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This woman has given food and lodging in her hostel to 10,000 Venezuelan migrants


ACNUR La Agencia de la ONU para los Refugiados

Dolors Massot - published on 06/15/21

This Catholic mom and her family have made it their mission to serve migrants in great need.

Carmen runs a hostel in El Juncal, a small town in Ibambura, Ecuador. In the last four years, she’s become the “mother” of many Venezuelans who decide to leave their country and cross Colombia in search of a land that will welcome them and provide them with better living conditions.

Carmen Carcelén, or Carmela, or Candela, as she is called, earns her living as a fruit and vegetable vendor in Ipiales, in the region of the border with Colombia. She decided some time ago, together with her husband, to take in migrants. She gives them some free food and lodging so that they can eat, wash and rest before continuing their journey. One, two, two dozen, hundreds … now they’ve helped about 10,000 people.

An example for their children

She receives no state aid or corporate sponsorship. She does it because she wants to help these people.

She believes that her example is the best thing she can do for the formation of her children. She has eight of them — the oldest is 30 and the youngest is 12. Six of them are biologically hers and two were adopted because Carmen and her husband took care of them when their respective mothers died.

Carmen has no hired cook. She does everything herself with the help of her children. Some serve the meals to the migrants, while others converse with them and listen to them. Her guests are usually just passing through for a day, but for them this is a vital moment of help—so much so that UNHCR took notice of her work, and tweeted about her two years ago.

“We’re a great team,” she says, talking about her family. “I don’t have a cook, or a laundress, so they even take charge of bringing them to the doctor, if someone comes in injured, or finding them clothes, shoes … If I leave, I know I have nothing to worry about. I take my hat off to what they do,” she says.

Support from the Jesuit service and UNHCR

At the beginning, some neighbors helped her with things such as food, clothes, and shoes, but little by little they stopped doing so due to lack of resources.

Last year, with the arrival of the pandemic, everything became even more difficult. She explains in the newspaper “El País” that the Jesuit service helped her find 70% of the food she needed, while UNHCR provided her with hygiene and cleaning kits for migrants.

Carmen has managed to feed up to 500 people in a single day and up to 138 migrants have slept in her shelter at the same time for one night. A bed, clean sheets, water for washing, the security of sleeping under a roof … These are all greatly appreciated by the migrants.

A Catholic mother

Carmen and her family are Catholic. She talks about her faith while she works selling fruit and vegetables, she sings in the church choir, and she gives a deep religious meaning to all her actions in her El Juncal Shelter.

She is living the works of mercy: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty…. She explains to the migrants that the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph were also migrants, who couldn’t find lodging in Bethlehem.

Nine clear rules of behavior at her hostel

Carmen says that she never judges anyone who arrives at the Casa de Acogida. She only gives them 9 rules of behavior to ensure everyone gets along, which are written on a poster visible to all:

  • Greet each other
  • Respect each other
  • Don’t take other people’s belongings
  • Don’t drink alcohol
  • Don’t smoke inside the house
  • Don’t use or carry firearms or sharp weapons
  • Keep the areas clean (“even if you didn’t make a mess, you can still help to clean and set an example,” says the poster)
  • Respect the separation between men and women in the dormitories
  • Be grateful

Her four years of experience help Carmen persevere in this task and see how her life has meaning for her, for her children, for those she serves, and for God.

Many times migrants don’t know what direction they should take next or what their legal status is in Ecuador or in other countries they would like to reach, such as neighboring Peru or Chile. Thanks to Carmen’s relationship with UNHCR, this organization comes to the El Juncal Shelter and informs them of the steps they can take from there.

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