By Peter Prengaman
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.
The "boat people," as their name denotes in the Warao language, have lived for centuries in the Orinoco Delta in northeastern Venezuela, more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) from Pacaraima.
Over the last several decades, fish supplies declined in their home territory as major rivers have been diverted and deepened for shipping, pushing many to migrate to Venezuelan cities to sell crafts and beg. When Venezuela fell into crisis, an already precarious situation was exacerbated.
Many of those interviewed said the Venezuela's socialist government led by President Nicolas Maduro abandoned them to the point that there were no services or food in areas where they lived.
"The Warao were always poor. With Maduro, we got even poorer," said Sumilde Gonzalez, 40, who came to the shelter with her husband and two young children.
The first arrivals in Pacaraima lived on the streets and begged, refusing to go to shelters with non-indigenous people. They had few work prospects. Many who could, traveled south to Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon region, or east to the city of Belem. There, as in Pacaraima, many live on the street, beg and sell handicrafts in the other cities.
Marcio Coelho, coordinator of the Pacaraima shelter, said a Warao-only shelter was the only way to get them off the streets.
"The city had no way to accommodate them," he said.
One possibility being floated is to designate a piece of land for Warao. The federal government has just announced plans to build a "base of support." The head of the government's National Indian Foundation has begun meeting with Warao leaders and with several groups indigenous to Brazil's Roraima state.
But it's unclear whether any of the Brazilian indigenous peoples would be willing to cede some of their land. In a statement, the foundation said the base would be temporary and the army would oversee it. No other details were given, and follow-up emails and calls seeking details were not answered.
While shelters are an improvement, they will work only as long as the government and volunteers continue to provide everything.
The local residents' frustration with the Warao, and the onslaught of Venezuelans in general, is palpable.
Pacaraima, which only has 11,000 people and is surrounded by indigenous lands, has many dirt roads and essentially exists to cater to travelers crossing the border both ways.
Around the corner from the shelter, Evaldo de Souza Rocha runs a fish market. He said Warao are always asking for water and dig through the trash at night, to the point that he now has locks on the cans. Some wood he had outside his house, which he planned to use for a project, disappeared one morning.
"It's a small thing, but it matters," he said, adding that he suspects the wood was burned in the open fires at the shelter.
Lizardi Reinosa, 23-year-old Warao who arrived with his younger brother a few months ago, said his attempts to find work are always met with a firm "no." In Pacaraima, many young locals earn a few dollars a day unloading cargo trucks.
"They tell me they will only give jobs to Brazilians, not Warao," said Reinosa, who on a recent day walked the town with dozens of other young men hoping to find a place for a pickup soccer game.
"Get to work, Warao!" a passing driver yelled at them.
Despite the difficulties and an uncertain future, many Warao say they are happy to be in Brazil, even going so far as to call the shelter a "paradise" compared to what they left behind.
One of those is Beodilio Zapata, a 23-year-old who recently arrived with his wife and severely malnourished sons, ages 1 and 2.
"Venezuela is misery," he said, as the boys, naked and with large bellies and blotchy spots on their heads from malnutrition, climbed on him. "Everybody who is there wants to come here."
Published on Tampa Bay Times on March 27, 2018