Jenifer and her family had fled their home in south-west Colombia after receiving death threats. “There’s no playing around with these people,” she says. “They have a saying: ‘one foot out of line, a bullet in the head, and the game is over’. I had to get my children out of there.”
She tells us that armed individuals have tracked her down in Ecuador, and she remains unsafe.
“Stop what you’re doing or you’re dead”
Jenifer was a community leader back in Colombia. The peace deal between the government and FARC hadn’t reached her area, and a violent armed guerrilla group was extorting money from her community. She organised and supported her neighbours in their decision to resist paying the “war tax”, as she didn’t think it was fair that they had to pay.
Then, in November 2018, the commander of the group sent her a violent death threat: “Stop what you are doing or you’re dead”. She went to the local authorities to report it, but they told her there was nothing they could do and she would be better off leaving.
The Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia estimates that 479 community leaders have been murdered since 2016 and at least 145,000 people were forced to flee their homes in 2018. The number of displaced people has continued to rise this year.
A few hours to pack up and escape
The day that the four armed men arrived at her house, Jenifer scrambled to shove some clothes into two backpacks. Carrying her three-year-old son, she ran to the local school to pick up her two daughters, aged seven and nine. They boarded a bus and travelled as far south as their money would take them.
Many hours later, they arrived at the border with Ecuador. “We bought the cheapest food we could find at the border: chicken feet. I thought, my goodness, is this what they eat in Ecuador? I felt so far away from my home,” she remembers.
Jenifer didn’t know what asylum was, but a friend back home had told her to look for the UN Refugee Agency. She found their offices in a border town in the north of Ecuador, and they were able to help with her application for asylum. She also discovered NGOs, like the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), who were able to support her with temporary housing and food.
But Jenifer knew that she wasn’t the only one in need of help. With so many people arriving in Ecuador – not just Colombians but even greater numbers of Venezuelans – she worried that she and her children wouldn’t be supported. For many humanitarian organisations working in the area, it can be hard to secure enough funding to meet the needs of all the people arriving at the border and seeking protection.
Read also: Fled up the river
Struggling to find a home, work and school
It was difficult for Jenifer to find an apartment, especially with three children. “It’s so hard in the beginning, because you don’t know how much things are supposed to cost, and everyone overcharges you for food and rent, especially when they hear your accent,” she explains.
Jenifer has also found it hard to get work, especially with a young child. She sold fruit on the streets a few times but finds it very painful to have to take her son with her. “It’s no place for a child,” she says.
She went to the local school several times to sign her daughters up, but was refused entrance. The staff told her she didn’t have the right documents and that it wasn’t possible. It was only when a humanitarian worker from NRC accompanied her to the school that she was successful in signing her children up.
“I felt like the door kept shutting on us again and again. You have to keep your mouth shut, because you don’t want to make things worse,” says Jenifer. “But I’m grateful for the help of the humanitarian organisations. To me, the work that NRC does represents hope that something can change.”
A violent message: “we know where you live”
Although Jenifer’s situation was tough, it was starting to stabilise. But various informants and criminal networks operate between Ecuador and her homeland, and after a few months living in her new home, her persecutors caught up with her. One day while she was out with a friend, someone paid a visit to her house.
“When I got back home after a few hours away, I saw that the walls were all scratched. I thought it was so strange. That was until I realised they’d scratched my name. There were red marks all over the walls. They had killed the little kitten that my daughter had rescued. It was terrifying. My daughter couldn’t stop crying for days,” Jenifer remembers, the tears welling in her eyes.
NRC helped her find a new apartment, in a safer area, and her family is now on the waiting list for resettlement to another country. This process can take up to two years, which is a long time to keep a low profile and wait. Jenifer says she can only hope that it does happen. She longs to live somewhere where her children can study and where she can work and look after her family, and keep them safe.
“I don’t want anyone to suffer what I have suffered. I had to find strength in ways I didn’t know I was capable of,” she told us.
Colombians fleeing a forgotten crisis
NRC has been working in Ecuador for years, ensuring that Colombians fleeing armed conflict can access basic rights such as protection, education and housing.
In recent years, the numbers of people arriving in Ecuador have surged, especially with Venezuelans now leaving the ongoing crisis in their country. But Colombians keep arriving too, and like Jenifer, they desperately need protection and humanitarian assistance. While the conflict and violence continue in Colombia, the government of Ecuador must ensure that people in need of international protection are protected and assisted.
In the past year, NRC has supported 5,960 Colombian people in Ecuador. More support is needed to ensure that those fleeing the crisis in Colombia are not forgotten.
*Names have been changed.