Looking for Colombians

Lily Shaffer - Ecuador


February 11, 2011

I began a new project at work in January. My job is exactly as the title suggests: I’ve been hiking through mountains looking for Colombian refugees.

Okay, let’s back up for a minute. Pastoral Migratoria supports Colombian refugees in a holistic manner. I’ve been going to court with the lawyer, learning to give interviews with the social worker, and teaching in the Centro Infantil and Refuerzo program.  This new project, REAP supports refugees who have been here for less than six months by providing a sustainable income as quickly as possible; the classic “teach a man to fish” model. We just provide the fishing pole and worms as well.

Last year, REAP’s focus was on chickens.  When a person committed to a year of workshops on self-esteem, integration into the community, how to raise chickens, etc., we committed to 20 chickens and the supplies to build a chicken coop.  A year later, one of the women we supported now has 200 chickens and is the primary supplier to the street restaurants in her village. REAP is in its third year and is very successful.

[slidepress gallery=’lily-shaffer-looking-for-colombians’]

Note: Move your mouse over the photos to see the captions!

The xenophobia in Ecuador towards Colombians is perhaps one of the most excruciating, inhumane acts I have ever seen. I have conducted countless interviews where refugees break down when I ask if they’ve felt discrimination. The stories begin with watching a husband murdered, having a child disappear, hiding during the day and hitchhiking through the mountains at night in the back of pickup trucks.  Then refugees arrive in Ecuador and no one will hire them because they’re Colombian.  When they think they’ve found a house to rent and then the owner discovers they’re Colombian, they’re promptly kicked out.

REAP tries to ease the first six months of immigration because they are the most challenging in terms of integration.  My advisor, Mariela, is the director of this program.  We have a chapter in the city of Ibarra that is highly sought out, but we also look for rural inhabitants. Her approach to finding people is seeking out refugees to support instead of them seeking us.  I was dubious as to how this would work out, but it’s been successful for three years now.  Consequently, we go looking for Colombian refugees.

And thus begins the adventure.

On our first day of searching, we went to a village two hours outside of Ibarra where there was a refugee we supported last year. He was still in Colombia from Christmas, but his neighbor told us he thought there was a new group up on a mountain, which he pointed out. So we went.

The road was pure mud, which came as a relief because we slowed down from 120 kilometers on the windy, mudslide laden highway, to about 50. We were inching up this bumpy road in what I found out is rainforest, looking for this said group of refugees living on the side of a mountain. We did find two Colombian sisters, but they had been there for a few years, so we couldn’t help. What was amazing, though, was since they were illegal, they hadn’t left their bungalow on the side of this mountain since they arrived for fear a police officer would ask for identification.  But they pointed to another mountain and said there was a village called Rosal across the valley. We could apparently drive up the mountain, if we took the road to the right. Across from the entrance to the mountain of Rosal, there was a path—an hour walk, supposedly—where we could find two more families of Colombians who had been here for less than a month.

Ultimately, Hermana Johana decided we’d do that walk another day when we had more time, and go to Rosal instead. We were literally going on a blind hope based off of the reports of two women who hadn’t left the side of their mountain for two years. But one thing I’ve discovered while looking for Colombians is that the refugees know where all the other refugees are, regardless of how remote their homes may be, or how seldom they venture out of their village for safety precautions.

Needless to say, Rosal was a success. We’ve had a few talleres de capacitacion, or workshops, with a group of about twenty five Colombians. The roads were carved cliffs with straight, sharp walls of falling stones.  After about thirty minutes of terrifying maneuvering, we arrived at a house. The owner explained the situations of the families in Rosal, we left him with information about the first meeting, and a week later, everyone from the village was at the meeting. Yet again, the ability for people to come together and rely on each other has fascinated me. Right before we left, the man we met said,

“Hey, if you go up that mountain, the one across the river, there are two families of recently arrived Colombians. It’s only a ten minute walk. Their houses are where the mountain meets the clouds. It won’t take long.”

