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The Genesis, Geleen, and Luis Fund

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I met Genesis & Luis while traveling in Cartagena, Colombia in September, 2023. Luis was sitting outside a Juan Valdez coffeeshop in the center of the old walled colonial coastal city, in the sweltering heat, next to a small rack of handmade crochet keychains and dolls. He was not pushy or aggressive like many street vendors can be in Cartagena. He noticed me eyeing the adorable knitted whales, turtles and hearts and politely asked if I liked any of them. He told me his wife, Genesis, made them. I asked if it would be possible to get a custom keychain. He said yes, but because he did not have a phone, he gave me her number and I messaged her. 

She replied immediately and said she could make any little animal keychain with a 24-48 hour turnaround time. Sure enough, the following day, when I returned to where Luis was sitting, he proudly presented my requested keychain, a green seahorse.

I bought Luis a bottle of cold water from the Juan Valdez coffeeshop and walked with him as he made his way, slowly, to the old fortress wall by the ocean. We watched as other vendors approached tourists to sell water and bracelets. Luis leaned up against a wall and propped his small display up next to him. He told me a bit about their lives, how they had crossed the border from Venezuela into Colombia two years prior and had only recently arrived in Cartagena.

I noticed when we were walking that one of his legs was stiff and he limped. I learned soon after that he had been in a terrible motorcycle accident in Venezuela leaving him with a poorly healed knee joint and horrific scarring.

In 2022, while the pandemic raged, Genesis, then around 18, and Luis, 22, left Venezuela and hitchhiked and walked into Colombia. I would only learn later about the terrible conditions that forced them to make this decision and the desperate times they had since experienced.

Just weeks after making it to Cartagena with a newborn, and reeling from a broken promise of a job there, they ended up in a single room with almost no running water, no appliances, and an old mattress on the floor. It was during this time that Genesis began to sew small crochet items for Luis to sell, a way to make some income for themselves and their baby.

The day before I was to leave Cartagena, I spent the evening with all three of them outside, sitting on the pavement perimeter of the Plaza de la Proclamación watching a group of dancers and drummers perform in the humid heat of the Cartagena night. Genesis had come with baby Geleen in a very old stroller. I bought them water and asked if she had time to knit one more crochet item, a small lion, and she pulled out a ball of yarn and got to work.

Luis walked nearby with 11 month old Geleen, carefully holding her arms from above. As Genesis knitted and became more comfortable being around me, a total stranger, she suddenly began to talk about her time in school in Venezuela, her Excel skills, and how much she loved working on the school computers.

She held up the small, partially completed lion, and confided it was sometimes difficult to do the smaller animals because her vision was not good and she had no glasses. To me, this seemed like an especially cruel predicament.

The next morning, I received a text from Genesis that she was not able to finish the lion and needed extra yarn. Luis was out looking for a new room to rent, and Genesis came to the city center, with Geleen, to finish the lion. It was mid morning and getting hot fast. I gave her some money to buy a coffee and work inside a nearby coffee shop where it would be cooler, while I did some last minute errands. She seemed hesitant and admitted she had never been inside any of the city center stores but accepted and immediately went to work finishing the miniature lion.

By the time I was back, it was finished and I paid her. She quietly joked, “please take us with you in your suitcase.” Geleen peered up at us from her stroller. I had to get to the airport fast. Before leaving, I handed her an extra $100 in cash for an eye exam and glasses. She was surprised and grateful and continued to thank me in the days that followed, with photos showing off her new glasses.

That money, they told me days later, not only was enough to buy a pair of new glasses, but with left over for several new balls of yarn and some extra food. I can’t remember how many times they thanked me, over and over. I knew it was never going to be enough.

Over the following weeks, I kept in touch, messaging them on their single cracked phone. I encouraged Genesis to keep knitting, and she explained there was only so much she could do with a baby who loves to cry and crawl, amidst a neverending stream of tasks around the two rooms they were renting on a dirt road outside the city center, made worse by intermittent water shutoffs and power outages. Without a refrigerator and only one barely working fan, conditions were bleak.

Sometimes, WhatsApp would ring and it would be Genesis and Luis, calling to say hello. Genesis seemed to enjoy these calls, talking much more than Luis, sharing more details about her school days in Venezuela and things she wished she could do. She once said, interestingly, that she would love to visit Ireland, or Dubai, or the United States. I asked, what about Ireland interested her and she said the cold climate and the rain. She mentioned titles of books she read years earlier, books about mythology and rattled off names of Greek gods. She showed me a picture of an impressive canvas acrylic painting that she herself had made, and a few drawings.

Donations (1)

  • Jyldyz Wood
    • $100 
    • 1 d
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Robert Zemser
Jersey City, NJ

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