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April 24, 2024

Venezuelan entrepreneurs run thriving businesses in Colombia thanks to UNHCR program

The UN Refugee Agency’s protection of refugees and forcibly displaced people extends far beyond the moments during a crisis when a person fleeing sees a blue vest and knows they are one step closer to safety. At that moment, people who have fled for their lives need shelter, medical care and food. But what comes next? What does protection look like when there is no safe way to return home?

One way UNHCR continues to protect refugees and forcibly displaced people is through long-term solutions like the Graduation Model program in Colombia.

Launched in 2019, the Graduation Model helps forcibly displaced Venezuelans rebuild their lives in Colombia with dignity and the prospect of financial stability. The Graduation Model uses a series of workshops, trainings and mentorship to help refugees and displaced people build small businesses and become economically self-sufficient. Graduation Model participants learn small business, finance, marketing and customer service skills.

Venezuelans Yuli and Yexica in Colombia

While helping to incubate the skills a person will need to launch a new business successfully, the Graduation Model does so much more—it changes lives, builds confidence and gives people like Yuli and Yexica a second chance for a safe and prosperous future.


Yuli arrived in Colombia with her two children from Venezuela in 2019. She escaped violence and instability and hoped to build a safe life in Medellín. But the transition was tough for her. Yuli struggled to find work. She was overwhelmed, depressed and concerned about her children’s education.

Struggling to find work and a stable home for her children, Yuli was referred to UNHCR by a local humanitarian aid partner conducting protection assessments on the needs of newly arrived Venezuelans. At that time, UNHCR was enrolling its first cohort of students for the Graduation Model program. Yuli had an idea to start a jewelry-making business and was offered a spot in the program.

It was a transformative moment in her life.

Venezuelan Yuli in Colombia

“Participating in the Graduation Model has changed me, and I dare say I am not the same person I was at the beginning,” Yuli shares. “Everything has changed for the better. Joining the project was my starting point to bring my family happiness, peace of mind and confidence — all I aimed for when I came to Colombia.”

Through the program, Yuli learned how to source materials for her jewelry more efficiently and sustainably. She also learned about money management, small business practices and how to scale her operations.

“I learned to be independent and to generate my own income,” Yuli says. “I started my business, Creaciones Andremar (AndreMar Creations), and now I’m very financially stable.”

Yuli's jewlery

With a little help and a lot of hard work, Yuli has transformed her life. Her future is bright and full of options. Her children are healthy and thriving in school, and she recently did something so many refugees dream of — she bought a home for her family.

Yuli remarks, “This has been a journey of empowerment and finding peace and security.”


Yexica fled Venezuela with her sisters in 2017. In Venezuela, Yexica was a college graduate, with a degree in communications and worked in local news media. In Colombia, she initially struggled to find work. Despite having a college degree, she lacked the proper documents for formal employment, leaving her few options. Back home, Yexica’s family ran a catering company, and to try to make ends meet in Medellín, Yexica and her sisters started making cakes and other sweets to sell in the neighborhood.

“We initially had to sell [the cakes] on the street, something we never had to do in Venezuela,” explains Yexica.

Venezuelan Yexica in Colombia

For a year, Yexica and her sisters scratched out a living selling their cakes on the street.

In 2018, things started to turn for the better. At a local community event, Yexica learned about Colombian labor laws and how to get proper documentation. She also spoke with other Venezuelans in circumstances similar to hers and met Jorge Alzate, a Senior Field Associate with UNHCR.

After the meeting, Yexica started to feel hopeful. “I created bonds with other Venezuelans, it was like creating a new family,” she says.

The chance meeting with Jorge would be pivotal for Yexica. He introduced her to the Graduation Model, and like Yuli, Yexica was part of the first cohort.

“Jorge is my UNHCR angel; he is the best,” says Yexica with a big smile.

Participating in the Graduation Model program helped propel Yexica from informally selling cakes on the street to opening her own small business.

Yexica's cakes

“Participating in the Graduation Model was interesting, both in terms of the knowledge I gained and the professional support I received,” shares Yexica. “I was able to expand my business by working hard and with the help from UNHCR.”

Yexica’s business is thriving. She’s the primary income earner for her family, and with the financial stability built, she was able to send for her parents to join her in Colombia.


How to help…

You can support UNHCR’s education and livelihood programs by becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor. Your kind gift will help refugees who have fled insecurity and conflict rebuild their lives and create brighter futures for their families.