He was referring to the same families the women mentioned.  I’m looking at this mountain thinking there is no freaking way it’s a ten minute walk. Even for the people living there who are used to the altitude and are incredibly fit from their work, there’s just no way.

Hermana Johana is spontaneous.

Next thing I know we’re starting up the mountain. We parked the truck on the edge of the highway and took out all our valuables. We were literally walking up a slope of a skinny path that was merely beaten down brush.  It was stunning: waterfalls, blue winged birds and shades of green I didn’t know existed.

Within fifteen minutes, we arrived at a house. Well, shoot, I though. It was nearly ten minutes after all!

Nope. This family was Ecuatoriano. Yet they told us that there were two more houses just up the path, a few more minutes—they weren’t sure of the families’ nationalities.  So we keep pushing upwards. We had no idea whether this family was even Colombiano, and it was 5:30—only forty five more minutes of daylight. The tree cover was dazzling and lush. Even in the drizzle that started, I was content to be outside of Ibarra. Yet there was still an annoyance in the back of my mind, saying this is not just a “few more minutes.”

After about a half hour more, the climate suddenly changed. It dropped about ten degrees and the trees turned into cactuses, the vegetation into crumbling red earth.  We came to a ledge, no more than two feet wide, that dropped into a rushing gorge.  Brush sprouted up from the sides of the cliff. For the first time, I got a glimpse of just how high up we were—and just how much more we needed to climb.  Those of you who know me know I’m a little afraid of heights—so when Mariela jokingly pushed me as we crossed the ledge one-by-one, I was not a happy camper.  We grumpily (well, I grumpily) kept trudging. The sun was setting over Rosal, the village across the valley. Just to where the clouds meet the mountains. Next came a potato field and then, low and behold, an hour and fifteen minutes later, a cloud, and a house!

We all stopped and looked at each other. “Let’s just hope they’re Colombians!” Fabrizio, our driver, joked.

Let’s just hope they’re home is more like it; because at the first home, nobody was home. When we got to the second ramshackle, scattered with chickens and potato plants, a young girl, no more than 18 or 19, stepped out and greeted us with a solemn face. She thought we were seeking her out for deportation.

Once we made it clear that we were here to help, she loosened up. It turns out she lives there with her son, two brothers, and sister.  She wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea of the project, telling us that her self-esteem is perfectly normal and she has no use for therapy and meditation.  This is a common grievance with refugees, and I can honestly agree with them, that the talleres can come off as demeaning. But she’s been there at every single meeting thus far.

We scaled down the path in the dark, Hermana Johana and I racing, Mariela yelling that we’d fall or come across a snake. We sang Pipe Bueno the whole way home, a Spanish CD I can proudly say I know all the words to, and they taught me words in Spanish I shouldn’t know. We went out for pizza and practically fell asleep in our lemonade—it was 8:30 and we’d been travelling since 7:30 a.m. Even though all the houses weren’t quite as remote as the final home, we did a lot of hiking and searching.

We visit these communities once every fifteen days now. There are four groups—one in Rosal, one in Ibarra, and two in other rural areas of the province of Imbabura. I’m always terrified of the drives—our adventures get crazier and crazier every time—but it’s rewarding.  People come from nearly an hour drive away to the Rosal—in banana plantations and on the edges of rivers and on the tips of mountains—in road conditions I can hardly imagine, and I’ve travelled them (we visit each families’ house). But there’s a real sense of community and trust building. We haven’t started giving out chanchitos—piglets—yet because we need time to make sure people are committed, but the looks on people’s faces when we give them a bag of alimentación—rice, sugar, flour, salt, oil, pasta—the appreciation and trust they have for our organization is abundant. And not only that, but the respect growing between them is what’s the most incredible. People are leaving their mountains and supporting each other. For many of these people, they’re feeling a sense of community for the first time since immigrating, and depending on what part of Colombia they came from and how severe the guerilla was, for the first time in their lives.

Lily Shaffer