¡Muchas gracias!

This month we ended our time serving with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as coordinators of the Refugee Project in the Mennonite Church of Quito, Ecuador. And, with this final reflection, we also close out our blog. Thanks for reading along!

For the past two years we have worked with persons forced mainly from Colombia by violence and direct threats. We also traveled on numerous occasions to various parts of Colombia with MCC to deepen our understanding of the conflict and meet with local communities working for peace and resisting displacement.

In the Refugee Project we sought simply to be there when the refugees arrived, to be witnesses of hospitality—and to respond to their questions and needs best we could with the limited resources we had.

Just a few weeks before our departure we hosted a colleague to evaluate our work and to provide observations and suggestions to help the Mennonite Church guide their proposal to continue the Refugee Project. She spoke with us, church members, representatives of partner organizations and, most importantly, refugees.

On a personal level the visit afforded us an opportunity to reflect on our work.

For us, guiding questions for our work had been: How are we living out the Gospel holistically? What does it mean to be a welcoming community? While providing basic material support how are we responding to the emotional and spiritual needs in a way respectful of one’s freedom and dignity?

During her visit the evaluator asked us an intriguing question: When are the moments when you feel most alive and engaged in your work? We felt most animated when we were relating with the refugees as people, not just as recipients of aid. We felt most alive when we opened up spaces that built community and celebrated holidays and life’s moments, such as birthdays, weddings and baby showers. The evaluator shared that the refugees she interviewed responded very much in the same way. “We feel like humans, not numbers,” one refugee said. “We receive spiritual nourishment,” said another. And another added that the church is a “safe space where we can let down our guard.”

The evaluation affirmed our perspective that accompanying displaced people in a holistic way means providing for both their physical and emotional/spiritual needs while also respecting their dignity, freedom and agency, considering that the traumatic experience of being forcibly uprooted from one’s home can create a sense of loss of control.

As we transition out of our roles and the Mennonite Church continues driving the work of the Refugee Project, larger transitions loom ahead. Recently, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a bi-lateral ceasefire making a peace agreement all the more likely. What impact will this development have on the flow of refugees into Ecuador? Will Ecuador’s policy toward refugees change? Will NGOs remain or will they leave? These are important questions for the Mennonite Church in Quito as they continue to discern their ministry to forced migrants.

We are profoundly grateful for having had the privilege to serve with MCC and to accompany refugees in Ecuador. More than just an experience, the work planted deep into the soil of our hearts the seeds for an ongoing commitment to walk alongside the dispossessed, the marginalized, the peacemakers and the blessed, wherever we find ourselves called.

Leaving is never easy, but the transition is made easier by the memories made and the friendships formed, and by the hope of meeting again.

Throughout our time in Ecuador and Colombia, a quotation from Henri Nouwen’s book ¡Gracias! accompanied us:

“Whatever my experience in Latin America will bring to me, it will be a part of my body formed in love and will reverberate in all its members.”

¡Muchas gracias a todas y todos!

Tibrine & David

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Churches connect across borders to accompany refugees

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Giving a presentation on the Refugee Project to the delegation from Cali.

In late January we hosted a delegation of pastors from the Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali, Colombia. The visit is a first step in an ongoing exchange “to build a bridge between the churches in Cali and Quito,” as one pastor expressed. The focus of the delegation’s visit was to see how the Mennonite Church in Quito ministers to refugees the vast majority of whom are coming from Colombia.

Cali has suffered from the violence of armed conflict and displacement for decades. Colombia’s third largest city, Cali remains today a principal destination for internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the southwest region of the country. IDPs are concentrated in extremely impoverished urban areas on Cali’s margins, have limited access to services and are exposed to fragile security conditions. Illegal armed groups also present in Cali contribute to the ongoing urban violence and displacement.

The Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali feel directly the impact of the ongoing flux of IDPs. Over the years their own church members have been victims of violence and forced displacement. One pastor recalled the excessively violent 90s, unable to wash her memory of the images of dead bodies across the street from the seminary: “The FARC, the State and the paramilitaries fight among themselves with bullets and bombs and the churches and communities are the ones caught in the middle.”

