Counselling and a trade help Colombian refugee conquer his fears

Making a Difference, 30 November 2010

© UNHCR/A.Escalante
A long journey to safety and restored self-confidence in Ecuador.

IBARRA, Ecuador, November 30 (UNHCR) Juan can't quite shake-off his nightmares, still haunted by the years of struggle to escape from persecutors in his native Colombia. But the 52-year-old is getting regular psychological support, with the help of the UN refugee agency, and feels safe in his waking hours.

The treatment has given him more confidence, while financial assistance and training is helping him to build a small business and become self-sufficient. Juan's outlook on life is a lot more positive compared to his state of mind on arrival in Ibarra, capital of northern Ecuador's Imbabura province, a year ago.

Juan hails from the northern Colombian department of Antioquia, where he had a small shop. His troubles began a few years ago when irregular armed groups instructed all traders in his home town to pay them a protection tax. They also wanted to use his shop to monitor the movements of specific people.

"If I accepted, I would have been showing that I was cooperating with the paramilitaries, but I couldn't say no," Juan explained, adding that he decided to flee, leaving his wife and two sons behind.

He spent the next four years moving from one city to another Medellin, Bucaramanga and Armenia upping anchor when he thought that the irregular armed group had picked up his trail again. He became another statistic as one of more than 3 million internally displaced Colombians.

In desperation, he went to the authorities in Armenia, where he sold handicrafts. That's also when he decided to seek sanctuary across the border in Ecuador.

Once in Ibarra, all the persecution, trauma and stress of the past few years caught up with Juan and he shut himself off, avoiding contact with other people. But he did receive material assistance from UHCR and others, including food, rental support and household goods.

The priority was to address his mental state. UNHCR, through an implementing partner, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, provided monthly therapy sessions aimed at restoring Juan's self confidence.

"It is important to support refugees not only with income-generation activities, but also provide them with psychological support," Vito Trani, head of the UNHCR office in Ibarra, stressed, adding that this helped them integrate and build new lives.

And once Juan started coming out of his shell, UNHCR looked at ways to help him become self-sufficient. The refugee agency gave him a grant of US$100 to start a handicrafts business. He has used the money to buy raw materials for bracelets and necklaces and is now taking part in a training course, where he has learned business principles.

While things have started to turn around for Juan, life is still not easy for him and the more than 50,000 other registered Colombian refugees in this country. He lives alone in a small room and he is not with his family.

But he is slowly integrating and says the Ecuadoreans are good people. "I don't make plans for the future any more. I live from day to day," he said, thankful to be alive. "My story is just one of the hundreds and thousands of similar experiences of my fellow Colombians,' he added, looking wistfully into the distance.

By Francisco Arends in Ibarra, Ecuador




UNHCR country pages

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

In a violence-ridden corner of Colombia, a group of courageous women are putting their lives at risk helping survivors of displacement and sexual violence. In a country where 5.7 million people have been uprooted by conflict, they live in one of the most dangerous cities - Buenaventura. Colombia's main port has one of the highest rates of violence and displacement, due to escalating rivalries between armed groups. To show their power or to exact revenge, the groups often violate and abuse the most vulnerable - women and children.

But in Buenaventura, the women who make up "Butterflies" are standing up and helping the survivors. They provide one-on-one support for victims of abuse and reach into different communities to educate and empower women and put pressure on the authorities to uphold women's rights.

Many of Butterflies' members have been forcibly displaced during the past 50 years of conflict, or have lost relatives and friends. Many are also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is this shared experience that pushes them to continue their work in spite of the risks.

On foot or by bus, Gloria Amparello , Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina - three of the Butterflies coordinators - visit the most dangerous neighbourhoods and help women access medical and psychological care or help them report crimes. Through workshops, they teach women about their rights and how to earn a living. So far, Butterflies volunteers have helped more than 1,000 women and their families.

Butterflies has become a driving force in raising awareness about the high levels of violence against women. Despite attracting the attention of armed groups, they organize protests against abuse of women in the streets of their dilapidated city, determined to knock down walls of fear and silence.

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As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

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UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie visits Ecuador

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In her previous role as a UN refugee agency Goodwill Ambassador, Jolie has conducted more than 40 field visits over the last decade. This is her third time in Ecuador - home to the largest refugee population in Latin America.

Ecuador currently hosts some 56,000 refugees and 21,000 asylum-seekers. It continues to receive 1,300 new applications for refugee status each month from people fleeing Colombia. Many live in remote and poor areas of the country close to the Colombian border.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie visits Ecuador

Ecuador: Guterres visits EcuadorPlay video

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UNHCR chief António Guterres visits Ecuador ahead of World Refugee Day and praises the country for hosting refugees.
Angelina Jolie in EcuadorPlay video

Angelina Jolie in Ecuador

Angelina Jolie meets Colombian refugees in Ecuador during her first field visit as Special Envoy of the High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.
Ecuador: Left BehindPlay video

Ecuador: Left Behind

People continue to flee to Ecuador to escape violence in neighbouring Colombia. Some have to make tough choices while seeking safety.