News Stories, 26 December 2006
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica, December 25 (UNHCR) – Although the streets of San José were quiet on Christmas Day, one bakery in the Costa Rican capital stayed open and did good business all morning. But there was one cake the bakery's owner, James, would not sell to anyone.
The 29-year-old Colombian refugee had made the cake for his "special guests," UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and actor Brad Pitt, who stopped in his bakery on a Christmas Day visit to refugees in San José.
"I was a baker in Colombia and when I first arrived here I sold my pastries in the streets," explained James, who was able to open his shop with the help of a micro-credit scheme through UNHCR.
"Having the bakery has really made a difference, it has helped us to turn the corner," he added, constantly interrupted by his two sons – 9-year-old Luis Miguel and his little brother Oscar – who were keen to tell Angelina about their Christmas presents.
"It's great what you have done with your shop," Jolie told him. "I'm glad the micro-credit helped you."
Costa Rica is home to more than 11,500 refugees – 10,000 of them victims of the armed conflict in Colombia. The vast majority live in large cities around the country and micro-credits are used by the UN refugee agency to help them integrate into their urban settings.
Three million people have been displaced by the conflict in Colombia itself. Another 500,000 have fled to other countries of the region. Together, they make up the largest single population of concern to UNHCR anywhere in the world. It is the Western Hemisphere's biggest humanitarian tragedy.
"It is especially shocking that such a tragedy can go on, year after year, with the rest of the world paying so little attention to it," said Ms Jolie. "My Christmas message to Colombian refugees and to the millions of displaced people in Colombia is that the world has not totally forgotten them."
After handing out Christmas presents to refugee children and their families, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt watched a group of young Colombian refugees, Parceros, perform a dance routine to traditional – and not so traditional – Colombian music.
After the dancing, the couple chatted with the performers and heard about the problems they are facing. Costa Rica has a long humanitarian tradition, but across the region Colombian refugees increasingly are being stigmatised for the very violence from which they fled.
"We are automatically associated with bad things – crime, delinquency, drug trafficking – but people never think of us as victims of the conflict," one of the young performers explained. "They never think, maybe this person, this refugee, had to leave everything behind to come here."
"It's been sad for me to hear so many negative stories that show confusion between refugees, who are the victims of the conflict, and some criminal elements," Jolie said, adding that there was a need for greater tolerance and solidarity toward refugees around the world.
"On behalf of UNHCR, we thank the government and the people of Costa Rica for their continued support for all victims of persecution and conflict," she later told the country's Labour Minister, Francisco Morales, as well as the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edgar Ugalde, and Interior Minister Ana Duran.
"Colombian refugees are very dynamic and enthusiastic," agreed Labour Minister Morales. "They have good business skills and they have certainly contributed to make our economy stronger. Everyone in this country has eaten Colombian bread or worn Colombian-made clothes, or has had his hair cut by a Colombian hairdresser."
UNHCR works closely with the government of Costa Rica to protect refugees and help their integration.
"We have been concerned about the country's current migration law and its implications for refugees and we are pleased the government is now reforming it and is willing to re-establish a separate Refugee Department," Jozef Merkx, UNHCR Representative in Costa Rica, told the Goodwill Ambassador.
"We had a wonderful Christmas here with the Costa Rican people and refugee families," Jolie said as she prepared to leave.
Carlos, a 45-year-old Colombian refugee responded: "We know what you have been doing for us. Thank you for being here with us today and thank you for all your work," he shouted as he waved goodbye.
It was Angelina Jolie's first visit to the region for UNHCR since she went to Ecuador in 2002, a year after she became Goodwill Ambassador for the refugee agency.
By Marie-Hélène Verney in San José, Costa Rica