Unprecedented rain that has hammered Colombia over the past year has affected three million people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. In March, I spent three weeks traveling across the Caribbean region visiting families displaced by the floods.
On Wednesday, April 6th, I was excited to attend the Washington Circle as it celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Mexican Cultural Institute. Gracious hosts Ambassador Arturo Sarukhán and his wife Verónica Valencia along with Washington Circle Chair Mariella Trager and her husband Michael greeted guests in the reception area before we were brought into the beautiful dining room. The event was completely sold out with a waiting list – a testament to the Circle as well as interest in the day’s particular topic, "Reflections on Colombia", a talk led by journalist Maureen Orth.
Luz Mari and I sat in the back of the truck for the first two of the five hour drive from Quito to San Lorenzo, a small city near Ecuador’s coast that is home to an ever increasing number of Colombians seeking refuge. We were returning from the 4th World Social Forum on Migrations that was held in Quito from October 8-12.
Colombian refugees living in Ecuador face intense discrimination and struggle to integrate into Ecuadorian society. Guest blogger Drew Hendrickson writes about his experiences, amongst the experts, humanitarians, and advocates who convened in Quito, Ecuador, for the Fourth World Social Forum from October 8th-12th:
Several Colombian students said that their Ecuadorian classmates call them names like guerrillero or narco-trafficante. Teachers refer to them as ‘el colombiano’ instead of using their actual names. Many Colombian students drop out of school to avoid this harassment.
One in ten Colombians has been uprooted by ongoing violence; families have been broken and loved ones assassinated. After being displaced, young boys and girls are forced to drop out of school in order to support their families and are at constant risk of being forcibly recruited by armed groups and narcotics gangs. A nationwide campaign to highlight these powerful human stories culminated with a grassroots effort to generate letters to Congressional representatives.
This past January a policy directive of Colombian President Uribe outlined the National Plan for the Consolidation of Territory (Plan Nacional de Consolidación Territorial). The short, assertive and results-oriented memo instructed Colombian national, local, military and civilian authorities to work together to attain a stronger grip over strategic swaths of land, recovered from guerrilla control, within a period of 18 months. Two objectives of the strategy include an increase in confidence by Colombian citizens towards their own government and the reassurance to investors about their economic interests.
“Nothing has ever been achieved for displaced women in Colombia without us fighting for our own rights, so we decided to take our cases to court. We knew we were taking a risk as so many of our leaders have been threatened and physically attacked, but we decided to go ahead anyway.”
A Colombian displaced woman told me this while we sat in the women’s community center that had recently been re-built after it was burned down by an illegal armed group.