Last year I visited my friend Godswill who was working for the Mennonite Central Committee in Cali at the time and stayed at his apartment on the edge of a barrio rife with poverty and violence. Sitting on the stoop at night I noticed that every fifteen minutes the same man on a bicycle rode down the street blowing repeatedly on a whistle. “He’s a community watchman,” my friend explained, “blowing his whistle signals that all is clear. If you don’t see him in 15 minutes, then you know there’s a problem.” The next morning, Godswill pointed out to me an abandoned house on his street corner once occupied by armed actors and drug traffickers in the 90s before police raided it. Never renovated or re-occupied, it stands as a silent monument to Cali’s more violent past as well as a reminder of the violence that persists today.

We jumped on a microbus bound for downtown. Within minutes we were standing on a street corner in the city center, a vibrant urban landscape bustling with pedestrian traffic and commerce, a vision before my eyes so far removed from the reality of Cali’s periphery.

That late afternoon, back in the barrio, as my friend and I were walking back to his place I saw that everyone was out, sitting in lawn chairs or leaning against parked cars watching a soccer game on TV sets that neighbors dragged outside and set up on their patios. As we strolled by, a family as unknown to us as we were to them welcomed us warmly with the wave of a hand to join them. At that magical hour when the setting sun paints the world orange and the day’s heat begins to dissipate, I joined the chorus of impassioned shouts of joy and frustration at the players on the TV and was overwhelmed by that warm feeling of falling in love with Colombia.

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Downing a platter of pork with fellow MCCers Godswill (L) and Phealy (R) in Cali.

When I told the pastors this story they laughed, saying, “That’s Godswill, always making sure that his visitors see las dos caras de la ciudad—the two sides of the city.” We, too, showed the pastors the two sides of Quito, taking them on a home visit to a newly arrived refugee family living in a dilapidated building in the world-famous historic center just one street removed from La Ronda, a touristy street lined with artisanal boutiques, restaurants and discotheques.

Standing in the damp, cramped apartment, the family recounted their story of having suffered internal displacement within Colombia twice before going to Cali. Continuing to receive death threats, they fled for the third time and crossed the border into Ecuador. Hearing the refugees’ stories of persecution and flight was not new to the pastors, but learning the sheer number of Colombian refugees in Ecuador surprised them. “I expected fifty-percent of the refugees in Ecuador to be Colombian, not ninety-eight percent,” one pastor marveled as he shook his head.

Given Cali’s proximity to the border with Ecuador we frequently meet refugees from Cali. Just a few months ago we even received a refugee family that had participated in one of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali.

Like many others, the pastors anticipate an uptick in violence and displacement after the possible signing of the peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC. The pastor shared that as a church they are discerning how “to keep the church doors open, preserving the space as a sanctuary of peace and transforming the mentality of the various churches to understand that they have a responsibility to respond to the violence.”

For as long as the conflict has been going on the Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali have been working for peace. They run mediation programs in schools to cultivate a culture of peace and dialogue among the youth and they work with churches of other denominations to help them formulate a vision of working for peace, justice and reconciliation.

Reflecting on how they can continue to minister to IDPs in Cali, the pastors expressed wanting to deepen their understanding of the reality of Colombian refugees in Ecuador in order to provide better information and counseling to victims of conflict weighing the difficult choice of seeking refuge in Ecuador.

This meeting between churches in Cali that work for peace amidst a conflict from which so many Colombians flee and the church in Quito that receives and welcomes those very refugees underscores the need to create cross-border connections to accompany more holistically victims from the moment of persecution, through their flight and to settling in a new country.

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At lunch with the Cali delegation

A Christmas For Those Far From Home

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Christmastime is when we miss home the most. We miss the traditions and the special ways we observe the season. With friends back home in the Community of Sant’Egidio, of which we have been a part for many years, we would host a luncheon on Christmas Day for those who otherwise found themselves alone on that day, whether without a home, or new to the country, or for the elderly without family members nearby. This Christmas luncheon has long been part of our personal faith tradition and although we miss our family and friends back home we are so grateful for all the new friendships we have formed and the community of the Mennonite Church that has welcomed us so warmly.

We are also deeply aware that while we are able to visit our family and friends and will someday return to Boston, returning home is not option for many refugees and may not be in the foreseeable future. For them, Christmas can be a season of deep sadness and loneliness. In recent years, many Colombian refugees in Quito gather together on December 7th for the celebration of the Noche de Velitas (Night of Little Candles), a tradition so beloved it transcends its Catholic origins and invites family and friends to light candles and place them outside along the sidewalks to light the way for Mary, while singing traditional carols and enjoying one another’s company.

