Refugees get fast start at Ecuador sports school
CUENCA, Ecuador, April 23 (UNHCR) - A top sports school in Ecuador has started opening its doors to Colombian refugee children under an agreement with the UN refugee agency.
Fourteen-year-old Andrés and his two teenage sisters are among the first refugees given scholarships by the Race Walking School in Cuenca, a highland city in southern Ecuador. Four other refugee children are benefiting from this year's programme, which it is hoped will be repeated in the future.
The small South American nation is not known for its sporting prowess, but race walking is one area where Ecuadorean athletes have done well. Ecuador's only ever Olympic medallist, Jefferson Perez - winner of the 20-kilometre gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games - is a product of the school. Other successful race walkers have also attended the academy of 120 athletes.
"My dream is to become a world-class athlete," said Andrés after finishing a training session. He and his siblings are part of a community of some 2,000 registered Colombian refugees in Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city.
His mother Vanessa, attending a ceremony to the launch the scholarship programme, said she fled Colombia 14 months ago. "I was a witness to a violent crime. My life was never the same after that. I had to live in hiding for five years until I decided to leave the country. Otherwise, I would surely not be alive today," she explained.
Leaving her five children with her parents, she made her way to Cuenca because it was a long way from the border and because she was told that it was a peaceful city. "When my children came to join me here it was one of the happiest days of my life," she recalled.
Joakim Daun, a Swedish intern with the UNHCR office in Cuenca, came up with the idea of starting the scholarship programme. A former athlete, Daun said he recognized the power of sports as a tool for personal development and as an engine for integration.
"Sports raises your self-esteem, helps you focus and improves your concentration," Daun told some 40 young athletes, including the seven matriculating refugees, at the recent launch ceremony. "You learn the importance of self-discipline and it helps you reach the goals that you have set out for yourself."
Vanessa said the programme would help her children settle into their new life, adding that it was hard to adjust and hard to be accepted at times.
According to UNHCR estimates, Ecuador is home to at least 180,000 people who have fled Colombia because of the internal conflict in that country. Only 55,000 have applied for asylum.
By Xavier Orellana in Cuenca, Ecuador