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Some 715,000 Venezuelans now live in Peru, and almost all of them arrived through the border town of Tumbes. Here, a compassionate hotel manager is providing refugees with a roof over their heads. Oliver Pieper reports.
To many Venezuelan refugees, Percy Ariansen is an angel — although he would more likely describe himself as a businessman with a social conscience.
Ariansen is the manager of the Toloa and Toloa 2 hotels in the Peruvian border town of Tumbes. With a total of 100 beds in 60 rooms, the basic but spotless hotel is the first port of call for many refugees upon arriving in Peru.
"We were among the first to house Venezuelans. First, it was those who had the money. And now we're also seeing those who come to us via the United Nations Refugee Agency," says Ariansen.
The price of a room costs 30 sols (about €8/$9) per night. For the first wave of Venezuelan refugees who came over a year ago, this wasn't a problem. "But at some point, the families with little money and many children, elderly people and LGBT people also started to come to Tumbes," says Ariansen.
UNHCR picks up the tab
For many of these newer arrivals, the daily rate was often unaffordable. Thousands were forced to sleep on the streets, until the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) stepped in.
"They had this idea of a social tariff for Venezuelan refugees," he says. "I took the proposal to my father-in-law, who owns both hotels, and he immediately accepted."
The deal is straightforward: the UNHCR pays 75 percent of the price for a room, about 22.50 sols, and the hotel foregoes the remaining 7.50.
"Because of the number of people coming in, we don't end up losing money and we can help people at the same time," explains Ariansen. Another part of the deal is that it's up to the UNHCR to select the people at the border, and then send them on to the hotels.
Regular guests willing to help
When refugees arrive during peak periods, people can often end up sharing beds. "The hotel is, of course, open to everyone. But at the moment, it's mostly Venezuelan refugees staying here," says Ariansen. He explains that the hotels are seen as an interim stopover: many refugees stay only one night and then travel on.
His regular Peruvian clients have remained loyal, despite the new guests. Ariansen says they have continued to patronize his hotel — many have even invited refugees to dinner, especially families with children.
In the meantime, the Toloa hotels have become a household name across the border, with a Venezuelan journalist working in Ecuador offering high praise for the hotel's commitment. "As a result, when many Venezuelans arrive in Tumbes they ask for our hotel straight away," says Ariansen proudly.
In Toloa by chance
Despite the widespread recognition, Heirines Sifontes hadn't heard about the hotels when she arrived in Tumbes on March 1. She had other worries: the Venezuelan refugee was 36 weeks pregnant, and had just crossed the border with her mother, her younger sister and her 6-year-old daughter.
Sifontes had not wanted to give birth in her homeland — she had heard too many stories about newborns dying. Their ultimate destination had been Chile, and the home of a friend who had offered to help.
But after spending eight days sitting in a bus, the heavily pregnant Sifontes was exhausted and couldn't go any further. On her arrival in Tumbes, a UNHCR worker took one look and told her to go to the Toloa hotel and rest. "You can't lose your child," the worker said.
"Of course, we were shocked. We don't know anybody here in Tumbes. I never thought I would end up here. But I simply couldn't go on." Ariansen immediately gave them one of the few rooms for four people, saying they could stay as long as necessary. And the next day, the refugee relief organization sent Sifontes to the doctor.
Home for now
Sifontes remains touched by the help and friendliness she has received in Peru.
"They told me that we would first bring your child into the world and then you can continue your journey," she says. "Then the UNHCR helped me find a place for my daughter and little sister to attend school. Since this week, they've been attending class."
Sifontes plans to stay in Tumbes for the time being. The UNHCR helped her to find a small apartment for after the birth. And she is eternally grateful to Ariansen.
"This hotel has changed my life. At a moment when I was completely desperate, I suddenly had a roof over my head. I am so grateful they opened the doors to me here," she says.