Last year, for our first Christmas in Quito, we proposed the idea of opening the church doors to host a Christmas lunch for refugees, many of whom are without family or friends or simply do not have the means to celebrate Christmas on their own. Keeping with this new tradition, we had the Christmas lunch again this year—and it was even bigger! Over a hundred adults and children attended, primarily from Colombia, but also from other parts of the world.

By sharing a hearty meal, singing Christmas carols from all over the world, and playing games with the children we welcomed in the joy and hope of the Christmas season. Towards the end of the meal we led the adults in an activity in which they wrote down their hopes and dreams on a dove-shaped piece of paper.

“My dream is to live in a peaceful world where there is no more discrimination or war,” wrote one Colombian refugee.

A refugee from Cameroon wrote a prayer: “That the Lord protect my family, which is very, very far from me.”

Many children wrote one, simple phrase: “That there be peace in Colombia.”

At the lunch’s conclusion, a refugee woman stood up to share her hopes and to thank everyone for making the festive lunch possible: “Thank you for this happy moment. It is like a breath of fresh air, a pause from the struggles of our daily life.”

Her grateful words reminded us that in many ways Christmas belongs to those most in need, those without a home, the refugee, the hungry, the weary and the marginalized. As Mary, Joseph, and Jesus made their first home together in the most lowly and humble of places in the darkness of night, our hearts call out for home, for peace and mercy in a wounded world.

May the God who makes all things new bring the light of love, hope and peace into the lives of all and may we find the way to open our hearts and hands to those in need.

 

The Butterflies of Buenaventura: Peacebuilding amidst Conflict and Displacement in Colombia and Ecuador

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With the Mariposas at the United Nations.

 

On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in late November, we hosted two representatives of the Mariposas con Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro (Butterflies with New Wings Building the Future) from Buenaventura, Colombia.

I was recently a guest blogger on UMass Boston’s Peace, Democracy and Development Blog to write about the Mariposas’ visit to Quito and the workshop they offered to refugee women on the prevention and elimination of sexual and gender based violence. Thanks for taking a look!

¡La Paz es Ahora! (y todavía no)

Un mural en Bogotá representa personas que reflejan la diversidad de la gente de Colombia levantando a una mujer de la muerte a la vida. La poderosa imagen de esta obra pública del arte evoca en mí un mosaico de reflexiones sobre la lucha en marcha por la paz en Colombia. Mientras que la mujer resucitada abre los ojos y respira, un cráneo se esconde en el césped; mientras que la nueva vida emerge, la evidencia de la muerte permanece. Cuando llegue la resurrección de Colombia, su luz brillará en la verdad de los hechos injustos cometidos e iluminará la memoria histórica de tantos inocentes asesinados.

En el lado derecho del mural se pueden leer las palabras que dicen: “La Paz es Ahora!” Las palabras brillantemente pintadas, más fuerte que cualquier señal de pare, nos sorprendieron en nuestras pisadas. Ellas transmiten tanto la urgencia como la certeza: la prisa para construir la paz necesitada ahora y la proclamación de que la paz ya está aquí. La declaración fuerte y directa desmiente una paradoja: la paz es ahora, y sin embargo, un punto en un horizonte lejano.

Antes de llegar a Colombia la semana pasada para un retiro de trabajo con CCM, salió en la prensa que hubo un gran avance en las negociaciones de paz en La Habana, Cuba, entre el gobierno de Colombia y las FARC. Es posible que la guerra más larga de América Latina, que ha matado a 220.000 personas, ha desplazado 6,3 millones de personas, y ha generado 400.000 refugiados, pueda llegar a su fin entre seis meses, si ambas partes se adhieren a la fecha tope acordada.

Los negociadores han dado un paso importante hacia adelante en un camino donde la marcha atrás no es una opción. En su reciente visita a Cuba, El Papa Francisco rogó a ambas partes a poner fin a la guerra, amonestando que “No tenemos derecho a permitirnos otro fracaso más”, y oró “Que la sangre vertida por miles de inocentes, durante tantas décadas de conflicto armado … sostenga todos los esfuerzos … para una definitiva reconciliación.”

El progreso resultó de un acuerdo sobre los asuntos problemáticos de la justicia para las víctimas y la responsabilidad por los crímenes cometidos por ambas partes.

La noticia puede ayudar a inspirar optimismo en la población colombiana, que se ha cansado y se ha vuelto escéptico de un proceso de paz que se viene arrastrando desde hace años. Y muchas de las víctimas (y hay 7,6 millones registradas) duda que van a recibir justicia y reparaciones.

