Reports from the humanitarian crisis on the Colombian border

Patrick Ammerman, a second-year MSW student in the School of Social Policy & Practice, spent two months in Colombia reporting on immigrants and refugees fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

Patrick Ammerman
Patrick Ammerman, a second-year Master's of Social Work student in the School of Social Policy & Practice.

No stranger to activism and with a passion for justice, Patrick Ammerman applied for a 2019 Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting fellowship in February 2019, hoping to shine a light on human rights—but not at all expecting he’d actually receive the grant. 

Months later, he’d find himself reporting from along the Venezuelan-Colombian border, the center of the largest refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere and where many Venezuelans come to receive lifesaving medication for HIV/AIDS and other health conditions.

Ammerman is a second-year student in the Master of Social Work Program in the School of Social Policy & Practice. From Cincinnati, Ohio, he began his career as a biology student at Swarthmore College, eventually working as an environmental activist and community organizer in Philadelphia and, for several years, as a freelance reporter tackling similar topics. 

His time as a community organizer spurred his interest in social work, leading him to Penn, where he’s on track to receive his master’s degree in May. He was awarded a stipend from the Pulitzer Center in June 2019 to fund international reporting related to systemic problems overlooked by mainstream U.S. media. Professor Azahara Palomeque, part of the Penn in Latin America Caribbean Initiative that administered this particular grant’s funding, encouraged him to apply. He was awarded the Pulitzer grant along with one other student at Penn, Samidha Sane of the Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business, who was awarded a grant intended for reporting projects in South Asia and North Africa. The University is one of few schools in a consortium of colleges and universities with multiple students who received funding. 

Upon arriving in the region, Ammerman says, he discovered through conversation that people living in Venezuela with HIV/AIDS could not access the treatment they needed to control the virus—the result of decades of an under-resourced medical system that’s caused doctors to flee and stripped hospitals of the equipment they need to treat patients, all while the country has dealt with corruption in its government that’s only gotten worse since Nicolás Maduro ascended to the presidency in 2013.

As of 2018, according to Human Rights Watch, 15 of the 25 antiretroviral drugs actively used in Venezuela were out of stock. 

“I never stopped being shocked,” Ammerman says of the stories he’d hear on the border. 

Areas just out of reach from the border, he explains, were especially surprising when he witnessed living conditions. Many people lived on the streets or in parks, including children. There was a shortage of jobs, so many Venezuelans were pushed into working informally, such as selling candy on the street or washing cars at traffic lights. 

“There were so many Venezuelans living there and very few needs organizations because they’re so far from the border, and the conditions I saw there were really appalling,” he says, referring to a trip he took to Calí, Colombia. “But some of the people I met were the most impressive advocates to me, because they were doing what they could with so few resources and little attention compared to on the border, where international NGOs had set up their headquarters in Colombia.”

He also learned through his reporting that some practitioners had stopped even administering HIV tests because there was no way to treat it upon diagnosis. Hearing that, he says, was when he knew he wanted to focus on this particular issue for his project. 

“I thought, ‘If this is something I want to pursue, I have to find someone who will talk to me on the record,’ and I had to find someone living with HIV—and by coincidence, a week after that, I ended up interviewing someone living with HIV and learned more about their experience trying to get into the health system inside Colombia,” he explains.

In Colombia, he adds, it is possible for Venezuelans to access the antiretroviral therapies HIV patients need, but it can be very difficult for noncitizens to get care for chronic health conditions. For example, he says, cancer and HIV are not considered emergencies in Colombian hospitals, therefore, Venezuelans living with HIV would not be guaranteed care without a special permit. 

“It just seemed like another sign to me that this was a real issue that was really impacting people, so I wanted to pursue it more,” Ammerman says.

The result was a report published in Foreign Policy, as well as on the Pulitzer Center website. He’s since published two additional stories about his findings in Colombia—one, a video related to Venezuelan refugees migrating on foot through the highways of Colombia, and another, published Feb. 13, also about these walkers—called “caminantes”—and the impact of their presence on one small Colombian town. 

Palomeque, associate director of the Master of Science in Social Policy Program and instructor of a SP2 Global Seminar on Cuban politics and culture that Ammerman took, describes Ammerman as “very curious, smart, ambitious, but also humble, with incredible writing skills.” His work in Colombia, she says, is an example of his interest in social justice.

“One thing I like about Patrick is he doesn’t think about what is happening in the superficial way—he goes beyond,” says Palomeque, referring to Ammerman’s report that dug into not just migration but the health consequences for these people. “It definitely aligns with the school’s mission and I can really see he succeeded in that project because of—not exclusively because of, but because that’s part of being a social worker.”

Looking ahead, she encourages students to apply and discover life in other countries. 

“Having multicultural skills is always a good thing; communication skills, these are things that are going to be helpful in anyone’s professional development. And if you can go and immerse yourself in a different community, the learning that comes out of it is very valuable,” she says.

Readers can find Ammerman’s reports, collectively packaged as “Caught Between: Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia,” on the Pulitzer Center website