Women cook over a dozen little open fires, while men lie on hammocks inside an adjoining building and naked children with distended bellies and dirty faces run around the shelter for indigenous Warao who have fled Venezuela’s troubles.
Opened late last year with a capacity for housing about 250 people, the former warehouse in this Brazilian town now has upward of 500, and more are arriving daily. With no more space for hammocks, people are sleeping on the concrete floor.
Health workers scramble to identify children with measles — one in the shelter died this month — and address severe malnutrition and myriad other medical issues.
“All Venezuelans arriving here are in a precarious situation,” said Luis Fernando Peres, one of the lead volunteers with Fraternity International Humanitarian Federation, one of the groups working at the shelter. “The Warao are arriving in even worse shape.”
As Brazilian authorities scramble to accommodate tens of thousands of desperate Venezuelans crossing the country’s northern border to escape their homeland’s economic collapse and political unrest, the indigenous Warao are emerging as their biggest challenge.
Traditionally poor and marginalized in Venezuela, the Warao are arriving with even more health problems than other Venezuelans. Those health needs, combined with cultural and linguistic differences, mean authorities have no choice but to set up shelters just for them — and hope they can return to their home lands in Venezuela as integrating them into Brazilian society doesn’t appear realistic.
Many Warao have little education and at best a shaky grasp on Spanish, which at least is related to the Portuguese spoken in Brazil. They will stay only with other Warao because they have so much distrust of “criollos,” a term they use to refer to non-indigenous Venezuelans.
“We could never be with criollos because you don’t know what could happen,” said Teolinda Moralera, a 40-year-old Warao woman cooking chicken over a fire.
“The life of Warao is all about Warao,” added Moralera, who came to the shelter two weeks ago with her husband and children, ages 15, 18, 20 and 23.
Authorities in Pacaraima, a hardscrabble dusty border town in the middle of the Amazon region, say the Warao began crossing into the region in 2016, a full year before tens of thousands of non-indigenous Venezuelans began arriving.