Después del culto en la Iglesia Menonita de Quito el domingo pasado les pregunté a algunos de los refugiados lo que pensaban de las noticias. Me entristeció, pero no me sorprendí, por sus respuestas. Ellos no creen que un acuerdo de paz pondrá fin a la violencia. Sus sentimientos son comunes entre todos los refugiados en Ecuador, la mayoría de los cuales desea permanecer en Ecuador para construir una nueva vida sin importar los retos. Para ellos, la perspectiva de un acuerdo firmado no es señal de una apertura para un regreso seguro a su país, a pesar de que tienen mucha nostalgia con su patria.

Conversaciones recientes con funcionarios gubernamentales y trabajadores de ONGs apuntan que Ecuador no va a cambiar, al menos en el futuro inmediato, su política hacia los refugiados si firmará un acuerdo de paz. Más bien, ellos anticipan que un acuerdo de paz provocará un repunte en la violencia y un aumento en el número de refugiados colombianos debido a las guerrillas separadas de las FARC, grupos paramilitares y guerrilleros desmovilizados que optan por formar nuevos grupos armados ilegales que se dedican al tráfico de drogas y otras actividades ilícitas.

Entonces, ¿qué significa un acuerdo de paz si no significa nada para los refugiados que siguen temiendo regresar a Colombia? ¿Qué significa para los campesinos, indígenas y afrodescendientes cuya tierra el gobierno ha entregado a las empresas multinacionales ansiosas por extraer petróleo y minerales? ¿Qué significa para las familias de los falsos positivos, los hombres jóvenes inocentes asesinados por el ejército para aumentar el número de combatientes enemigos caídos en combate, cuyos gritos de justicia todavía no reciben ninguna respuesta?

En su libro La Imaginación Moral el escritor John Paul Lederach escribe que tendemos a entender los acuerdos de paz como la conclusión de un proceso en el que se ha encontrado una solución, que un “acuerdo crea la expectativa de que el conflicto ha terminado.” Históricamente pocos acuerdos realmente poner fin al conflicto. En lugar de pensar de un acuerdo tan categóricamente definitiva, nos invita a ver que es un punto en el tiempo en un largo proceso de trascender los ciclos profundamente incrustados de violencia y de volver a tejer relaciones constructivas y pacíficas dentro de las comunidades devastadas por la guerra.

Hace unos meses en Colombia, un activista por la paz hizo eco de este mismo pensamiento cuando nos pidió cambiar nuestra perspectiva sobre el período de tiempo después de la firma de un acuerdo de paz. En vez de llamarlo “post-conflicto”, insistió en “post-acuerdo”, porque, como dice Lederach, el “compromiso auténtico” de un proceso de paz “reconoce que el conflicto sigue siendo.”

Los próximos meses estarán llenos de aprensión y esperanza guardada por un acuerdo de paz firmado. Que ese momento llegará cuando Colombia pueda decir, “la paz es ahora!” Será un momento necesario en un largo viaje a sanar, recordar, reconstruir, resistir, buscar la justicia, confesar, perdonar y amar que continúa hacia ese punto en el horizonte.

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Peace is Now! (and not yet)

A mural in Bogotá depicts figures reflective of the diversity of Colombia’s peoples lifting a woman up from death into life. The powerful imagery of this public work of art evoked in me a mosaic of reflections on Colombia’s ongoing struggle for peace. While the resurrected woman opens her eyes and draws breath, a skull lies hidden in the grass; while new life emerges, the evidence of death remains. When Colombia’s resurrection comes, its light will shine on the truth of unjust deeds committed and illuminate the historical memory of so many innocents killed.

The far right side of the mural reads “La Paz es Ahora” (Peace is Now)! The brilliantly painted words, louder than any stop sign, stopped us in our tracks. They convey both urgency and reassurance. Haste to build the peace needed now and the proclamation that it is here already. The bold, direct statement belies a paradox: peace is now, and yet a point on a distant horizon.

Before arriving in Colombia last week for a work retreat with MCC, news broke that there was a major breakthrough in the peace negotiations between Colombia’s government and the FARC in Havana, Cuba. Latin America’s longest war, which has killed 220,000 people, internally displaced 6.3 million, and generated 400,000 refugees, may come to an end within six months, if both sides stick to the agreed upon deadline.

