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Colombia: Displacement and the Seeds of Hope

Fr Leo J O'Donovan S.J.

JRS North America Director
Monday, November 21, 2011

(Washington, D.C.) November 21, 2011 — I have just completed my first trip to Latin America, joining the other nine regional directors and the JRS International Office in our biannual meeting in Bogota, Colombia. We gathered in solidarity with the new director for JRS/LAC, Ms. Merlys Mosquera, and her dedicated staff in trying to understand first hand one of the largest refugee and internally displaced crises in the world — Colombia and its neighboring countries.

As noted in the excellent April 2011 issue of The Refugee Voice, the conflict that has persisted for nearly five decades among guerillas, paramilitaries and government soldiers has produced more than five million refugees and internally displaced. I would like to share a few reflections with you.

Unfortunately, for reasons of insecurity and time, I was unable to travel to border areas and see any of the excellent works providing pastoral care and humanitarian assistance of JRS — Colombia, partly financed through JRS/USA’s efforts. But I was able to spend a couple of days with their National Director, Fr. John Jairo Montoya, S.J., exploring some of their works in the greater Bogota area.

Bogota is a vast city of some 8.2 million inhabitants. As we walked the streets, I was shown the not so hidden face of displacement — what at first glance seems to be poverty (street people; beggars; vendors trying to sell just about anything; children living on the streets, etc.) turns out to be evidence of displacement.

Fr. Montoya speculated that the large number of street people with clear mental disorders that I was seeing most likely were displaced suffering from some form of traumatic stress. Driven off of their land by civil war, drug-related violence, and targeted persecution, these people have fled to the relative safety of the big city. While some can find assistance from extended family, the majority must depend upon the services provided by others (government or religious groups), or live increasingly on the margins. JRS — Colombia is doing its part.

I visited a large city just to the south of Bogota — Soacha (Suacha in local dialect). The city has grown from 400,000 to nearly one million with the influx of the forcibly displaced. Four to five families arrive every day, fleeing the violence and seeking a dignified and safe place to live.

There JRS has a center in the “commune” of Leo XIII where a whole host of activities take place – immediate humanitarian and legal assistance; an emergency shelter/safe house where 28 people can stay for up to two weeks while they try to connect with extended family; coordination with diocesan groups for pastoral care in the extended community; training; and direction of projects in the field. The training is in two forms: the center has a bakery where the displaced learn that art and craft; and catering. With either of these skills, the displaced can find a job or become self-employed, caring for themselves and their families. 

Given a choice to visit projects with children (informal education and training; providing alternative activities to the lure of gangs, etc.) and income generating activities for vulnerable women, I chose the latter.

High on a hill side in the commune of San Rafael, overlooking a massive stone and sand quarry, and literally hanging to the edges, I visited the homes of courageous and innovative women who were being taught to create organic gardens to produce fruits, vegetables, poultry, and flowers for the consumption of their families, the displaced at the JRS center, and for sale. (I later ate some of the produce back in Leo XIII with the Catholic Bishop of Soacha, Msgr. Daniel Caro Borda, as we discussed the pastoral care projects that JRS/USA was funding in his diocese.)

Other women are being trained to be community health care workers, in an area that has only one government clinic providing medical services a few hours a day. Many are involved in handicrafts for sale locally, and one woman had mastered the art of bonsai miniature trees to support her extended family.  

But having fled violence and political unrest, not all are safe. The bishop told me of threats leveled against his priests and staff as they try to protect the rights of the people.  I visited families whose parents were unable to find jobs; children were forced from school because of discrimination against the displaced or narco-gang activities; and I heard tales of young men being abducted under cover of darkness and their bodies discovered in a lake in the neighboring commune of San Mateo. All of this is a grim reminder that refugees and internally displaced often do not find peace, security, and a dignified place to live.

But on a steep hillside in the commune of San Rafael, I was reminded that small actions, like the planting of seeds, can produce some minor miracles in people’s lives. Thank you for allowing us to partner in key projects with JRS/LAC in Colombia and neighboring counties, working with vulnerable peoples in one of the world’s most persistent humanitarian crises.  

Fr. Michael A. Evans, S.J.
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA