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A shelter from violence for Colombian refugees in Ecuador


A shelter from violence for Colombian refugees in Ecuador

More than 600 Colombian asylum seekers register every month with UNHCR in Ecuador. For some of the most desperate cases, a UNHCR shelter in the east of the country offers a temporary home and a place to learn to live in peace again.
26 September 2006
A young Colombian refugee plays hide-and-seek at the UNHCR shelter in Lago Agrio, his home for more than a year.

LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador, September 25 (UNHCR) - Located a few kilometres from the Colombian border, the UNHCR shelter in Lago Agrio provides a first port of call and temporary home to some of the most vulnerable refugees arriving in eastern Ecuador. With a capacity for some 250 people - another 250 can be accommodated under tents in an emergency - the shelter is rarely empty.

Sonia, who arrived in Ecuador less than a month ago, spends most of her days in tears. The 22-year-old fled her home in southern Colombia after members of an irregular armed group killed her brother and abducted her mother.

The young Colombian woman was washing dishes at the back of the house when the assailants arrived, and dived under the sink when she heard gunshots and her mother's screams. "I waited until daylight before I found the courage to come out. I went looking for my mother and when I got out of the house, I saw my brother's body lying on the street. No one had dared come to help. I still don't know what happened to my mother," she recalls.

Sonia never went back into the house. She walked for hours, crying all the time, until a woman stopped her to ask what was wrong and gave her money to take a bus to the Ecuadorian border. From there Sonia went to the UNHCR office in Lago Agrio and was immediately taken to the shelter.

"We register more than 200 new asylum seekers a month on average and there is not enough room at the shelter for everybody," says Oscar Butragueño of UNHCR Lago Agrio. "We give priority to people who are the most in need. Sonia was completely traumatised. She is a young woman on her own with no money and no relation here, so in her case there was no other alternative."

A psychologist from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, one of the refugee agency's implementing partners in Ecuador, has tried to help Sonia. She is also receiving other forms of therapy.

The shelter is run on a cooperative basis, and Sonia takes her turn in the cooking and cleaning with the other refugees. Being involved in the running of the shelter is therapeutic for many of the refugees, the majority of whom come from parts of Colombia where the social fabric has been destroyed by years of violence.

Sharing tasks with fellow Colombians, refugees slowly learn to live in peace and to trust others - sometimes for the first time in their life. On this day, Sonia is sharing the cooking with Maria Teresa, a young mother of two who fled Colombia three weeks before.

The irregular armed group which persecuted Maria Teresa and her family for years is the bitter enemy of the group that killed Sonia's brother. In Colombia, the two women would be too terrified to speak to each other, but here they are able to talk freely and share their grief.

Both are worried about the future. In a few weeks they will have to leave the shelter - refugees can stay for three months maximum, six in extreme cases. But the two women, while uncertain about their own futures, are even more concerned about the six abandoned children with whom they share the shelter.

The story of the four brothers and two sisters is heartrending. They arrived in Ecuador two years ago with their father, who fled after being severely beaten and threatened by members of an irregular armed group. Their mother had died shortly before their flight.

Like many of the estimated 250,000 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Ecuador, their father was too scared when he first arrived to make his presence known to the authorities. For several months he tried to cope on his own.

"We were alerted by the local church and when we went to the house we found the children in one room and without food," says Oscar Butragueño. "The eldest one was 13 at the time and is mentally disabled. The youngest was less than three. We immediately took the whole family to the shelter."

That was more than a year ago. Two months ago, their father left and has not come back since. The local orphanage has agreed to take some of the children - those aged 10 or under, but UNHCR is looking for a solution that will keep them together.

With school out for the summer break, the children have been spending most of their days watching television and playing together. They are very quiet. "It's OK here," the eldest girl says. At four, the youngest is playing hide-and-seek with visitors. Every time someone leaves, he asks for a ride in the car until the shelter's gate. "I want to come with you," he tells the visiting UNHCR team, "but my sister says I cannot go further than the gate."

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Lago Agrio, Ecuador