The negotiators have taken a crucial step forward on a path where turning back is not an option. On his recent visit to Cuba, Pope Francis entreated both sides to end the war, admonishing that “We do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure,” and praying, “May the bloodshed by thousands of innocent people during long decades of armed conflict… sustain all the efforts being made… to achieve definitive reconciliation.”

The breakthrough came as a result of finding an agreement on the problematic issues of justice for victims and accountability for crimes committed by both sides. You can read highlights of the agreement here.

The news may help boost optimism among the Colombian public, which has grown weary and skeptical of a peace process that has been dragging on for years. And many victims—and there are 7.6 million registered—doubt they will receive justice and reparations.

After church on Sunday I asked some of the refugees what they thought of the news. I was saddened, yet not surprised, by their responses. They do not believe that a peace accord will end the violence. Their sentiments are common among all refugees in Ecuador, the majority of whom desire to remain to build a new life regardless the challenges. For them, the prospect of a signed deal does not signal an opening for a safe return to their country, though they ache daily for home.

Recent conversations with government officials and NGO workers hint that Ecuador will not change, at least in the immediate future, their policy toward refugees if a peace agreement were to be signed. Rather, they anticipate a peace agreement will trigger an uptick in violence and an increase in the number of Colombian refugees due to guerrillas split-off from the FARC, paramilitary groups, and demobilized fighters opting to form new illegal armed groups engaged in drug trafficking and other illicit activities.

What, then, does a peace agreement mean if it means nothing to refugees still fearful to return home? What does it mean to the campesinos, indigenous and Afro-Colombians whose land the government has handed over to multinational corporations biting at the chomp to extract oil and minerals? What does it mean to the families of the false positives, innocent young men murdered by the army to inflate the number of enemy combatants killed in action, whose cries for justice from the government fall on deaf ears?

In his book The Moral Imagination, John Paul Lederach writes that we tend to understand peace agreements as the conclusion of a process in which a solution has been found, that an “agreement creates the expectation that the conflict has ended.” Historically, few agreements actually end conflict. Rather than thinking of an agreement as categorically definitive, he invites us to see it is a point in time on a long process of transcending deeply imbedded cycles of violence and re-knitting constructive, peaceful relations within war-torn communities.

A few months ago in Colombia, a grassroots peace activist echoed this very same thought when he asked us to shift our perspective on the time period that comes after the signing of a peace agreement. Rather than call it “post-conflict”, he insisted upon “post-accord”, because, as Lederach says, the “authentic engagement” of a peace process “recognizes that conflict remains.”

The next few months will be filled with apprehension and guarded hope for a signed peace agreement. May that moment come when Colombia can say, “peace is now!” It will be a needed moment on a long journey of healing, remembering, rebuilding, resisting, seeking justice, confessing, forgiving and loving that continues toward that point on the horizon.

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¡Basta Ya! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity

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Lately, it seems there have been many articles, reports, and commentaries on the recent breakthrough in the Colombian peace process.  We have observed that most of the refugees we meet through the project still maintain a very strong connection to Colombia, its politics, and especially the peace process.  Despite their painful memories of displacement there remains a seed of hope for a lasting peace.Basta Ya2

Much of the Colombian history of conflict is captured in a rich, thorough report by the Colombian National Center for Historical Memory.  The report, titled “¡Basta Ya!  Memorias de Guerra y Dignidad” looks at the dimensions and motives of the war in Colombia, themes of justice, the impact of the violence on its victims, the memory of survivors, and recommendations going forward.

A Bittersweet Goodbye, and then a Hello

This week we said goodbye to Hector*, Viviana, and their two children.  Hector and his family have been living as refugees in Quito for the last two years, since they first made the trip across the border after being displaced from their home in a rural community in Colombia.  Hector recalls arriving during one of the annual festivals in Quito, when Quiteños launch fireworks from rooftops and the night sky lights up in colors.  For their young son, Samuel, these fireworks were a reminder of the sound of gunshots he had fled and he refused to leave his bedroom, where he hid covering his ears.  It took his parents coaxing him to step outside to realize that the sounds were an expression of joy, and not of terror or violence.

Two years passed in Ecuador, and though the family found relative security in their home in a small town perched high in the mountains outside of Quito, they never really were able to integrate well into their community.  Local integration is considered one of three durable solutions for refugee populations, the idea being that if returning to one’s home country is not possible, then refugees should be allowed the opportunity to find dignity and peace in their host country.  Integration depends on many factors, though, including the local economy, the host community’s openness to embracing the newcomers, and the individual’s willingness to integrate into the host community.  In Ecuador, Colombian refugees often face discrimination and uncertainty.

