Two hours from the Colombia-Ecuador border an ordinary family home has been transformed into a refuge for Venezuelan migrants and refugees. María Carmen Carcelén Carabalí, affectionately known as Mama Carmela, hosts migrants who pass through her town in Ecuador’s Chota Valley.
Carmen, 48, offers them warm meals, a place to sleep, and, if needed, money for medical checkups or transportation. Over the last year and a half, she has hosted more than 9,000 migrants.
Due to the manmade economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, more than 4 million people have fled the country seeking a better life. Many of them are resettling in Ecuador, while others are traveling through the country as they continue further south.
migrants hosted by Carmen and her family since 2017
Between Carmen’s eight sons (five of whom live at home), her elderly parents whom she cares for (one of whom has Alzheimer’s), and her grandchildren who stay with her on weekends, Carmen has her hands full. But after seeing a migrant collapse from exhaustion on the road, Carmen felt called to help.
“They said that they would rather die than go on because their feet couldn’t go anymore,” she says. Carmen started offering her home as resting place for migrants and refugees. Today, most of the people who knock on her door have heard about her hospitality through word of mouth.
Carmen has put bunk beds and mattresses in a spare bedroom for women and children. Men sleep on mattresses inside a disaster relief tent on the house’s roof. On nights when she hosts over 100 guests, she also sets up smaller tents in her yard.
On any given day, Carmen is greeting new guests, cooking meals, referring people to a nearby medical clinic, linking migrants with humanitarian agencies, and coordinating other logistics needed to run her growing operation.
“I have a lot of energy,” Carmen says while running a tap outside her house so guests can wash their clothes in a sink. “This work makes me happy. I’m happy to help.”
“I started with nothing, but thanks to my work and the work of my husband, and even with my children pitching in, I always have enough to eat, and I try to find a way to help,” Carmen says. While the family initially covered all the costs of this undertaking, word has spread, and they now receive donations from across Ecuador.
Even amid such generosity, rampant xenophobia in the country directed towards migrants exists. Carmen urges her fellow Ecuadorians to “have water ready… let’s have clothing. But above all that, let’s have our arms open and a sincere heart.”