70.8 Million

Back in the mid 90’s while living in Germany, I became personally aware of the plight of refugees. At that time, the Balkan wars were raging and Muslim refugees were coming to Germany. The were being housed in building where many lived together. One day, one of the buildings was burned out and the people there lost whatever little they had. I experienced their pain as I saw children and old folks left out in the cold in tears. Ausländer Raus (Foreigners Out) was painted in walls around town. As a foreigner, I wondered what would happen to me and my family. We were safe, we were Americans, we did not have to fear. Yet, the faces would not escape my memory. 

Years later, I led a team of USA doctors, nurses and other specialists along with my 14 year old son Matthew north of Skopje, Macedonia to visit Kosovo refugees while US Air Force planes bombed Serbian positions along the Kosovo borders. A vast sea of white tents with UNHCR (United Nations high Commission for Refugees) printed on the side provided shelter to large numbers of families. The stories I heard gave me a deep sense of responsibility for those who were forced out of their homes.

Besides them, I’ve also had the honor of getting to know Pakistani Ahmadi Muslims seeking refugee before they were exterminated in their home country. Syrians in Greece and Germany fleeing war. Chileans and Argentinians fleeing terror in Canada. Cubans seeking freedom in the USA. Palestinians living behind barbed wire in their own homeland. Sudanese trying to make a living in Egypt. My own people; Venezuelans in Colombia trying to make a living. 

Having lived in 12 nations I can relate to many of their experiences except for the terror they live with seeking safety, food and medicines.  
On this day, 20 June 2019 the world is being encouraged to recognize the plight of refugees everywhere. For me, “Refugees” no longer are just a problem out there. The tragedy of my own country of birth, Venezuela have made me feel the pain in my own skin. I now have relatives living in 8 nations! Four million have left mostly by foot to neighboring countries. They represent 12.5% of the population of one of the wealthiest nations.
One can discuss the myriad of reasons why people choose to leave their country of birth. The issues are usually complex and often have perplexing components. However, the fact remains that according to the UNHCR 37,000 are daily forced leave the familiarity of their place of birth, the language and customs they grew up to find a place of safety. 

It is important to understand that:

  • Refugees are people forced to flee to another country because of war or persecution. They are recognized as “refugees” because it is too dangerous for them to return home and they are protected by international law.
  • The majority of refugees stay close to home with most fleeing to neighboring countries. Only 1% of refugees are ever resettled in third countries. Turkey hosts the most refugees followed by Pakistan, Uganda and Lebanon.
  • Around the world, fewer than a third of people forced to flee live in refugee camps. Most refugees are actually struggling to survive in cities and towns. This is especially true for Syrian refugees.

A refugee is; someone who fled his or her home country owning to “ a well founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

“Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.”- Khaled Hosseini
“To be called a refugee is the opposite of an insult, it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory”-
Tennessee Office of Refugees

Things You Might Not Know About Refugees

  • Every minute 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror
  • 86 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosting by developing countries
  • The largest refugee camp is in Dadaab, Kenya and is home to more than 329,000 people
  • 51% of refugees are under the age of 18
  • The first-ever Refugee Team competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brasil

Venezuela Article on Lausanne

Next Step Director Wolfgang Fernandez, a native of Venezuela, has written an excellent article on the crisis in his country for the Lausanne publication. Highly recommended read.

The Populist Disaster of Venezuela, by Wolfgang Fernandez

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?