By Julie Moreno
I remember the day when my parents told me we were moving to Canada. Although I didn’t understand why, I remember feeling the excitement of living in a place where I could build snowmen and have the perfect ‘white Christmas’ every year for the rest of my life. It wasn’t long until I found myself in Calgary, a city near the Rocky Mountains that was essentially the furthest I had ever been from home. At 8 years old, it was hard to understand that I would never play with my cousins, see my grandparents, or go to school as I was used to. It was then that I understood Medellin would no longer be my home.
As the years went by, I experienced a variety of mixed emotions that ranged from happiness and satisfaction, while others were more closely aligned with resentment and anger. I constantly thought to myself: I didn’t agree to come… why did they make me leave? It wasn’t until I visited the Mennonite Church here in Quito, home of the Colombian Refugee Project, that I understood the reasons why my parents made the choice that they did.
Listening to the testimonies of some of the weekly attendees was probably the most humbling and touching experience I have ever had in my entire life. Sarah*, a single mother of two from Colombia, explained her precarious situation as the Guerrilla was after her young boys to join the rebel army. Anna*, a young afro-Colombian woman from Colombia described how racism and discrimination pushed her out of the only place she had ever known, forcing her to leave family and friends behind. These testimonies are only two examples of thousands of experiences Colombian refugees face as they cross the border from their home to the unknown. Although each story and experience is unique, they seemed to have one thing in common: these individuals were never given the choice to stay.
Then it hit me – all these years I have acted as though my parents were trying to hurt me when in reality, the choice that they made probably hurt them more than I could ever imagine. Until now, I had never taken the time to truly appreciate all of the sacrifices they made in order to give my brother and I the best future that they possibly could. Even though we weren’t refugees, nor were we ever prosecuted by the guerrilla, or forced out of our country due to the color of our skin, the experience was just as heartbreaking – they didn’t believe they were given the choice to stay.
It all started when my dad’s job began to send him to San Carlos, a town near Medellin where the guerrilla’s presence was prevalent. Somehow, the overwhelming feeling of insecurity that he felt on his travels always tended to follow him home. As a result, insecurity and fear led to my dad’s anxiety and depression, which began to negatively affect us as a family. It wasn’t easy. But in order to ensure his health and our overall well being, he made the decision that it was time for us to go.
After leaving the workshop, I was immediately overwhelmed by guilt. How could I have ever been so insensitive? It was at this precise moment that my presence in the church changed from one of selflessness to one of self-seeking – I had never had the opportunity to reflect or analyze my own situation until I was presented with a visual of what the worst-case scenario could potentially look like. Its true, my parents had left everything behind. They left the house where they saw my brother and I take our first steps, the five minute walk to my grandparents’ house around the corner, the security of a well-paying job, and the country where they had met and fallen in love. They gave up the comforts of everything they had known and took a risk that had the possibility of bringing them something better, while it also had the possibility of bringing them complete failure. Despite the odds, like many Colombian refugees that cross the border into Ecuador on a daily basis, they decided to take the risk.
I was lucky. I had a wonderful childhood, a great education; I met my boyfriend, fell in love, and had the opportunity to meet people from countries all over the world. People I would have never had the opportunity to meet otherwise. The sad part is that all of these aspects of my life had been taken for granted until this moment. Therefore, I would like to thank the Mennonite Church in Quito as well as the coordinators of the Colombian Refugee Project for granting me the opportunity to be appreciative and thankful for all of the things, experiences, and people I have in my life. Each one of these things has made me the person that I am today.
*Names of Refugees have been changed for their safety and security.
Julie Moreno was a participant in the UMass Boston/FLACSO Summer Institute on Conflict Transformation Across Borders in Quito, Ecuador. She is the Program Coordinator and Research Assistant at the Center for Mediation, Peace, and Resolution of Conflict (CEMPROC).