News Stories, 5 October 2005
PANAMA, October 5 (UNHCR) – "I have everything I need to tell you my story. So many people back home have not lived to tell theirs," Maria says, as she launches into her harrowing tale.
Sitting under the surprisingly fancy chandelier that hangs from the tin roof of her small house on the outskirts of Panama, this 46-year-old grandmother of five alternately laughs and cries her way through memories of the life she left behind in her native Colombia.
A year ago, threats from an armed group forced her to escape with her family to Panama, where life is still tough but not without its rewards. Even while she describes the continuing hardships of living in this new country as a refugee, Maria is fiercely determined to make the most of the peace and security she has found here, and says that Panama is "the second heaven."
Like Maria, most of those seeking asylum in Panama recently have been Colombians fleeing the armed conflict there. The UN refugee agency is working with the Panama government to ensure that their rights are respected, and to help them integrate into Panamanian society.
In July of 2005, UNHCR started up a micro-credit programme for refugees living in or around the capital, Panama City. The small loans provided under this programme are intended to allow refugees to set up or strengthen their business enterprises.
UNHCR's Renee Cuijpers explains that, so far, 63 percent of the loans have been provided directly to refugee women, and have been used in a variety of enterprises – many of them in the food industry: a bakery, an ice cream shop, a seafood business, and door-to-door food sales.
Maria has just received one of these loans, which she will use to buy an oven and fridge to expand the catering business which she started on her own a few months back. "I used to have domestic help in Colombia, and now I have to cook for others, but I really don't mind," she says. "With 50 years of conflict in Colombia, luckily our parents prepared us for everything."
The memory of the coffee plantation she inherited is still fresh, however, and she breaks down as she remembers her family's life there. After a few moments, she collects herself and describes the day in the summer of 2004 when seven armed men showed up on her doorstep. She recalls how adamant she was in her refusal to give them the "vacuna" (vaccination) they demanded – money many Colombians are forced to pay to one illegal armed group in order to receive protection from another.
Threats to the family followed, and then a month of living undercover before they found a way to leave the country. During that time, they all disguised themselves, including Maria who cropped and dyed the long shiny black hair of which she had always been so proud.
In August 2004, after giving the keys of the estancia to a friend – promising him he could keep it if they did not return within five years – Maria, her husband, three daughters, son, stepson and four grandchildren were finally able to cross into Panama where they applied for asylum. One grandson stayed in Colombia with her son's ex-wife.
As asylum seekers, the adult members of Maria's family were not eligible for work permits and could only sustain themselves with whatever odd jobs came their way. Before the end of the year, they had used all their savings and sold the few pieces of jewellery they had brought with them to Panama.
When Christmas came around, a neighbour took them to the local church. In spite of the family squabbles over money, which were now frequent, Maria remembers it as the best Christmas they have spent together, because of the way they felt more united than ever before.
Now that she and the other members of the family have been granted refugee status – a decision which the Panamanian government took in April 2005, but of which they were officially notified only at the end of August – they can finally apply for work permits and aspire to a more regular income.
Maria is intent on making a success of the small catering business she has set up. Seated in her impeccably tidy living room, she takes pride in the natural ingredients she uses, and the conscientious way she cleans her food. It is this that sets her apart, she thinks. These are the qualities her clients are looking for.
Her two daughters help prepare the food – especially the traditional biscuits (arepas) eaten with milk jam – although they hope to move on to other jobs once they get their work permits. Her husband balances the books, and her son helps out with sales. The entire family is also engaged in setting up a football league in the neighbourhood, so that they can sell their food at the matches and increase their pool of clients.
The process of adapting to Panamanian culture continues for this courageous clan in other ways. Maria explains how, though the language is the same, there are striking cultural differences: "In Colombia, we are used to saying 'Good Morning. How did you wake up today? How can I help you?' Here, clients sometimes come in and place their orders, barely saying 'Good Day.' I'm getting used to that, but I won't change my ways."
On the whole, however, Maria finds Panamanians "... noble, good and healthy. Healthy in the fullest sense of the word." In addition to the safe haven it has provided her, living in this new society has also brought simple freedoms that she enjoys: for instance, the shorts and light t-shirt she sports here – which she says an "old" woman like her could never have worn in Colombia, where she sometimes felt it was improper even to show her toes.
When asked whether they have ever felt any discrimination, the family matriarch speaks of their initial isolation from the rest of the neighbourhood. However, this quickly dissipated when the neighbours found out how polite the little children were.
"Of course, we also used to turn on the television and hear people say terrible things about Colombians, but we just decided not to pay any attention."
Now they have many friends, including the local grocer who provided the first venue for her sales.
It is late afternoon. The children are back from school. The little girls are milling around their grandmother, and a five-year-old shows off her pretend makeup. The boy is skipping outside. Toy cars are strewn near the entrance, and a kitten mews close by. Spurred on by Maria's strength and determination to move on, life for this family now seems to have acquired a sense of normality.
Maria is aware of the long way they have come. "I can tell you what it means to flee from your country. I can tell you what pain is. But I can also tell you what overcoming all of this means. Now I cry, but my tears are no longer tears of pain, they are tears of tranquillity."
Still, she dreams of going back to Colombia one day – just to die in her native land, she says. "When the time comes, I won't even take the time to pack. I'll just fly off. But then again, who knows, maybe by then I won't even want to hear of Colombia anymore."
By Nazli Zaki in Panama