19 Sep Colombians, invisible actors in Ecuadorian society
Johana, her young son, David, and her oldest son, Miguel, live in a small room in one of Quito’s lower class neighbourhoods. They are hardly making enough money to pay the rent every month. In 2014, after being threatened and attacked for not collaborating with the guerrillas, Johana decided to flee Colombia and seek refuge in Ecuador.
Gabriela CisnerosCOA Coordinator and Facilitator in Quito, Ecuador
Johana was a social worker in Colombia. She had a stable job as an occupational risk prevention trainer, working with farmers in various communities around Colombia. One day, one man approached her following a presentation that she had just made.
“He told me “You are popular and you look strong. We need people like you working on our side”. I knew immediately he was part of the guerrillas, and I started avoiding him and other similar recruiting people. When I was a child, my mother had always warned us about the guerrillas. She reminded us continually to be vigilant and to be aware of their intents, in case they did come for us and forced us into joining their groups” Johana explained.
When Johana refused to work with the guerrillas, she became a target for revenge. She was victimized and threats went on for many months. One night, when her son was attacked, that is when she decided that she had had enough and decided to flee Colombia; carrying only a few things. They rode in the back of a truck to a nearby town and then took a bus to the northern border with Ecuador.
After being informed of her rights and receiving help from different organizations, Johana requested asylum to the Ecuadorian Government.
“It was so hard for me to place my trust into these Ecuadorian authorities and organizations. Somehow it had been ingrained in me that, just like in Colombia, people working for the government and for helping organizations could be bought with money. In Colombia, justice does not exist. Money rules”, adds the single mother of two.
Johana explains that life in Quito was hard. She received a small amount of money from an organization, but her refugee status did not allow her to work. Without proper documentation, it took over four months for Johana’s two sons to integrate the school system. Despite their efforts, they both ended up failing the school year.
The family also struggled with discrimination. The oldest son, David, was bullied by his schoolmates and even by the school principal.
“You’re a Colombian refugee” he said to me in front of everyone. “You are in my country and you have to do what I tell you to do”. From that point on, everyone started calling me “nigger refugee” or “Colombian guerrillero”.
David was pushed into selling drugs. Unable to cope with the daily confrontations, he dropped out of school. Now, he helps his mother at home and sometimes works as a bricklayer, earning three dollars a day.
“We came from a country where people get killed by weapons, but here people get killed by words” adds Johana. “We need an opportunity to re-write our lives”.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Colombia has the second world’s highest number of persons displaced by violence, exceeded only by Syria. Ecuador has the largest population of recognized refugees in Latin America and 98% of them are Colombians.
The lack of local integration for Colombian refugees in Ecuador quickly became a new ground for protection issue, and resettlement is considered a durable solution.
The UNHCR eventually found Johana and her family eligible for resettlement.
A few months ago, Johana and her two sons attended the Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) session in IOM Quito.
Through group discussions and interactive activities, the group learned about Canada, its geography, political systems, multiculturalism, climate, cultures and laws. They also discussed the resettlement programs, and important topics such as education, housing, health, settlement services, language acquisition and access to citizenship.
“I had received some misinformation regarding Canada and its culture, but now I feel confident and ready to travel and start a new life there”, Johana mentioned at the end of the three-day orientation session.
COA facilitators, in Ecuador and elsewhere, are used to hearing the same rumours and misconceptions about Canada. They are able to set the record straight, provide accurate information and help the participants build realistic expectations about their upcoming move.
Colombian refugees are particularly concerned about their rights and legal status in Canada.
Youth refugees generally attend the three-day session with their parents, but they are also provided with a tailored orientation and support at the end of each day. These special sessions focus on school, bullying, youth employment, extra-curricular activities, laws, budgeting and recreational programs.
At the end of the pre-departure orientation session, everyone in the family is feeling more relaxed, more prepared and confident that the future will bring something more positive to their interrupted lives.