For Hector and his family, they struggled with finding stable employment, their children experienced discrimination in a school with few other Colombian students, and while they said they appreciated the generosity of the Ecuadorians they met, as a family they counted few close friends.  When they learned that their request for resettlement to a third country was declined by the UNHCR the family faced a difficult choice — whether to remain in Ecuador where they saw no future for themselves, or return to Colombia, the country they had fled.  The family decided to try again in Colombia, but in a different region where family connections allowed them the possibility to live in relatively safety in a small farming town.

It was a bittersweet goodbye for all of us; a return to Colombia was as much an expression of new hope and possibility for Hector, Viviana and their children as it was an expression of sadness that in the end it is not always possible to build a new life as newcomers in a different land.  When I think about what it means to welcome the stranger I am often reminded of Henri Nouwen’s words,

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

As luck would have it, just one week after Hector and his family moved to their new home David and I were delighted to find ourselves in exactly the same small Colombian town for an MCC retreat.  Under the light of the red moon we were able to visit together and share in a friendship beyond borders.  Things are not perfect for the family, they still have many of the same challenges of finding a new home, stable work, and an education for their children.  But they are hopeful for what a new future in their country can bring.

*All names have been changed.

Refugee Peacemakers

Omar and I welcoming the students to the Mennonite Church.  Photo by Aziz Abdul.

Omar and I welcoming the students to the Mennonite Church. Photo by Aziz Abdul.

This month I participated in a three-week summer course entitled “Conflict Transformation Across Borders” offered through the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security and Global Governance in the University of Massachusetts, Boston, McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. In the course, we examined border zones, namely between Colombia and Ecuador, as areas of both conflict and cross-border peace initiatives, and in workshops led by practitioners and scholars we developed practical skills in conflict analysis, negotiation, mediation, and cross-cultural nonviolent communication. As part of the course, the class visited the Refugee Project of the Mennonite Church to learn about a new initiative supported by the partnership between the Mennonite Church and the Center for Mediation, Peace and Resolution of Conflict (CEMPROC) to train a group of refugees and church members in mediation and to form a community mediation center in the church. The following is a personal reflection on the visit.

June 23, 2015

“Never in my life did I imagine I would be a refugee,” Miriam* shared aloud to a group of graduate students visiting the Refugee Project as part of a summer course in Quito offered through the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Working with internally displaced persons in Colombia as a social worker, “I saw the precarious situations they lived in, but I never thought I would be in their shoes,” Miriam continued. One day, the FARC tried to recruit her, threatening her with death if she refused. Fearing for her life and for her children, she came to Ecuador in search of safety.

“I did not want to own the label ‘refugee,’ that is not who I am,” Miriam said, still a little visibly uncomfortable with the word. In need of international protection, Miriam decided to go through the uncertain process of refugee status determination, telling her persecution story in detail to government officials. “Now I am a refugee; it is written on my visa.” Starting from zero was not easy for Miriam, but with support from the network of NGOs and churches, she feels that she is slowly rebuilding her life and moving forward.

After Miriam recounted her story, Milena spoke up to share hers. The violence of the Colombian armed conflict compelled her to flee her home on Colombia’s Pacific coast. An Afro-descendent, she experienced discrimination in Quito because of the color of her skin and her accent. Over and over again she had doors slammed in her face when she looked for an apartment or for work. After all she had suffered in Colombia only to put up with rejection and scorn in Ecuador, Milena asked herself, “Did I escape from the violence in my home country only to suffer another kind of violence here?”

Pausing to reflect on her overall experience in Ecuador, Milena continued: “At first, I faced only barriers in Ecuador, but it has all turned out to be a very rich experience for me. I have met good people with open hands and open hearts and in this church I feel especially at home.”

The group of fourteen students representing nine countries, such as India, Indonesia, Colombia and Brazil, listened attentively and thoughtfully. For many, the refugees’ stories struck a personal chord. Though they came primarily to listen, a few of the students shared their own migration stories, brushes with discrimination and personal testimonies of living through volatile periods of interethnic strife.

From this shared moment of storytelling arose the recognition and acknowledgement on the part of all—students and refugees—that they desired to transform their experiences with violence and discrimination into positive energies to study and work for peace, dialogue and understanding.

