Gabriela Corredor’s eyes welled with tears as she took visitors on a tour of a makeshift tent in the middle of the lawn in front of the University of Virginia’s Peabody Hall.
There, in the center of the structure, were two dirty mattresses. Sitting on top were torn towels, ripped clothing, shoes with no laces, an empty water jug and – most heartbreakingly – a pair of children’s stuffed animals.
They’re all part of an exhibit that the fourth-year student and fellow members of the student organization Towards a Better Latin America have been planning since the beginning of the semester.
Entitled “A Venezuelan Journey: The Search for a New Home,” the exhibit, which runs through Wednesday, showcases the current humanitarian and migration crisis in Venezuela – calling it “the Western Syria” – in which a large number of Venezuelans, suddenly impoverished due to rampant inflation and facing a nationwide shortage of medical supplies, have fled to neighboring Brazil.
As a Venezuela native who still has family in the country, Corredor, the organization’s president, knows the crisis all too well.
“We wanted to recreate the situation because when you see something on paper, it can move you, but when you actually see it physically …” said Corredor, her voice trailing off.
The display’s No. 1 objective is to educate people about the problem. To that end, the inner walls resemble a museum’s, with photos, charts, maps and text telling the story of how the crisis came to be. On the outside of the tent is a large mural of a Venezuelan flag. In place of the customary stars is a hand-scrawled message: “SOS.”
While the exhibit is displayed inside a tent, Corredor said a tent would actually be considered a luxury for many Venezuelan migrants, who often have several family members residing in cramped, uncovered spaces in the streets.
“In many cases, these are nurses, doctors, engineers who are living like this,” the group’s vice president, Maria Elena Granera, said. “They had to leave everything in Venezuela because they couldn’t find food or medicine for their families. So even though they are living like this, they say it’s better than Venezuela.
“Can you imagine? If this is better, what’s their reality back home?”
The exhibit resulted from the collaborative effort of Towards a Better Latin America members studying architecture, engineering, media studies, economics and politics, among other majors.
“We never could have done this on our own,” said Corredor, referring to herself and Granera. “Everybody came together and we divided and conquered.”
While Corredor is personally connected to the crisis, she said it was only after a number of the organization’s Brazilian members told them how dire the situation truly is that she and Granera decided to move forward with the endeavor.
“They say that it is really horrible, that the people there aren’t welcoming Venezuelans and there wasn’t any funding to help these people – so we saw that as a great opportunity to help,” said Granera, who is from Nicaraqua.
Working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – which is helping thousands of Venezuelans currently living in the streets of Brazil – Towards a Better Latin America has established a $10,000 fundraising goal. The funds will go toward the purchase of shelter homes designed by the Ikea Foundation for Better Shelter, a Sweden-based humanitarian innovation project and social enterprise.
“We know this isn’t a long-term solution,” Corredor said, “but when we asked them what was the No. 1 thing that was needed, they said it was shelter to get people off the streets.”
Corredor’s own immediate family moved from Venezuela to Chile about 10 years ago, but she still has a grandmother and other relatives there.
“They say minimum wage for a month is equal to two Starbucks grande lattes,” Corredor said. “That is absolutely insane.”
When Corredor discussed the teamwork that was needed for the tent to be erected, her eyes again became watery.
“It’s a lot of people from different countries all coming together,” she said, “and you see them working with such passion – as if it were their own country. That is the most beautiful gift that you can ask from a friend.
“I think that is the union of Latin America that I so much want to see at this University.”
To make a donation, visit the GoFundMe page, send it via Venmo to @TBLA-UVA or stop by the exhibit.