• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Sharing knowledge to help fellow refugees: a volunteer's story in Ecuador

News Stories, 3 May 2006

© UNHCR/C.Rodriguez
Diocelina, a DAFI scholarship recipient, shares her knowledge of computers with fellow Colombian refugees and local people alike in Ecuador.

LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador, 3 May (UNHCR) Diocelina spends most of her days running from one place to another in Lago Agrio, the small Ecuadorian town where she sought refuge three years ago. As well as being the mother of a small child, the 25-year-old Colombian is one of 24 refugees in Ecuador to have received a scholarship from the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund (DAFI). For the past 18 months, she has been studying at the local university for a diploma in Information Technology, and this past month she has been busier than usual with homework and preparing for her exams.

The DAFI Scholarships Programme is a worldwide initiative to give refugees the chance of pursuing tertiary education in their country of asylum. It is funded by the German government and managed by UNHCR. The programme aims to promote self-sufficiency among refugees by boosting their chances of employment. It also seeks to encourage refugee girls and women to continue with their education. Every year, an average of some 1,000 refugees worldwide receive a DAFI scholarship, and Ecuador has the largest number of beneficiaries in Latin America.

"In Ecuador, I have found peace and the chance to move on with my life," says Diocelina, who comes from Putumayo, a Colombian department with a high level of violence linked to the country's internal armed conflict. "The scholarship has given me opportunities and hopes for the future I could not have dreamt of before."

Even though her studies have kept her very busy, Diocelina felt the need to share some of her knowledge with other people. When she heard that UNHCR needed a volunteer teacher to provide basic computer training to a group of Colombian refugees and local Ecuadorians, she did not hesitate to take on the challenge.

"I started by teaching them the basics," she says, "how to turn on a computer, how to use the word-processing and data-processing programmes. After that, we moved on and started working on writing letters, invoices and other documents they use in their daily life."

To reach that level is a remarkable achievement for her nine students, who only recently completed an adult literacy course run by a UNHCR partner agency, HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

"Learning how to read and write at my age has been like a miracle," says Jorge, a man in his thirties. "I used to be so ashamed of not being able to help my children with their homework and to depend on them for paperwork and that sort of thing."

Jorge, and everyone else who completed the literacy course, has now received a diploma recognised by the Ministry of Education. Jorge himself is not a refugee but a local Ecuadorian many of the programmes UNHCR funds in Lago Agrio, a frontier town with a large Colombian population, benefit both the local population and refugees.

"Ecuador's northern region is one of the poorest and least-developed in the country," says Angel Granja, UNHCR's Programme Assistant in Ecuador, "and is home to many Colombians who are of concern to UNHCR. In such a context, our projects seek to strengthen the receiving community as well as the refugee population, and we also find that joint projects help to generate an atmosphere of trust between Colombians and Ecuadorians and to promote better integration of refugees in the local population."

Álvaro is one of the Colombian refugees attending Diocelina's computer training. He is working on a Microsoft Word document that details the services he provides plumbing, electrical repairs, masonry as well as his contact information. Before, he explains, he had to go to an Internet Café to do this and it cost him money, especially as he did not know how to use the computer properly. Álvaro arrived in Ecuador five years ago and has been doing building work and whatever occasional jobs he can find to support his family of eight children.

"As a matter of fact," he corrects himself after a while, "my wife and I have nine children. But one of them disappeared in Colombia just before we left. Since then, we have not heard from him."

Like all the students, Álvaro is thankful to Diocelina and admires her for volunteering her time, but she says the experience has been a very enriching one for her too.

"Sharing what I have learnt has helped me to deepen my knowledge, because it forces me to review every aspect of the computer programmes. It is also good training for me because I would like to become a teacher, maybe a university teacher one day. First, I want to apply my skills in an enterprise and then hopefully go back to university."

Like Diocelina, the other 23 DAFI scholars scattered in Ecuador mainly in Quito, Ibarra and Lago Agrio carry out other volunteer activities under HIAS supervision to help refugees and the communities in which they live.

"Last year, they were instrumental in organising World Refugee Day events and raising awareness about refugee issues in the population," says Graciela Muñoz, who works for HIAS in Lago Agrio. "This year, they are also planning activities for the same occasion. Sharing with others is part of the spirit of the DAFI programme."

By Xavier Orellana in Lago Agrio, Ecuador




UNHCR country pages


Education is vital in restoring hope and dignity to young people driven from their homes.

DAFI Scholarships

The German-funded Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative provides scholarships for refugees to study in higher education institutes in many countries.

Seeds of Hope

20 Years of DAFI: A UNHCR exhibition highlights the impact of higher education for refugee communities.

Chad: Education in Exile

UNHCR joins forces with the Ministry of Education and NGO partners to improve education for Sudanese refugees in Chad.

The ongoing violence in Sudan's western Darfur region has uprooted two million Sudanese inside the country and driven some 230,000 more over the border into 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Although enrolment in the camp schools in Chad is high, attendance is inconsistent. A shortage of qualified teachers and lack of school supplies and furniture make it difficult to keep schools running. In addition, many children are overwhelmed by household chores, while others leave school to work for local Chadian families. Girls' attendance is less regular, especially after marriage, which usually occurs by the age of 12 or 13. For boys and young men, attending school decreases the possibility of recruitment by various armed groups operating in the area.

UNHCR and its partners continue to provide training and salaries for teachers in all 12 refugee camps, ensuring a quality education for refugee children. NGO partners maintain schools and supply uniforms to needy students. And UNICEF is providing books, note pads and stationary. In August 2007 UNHCR, UNICEF and Chad's Ministry of Education joined forces to access and improve the state of education for Sudanese uprooted by conflict in Darfur.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Chad: Education in Exile

Education for Displaced Colombians

UNHCR works with the government of Colombia to address the needs of children displaced by violence.

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People. About half of them are under the age of 18, and, according to the Ministry of Education, only half of these are enrolled in school.

Even before displacement, Colombian children attending school in high-risk areas face danger from land mines, attacks by armed groups and forced recruitment outside of schools. Once displaced, children often lose an entire academic year. In addition, the trauma of losing one's home and witnessing extreme violence often remain unaddressed, affecting the child's potential to learn. Increased poverty brought on by displacement usually means that children must work to help support the family, making school impossible.

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Education for Displaced Colombians

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

Syrian refugee carries Olympic torch through AthensPlay video

Syrian refugee carries Olympic torch through Athens

Symbolic gesture intended to show solidarity with the world's refugees at a time when millions are fleeing war and persecution worldwide.
Ecuador earthquake leaves thousands homelessPlay video

Ecuador earthquake leaves thousands homeless

More than a week after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador killing nearly 600 people, thousands of Ecuadorans and many Colombian refugees remain homeless. UNHCR is distributing 900 tents and other aid in the hardest-hit areas like Chamanga, a Pacific-coast town where the half the population lost their homes.
Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to ServePlay video

Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to Serve

War forced Lim Bol Thong to flee South Sudan, putting his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. As a refugee in the Kule camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, he has found another way to serve. Just 21 years old, Lim started teaching chemistry at the school's primary school and last year was promoted to Vice Principal.