Not only the students, but also the refugees in the church are studying peace and developing their abilities as peacemakers. For the past few months, CEMPROC has been training both refugees and church members in mediation. The training prepares them to be facilitators for reconciliation and equips them with skills in conflict resolution, all with the aim of forming a healing community of faith in favor of peace.

Omar Rodriguez, director of CEMPROC, said, “We are not lawyers or psychologists, but regular people learning to pursue dialogue and non-violent communication to help people resolve their differences peacefully.” At the conclusion of the training, the group will continue serving as volunteer mediators in a community mediation center that will operate within the church.

In the workshops, participants like Miriam and Milena, practice their mediation skills through role-play. They draw examples of disputes from their daily lives and then practice mediating them with some participants acting out the conflicting parties and others the mediators. The mediation training will conclude at the end of this month and already its impact on the participants is noticeable. Miriam shared: “Coming to the workshops has been very helpful for me. They completely changed my mentality. I had a hot temper and would be quick to respond. Now, I calm down, listen and have a more constructive response.”

Jeff Pugh, professor of conflict resolution at UMass Boston teaching the summer course and founder and executive director of CEMPROC, spoke of the importance of creating a community mediation center in the church: “Community mediation and informal reconciliation can be powerful grassroots processes to build peace and empower people to be able to resolve their own conflicts in a constructive way. Given the power imbalances between forced migrants and local citizens, and the fear and distrust that some forced migrants may feel toward state institutions, access to informal conflict resolution processes can bridge the gap in formal services and address small problems before they escalate.  The historical mission of the Mennonites as a peace church and CEMPROC’s decade of experience with peace education in Ecuador make these two organizations the ideal partners to develop this space.”

Accompanying refugees through my work in the Refugee Project and participating in the summer course with an inspiring, diverse group of participants furthered my conviction that a way to peace is always possible. Working for peace is not just for the experts, but a responsibility we all share, a common vocation to which everyone is invited to respond. Many refugees, like Miriam and Milena, have experienced unspeakable atrocities in their lives in Colombia and were forced to flee to Ecuador in search of safety. Though they may have left everything behind, they carry with them the seeds of hope for a peaceful future. They want peace, and they are working for it and sharing this precious gift freely with others.

* Names and details of the refugees’ lives have been changed for this post.

The Butterflies of Buenaventura (Part 4): No Peace Without Women

Photo by Natalio Pino

Photo by Natalio Pino

Imagine the daily stress and fear of living in a neighborhood occupied by warring armed groups. You want nothing to do with them; you keep to yourself, going about your business. Imagine one day a group of armed men knock on your door, demanding that you give them something to eat. You know that the other group will most likely find out and accuse you of supporting the enemy. But, in this moment, the men standing at your door are threatening you and your family if you do not feed them. Imagine.

This was the very dilemma that a young woman in Buenaventura had to face, and she paid heavily for the choice she was coerced into making. She gave food to one group one day and the next she was shot in the back by another. Though she survived, she is paralyzed from the waist down.

On my last day in Buenaventura I went with Mari to visit this young woman who lives in a small community along the highway on the outskirts of Buenaventura. We sat with her and her husband, as their children played on the hard packed dirt floor inside their wooden shack.

With the highway expansion project underway, the encroaching road runs just a few feet from peoples’ homes.  A residen told me that it feels like an earthquake is shaking her home every time a truck drives by. Photo by David Sulewski

With the highway expansion project underway, the encroaching road runs just a few feet from peoples’ homes. A resident said that it feels like an earthquake is shaking her home every time a truck drives by. Photo by David Sulewski

Mari exudes a charisma that puts people at ease and easily earns their confidence. She listened empathetically, engaging the family with direct questions to fully understand their situation. She spoke encouraging words and then asked: Do you want to try to bring to justice the man who shot you?

As we left, Mari told her that the next step will be to share her situation at the upcoming case review meeting. Twice a month the Mariposas meet with government and non-governmental agencies to discuss cases and strengthen the legal, medical and humanitarian response to the crisis of violence. They also document cases of gender-based sexual violence to raise the visibility of this severely underreported crime.

Heading back into the city, Mari dropped me off at the entrance of a barrio where Rut, another Mariposa, was waiting for me. Mari informed me that this was one of the most dangerous barrios in Buenaventura. Here, the presence of the armed groups is strong and police have discovered casas de pique and unmarked, mass graves.

