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Building a new life block by block

News Stories, 2 February 2005

© UNHCR/J.Silva
Jairo Augusto starts producing concrete blocks at daybreak in Guasdualito, Venezuela.

ALTO APURE, Venezuela, Feb 2 (UNHCR) It's barely daybreak in Guasdualito and Jairo Augusto (not his real name) and his sons are busy mixing sand and cement to produce concrete building blocks. "We are a big family and we like to work, we were born to work," he explains excitedly as he empties the ready cement mix into the square moulds.

Seeing this energetic, hardworking father of five, it's difficult to imagine that two years ago, Augusto was living in constant fear of irregular armed groups in Colombia. After being accused of insurgency and receiving public death threats, he and family decided to flee to Guasdualito, Venezuela, where they settled on an abandoned farm and began to rebuild their lives.

In the beginning, the extended family of almost 30 people was unemployed and occasionally worked selling fish in El Gomero, a port on the shores of Sarare River in Venezuela. They also cleaned houses while Augusto worked as a farm-hand on one of the large haciendas.

Shortly thereafter, Augusto inquired whether his idea to produce construction blocks could be accepted as an income-generating project, part of UNHCR's Community Support and Integration Programme. "I used to make blocks in Colombia and I wanted to do something I'm good at," he said.

UNHCR and the Jesuit Refugee Service funded the purchase of basic materials for producing the cement blocks, and provided technical assistance and training in project management.

Augusto's first set of concrete blocks went towards the construction of large compost bins that produce fertilizer for various agricultural projects also promoted by UNHCR. Following the success of this first project, he expanded his client base by placing signs advertising his low prices along the road leading to Guasdualito, which has a population of approximately 60,000. News of his competitive prices spread among residents, who use the bricks to expand their houses and to build small businesses and kiosks.

"The community now sees them as builders and service providers, not as victims, refugees or illegal migrants," said Eduardo Soto from the Jesuit Refugee Service in Guasdualito. "They have gained respect from the community because of the quality, seriousness and responsibility that they put into their work."

Armando Baldini, a UN Volunteer working for UNHCR in Alto Apure, added, "These income-generating projects are important not only because they provide a means of subsistence for refugees and asylum seekers, but also because they help them to rebuild their lives, to feel useful, integrate and contribute to their host communities."

Jesus Alberto, owner of a small fruit and vegetable business, has also benefited from UNHCR's income-generating projects. "I used to plant crops in my hometown, and even brought seeds from Colombia, but I didn't have anything to work the earth with," explained Alberto. UNHCR financing allowed this young Colombian refugee to purchase the fertilizer and tools he needed to plant his first crop.

"I started by planting tomatoes and lost the whole harvest. Then I switched to cilantro and realized that it sold really well," he said. In addition to cilantro, he now grows and sells passion fruit, papaya and pineapple to local shops and individual clients. With the earnings from this project, he bought some pigs and added pork to his list of products.

"I have a lot more project ideas, but for now I am clearing more land to expand my harvest. I also have a secret that keeps my plants from dying I pray every day."

He added, "I like to work in the field. It's my life. The earth gave me life and the earth will help me provide for my family."

UNHCR has registered close to 2,000 Colombian asylum seekers in Alto Apure and implemented a total of 51 projects benefiting over 300 people. Every year, the refugee agency provides 40.5 million bolivares ($20,000) for income-generating projects implemented by the Jesuit Refugee Service.

By Grace Guerrero in Alto Apure, Venezuela

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UNHCR country pages

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

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