In Colombia, an American delivers care on the frontlines

Besem Obenson is UNHCR’s Head of Sub Office-Medellín in Colombia. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Besem has worked for the UN Refugee Agency in South America for more than a decade. On a recent mission trip to Colombia, we met up with Besem to learn more about her work in Medellín and hear how UNHCR is responding to the crisis unfolding in Venezuela.

What does your typical day entail?

Besem Obenson: A typical day will begin with a check in with my team spread out over three UNHCR offices in 3 provinces in Colombia. My objective here is to take a temperature of how things are in their respective offices and help keep everyone motivated toward our common vision. I also have meetings with government officials in order to help achieve some of the strategic and programmatic goals my office has to better protect refugees and people of concern in the region. 

At least once a week I make it out to the field. In Medellín, I go to the UNHCR service center and conduct interviews with Venezuelan refugees. These interviews are important to help establish what type of care and protection individuals need. It’s important for me to balance my role as an organizational manager and making sure I continue to stay connected to the refugees we work on behalf of. If I don’t talk to refugees, I won’t know what their needs are.

What are the needs of Venezuelan refugees and migrants?

Besem: For newly arrived Venezuelans I try establish first if there are urgent needs like medical conditions and if they have a place to stay. I also ask when their last meal was. So, before we dive into a discussion about where they are coming from and why they fled, I try to address immediate needs first. At our service center in Medellín, we have basic hygiene kits and food so we can help address those immediate needs.  

Many of the Venezuelans I meet want to stay in Colombia; they want to integrate into the local community. So right from the beginning we are trying to find sustainable solutions. The needs are generally shelter, enrolling children back into school and finding jobs. After the immediate needs are identified, we can start referring the refugees to the programs and resources that will help them find stability

Can you share a story of a Venezuelan family you’ve worked with? 

Besem: The Sosa* family fled Venezuela more than a year ago. Despite previously leading a comfortable middle-class life, the family had to leave because they had no access to basic things like food, clean water and medicine. The family first found safety in northern Colombia but sadly became victims of internal displacement when armed Colombian groups forced them to flee. The family made it to Medellín seeking an opportunity to start over but they needed a lot of help. Not only did they need shelter, but the children had been traumatized by the entire experience. 

The Sosas participate in a UNHCR program called “cash for rent” that helps Venezuelan families secure stable housing in the city. A cash stipend of approximately $100/month helps the family pay for their household needs.

Although the family now has stable housing, there are still challenges. The children participate in a school enrichment program but are not enrolled in school full-time. The stress of having to pack up and flee in the middle of the night for the second time has been very hard on them. The children are in therapy through our partner, the Colombian Red Cross, with hopes of enrolling in school next year.

The father is now looking for work. He is a mechanic, and thankfully has some options. His plan is to eventually open his own shop. The mother is looking for work in the textile industry. Once the parents have secured employment, the goal will be to move off the “cash for rent” aid.

What message do you want to send to caring Americans about the refugees you serve?

Besem: One thing I want to emphasize is that despite the conditions that Venezuelans are fleeing, they all have hope for the future. I look at all the challenges the Sosa family has overcome and I can’t help but not be hopeful. Venezuelans are strong, they are resilient and they are looking for ways to restart their lives. All the families I work with want to find work and want to give back to their new communities. It’s their hope and resilience that I want everyone to remember.  

Here’s how you can help…

The UN Refugee Agency relies on generous supporters so that people like Besem can do their lifesaving work. Please become a monthly donor — it’s the most effective and efficient way for you to help our world's most vulnerable people. Join your fellow caring Americans by making your first monthly gift today. 

*Names changed for protection


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