Rut and I jumped on the back of taxi motorcycles and sped down the dirt road, kicking up rocks and dust as we turned corners. We arrived at her house where she waved me in and sat me down at the table to eat a steaming bowl of fish soup with a heaping plate of coconut rice she had prepared.

“I, too, am a victim of the conflict,” She shared. Even now, as an outspoken Mariposa, she continues to receive threats. “They persecute me because I am like a stone in their path.” Looking around her home, resting her gaze on the photographs of her beautiful children hung on the cool cement walls, she said, “This is my home. I sacrificed so much to build it. I will never leave here.”

After lunch, we walked across the street to the community center (which she had built when she was president of the barrio) to lead a workshop for teenagers. For an hour she commanded the teenagers’ attention, leading them in community building and public speaking activities before facilitating a discussion about the Colombian laws that protect victims’ rights.

Photo by David Sulewski

Photo by David Sulewski

When the workshop was over Rut took me for a walk around her barrio. Indisputably a recognized and respected pillar of the community, she stopped to greet everyone we passed along the way. Further along, the road led to the barrio’s border at the forest’s edge. Waving her hand in the direction of the dense woods, she said, “Over there is the site of a massacre.” Just on the other side of the road, children played soccer on a dirt patch.  Despite the armed groups living in her barrio, Rut is committed to her community.  “This is my home,” she asserts, tapping her foot on the ground, “I won’t leave this place.” Like many of her fellow residents, Rut has already been forced from her home once in her life when she fled the violence in the neighboring region of Chocó back in the 1990s.

We looped back to her house to join up with a group of Mariposas to walk the rest of the way together out of the barrio to the main road where La Tremenda Revoltosa was preparing for their last demonstration. In the group I met Ana, Rut’s successor as president of the barrio.

Along the way, Ana called out to people sitting on their stoops, inviting them to join the rally. She stopped to introduce me to a young woman standing in the doorway. As we shook hands I noticed she had a tattoo of teardrops under her eye. “Come on, join us,” Ana encouraged her. “Maybe”, she replied flatly before stepping back inside. Once we were out of earshot, Ana leaned in to tell me, “Here, we respect everyone.” Respect is a good strategy for protection in a violent barrio, but it can also allow for an opening to a conversation that invites a decision to walk an alternative, peaceful path.

Emerging from the barrio we regrouped with La Tremenda Revoltosa for another festive, musical march for peace in Buenaventura. The march went down the main road and then looped back to the very entrance to the barrio where Mari had dropped me off only a few hours earlier that afternoon. As it began to grow dark, the rally concluded and La Tremenda Revoltosa piled back onto to their bus to head home. The Mariposas then began flagging down taxis for everyone else to get home. Sticking around here at night was not safe, someone told me. There, on the side of the road in the gathering dark, I said goodbye to the Mariposas, thanking them for their incredible hospitality.

As evening turned to night, I felt indignant at the darkness—and at the violence and fear that operate under its cover. Yet, what prevailed within me was the joyful spirit of hope and resistance that I witnessed animating the Mariposas. I thought, for these butterflies with new wings building a future, what does Buenaventura’s future look like? And, on a national scale, what can Colombia learn from the lessons of Buenaventura’s past, from its present state of violence and from the courageous example of the Mariposas?

After more than half a century of violence, the conflict in Colombia—one of the world’s longest civil wars—may come to an end in a matter of months. Yet, if the peace accords are signed, will they hold? Will there be peace in Colombia? Will the root causes of conflict in a so-called post-conflict era be addressed? Will drug traffickers continue to recruit ex-combatants, just as demobilized paramilitaries back in 2003 went on to form the very illegal armed groups terrorizing Buenaventura today?

A recent study demonstrates empirically that the best bellwether of a nation’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated. The higher the rates of domestic abuse, gender-based violence and femicide—crimes that often get dismissed as private affairs—the greater a nation’s insecurity.

The Mariposas are on the right track for building a peaceful future. By creating a network of solidarity, drawing needed attention to gender-based sexual violence and speaking out against the silence of impunity and indifference, the Mariposas are getting at the very root causes of violence, such as patriarchy, gender inequality, racism and sexism, to stop the violence against women and children.

Buenaventura’s peaceful future depends on the Mariposas just as Colombia’s peace hinges on women, on how well they are treated and how strong their presence and voices are in all sectors of society.

Photo by David Sulewski

Photo by David Sulewski