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Building a new life block by block

Building a new life block by block

After fleeing their homes in Colombia, Jairo Augusto and his family were able to start a business making concrete building blocks for the community in Guasdualito, Venezuela, thanks to an income-generating project funded by UNHCR and implemented by the Jesuit Refugee Service.
2 February 2005
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