Catholic Relief Services: The refugee crisis we don’t hear much about
By Ryla Simmons
Catholic Relief Services
Carlos and Daniela Sanchez have only two rooms for themselves and their two boys –– 3-year-old Diego and 14-year-old Alejandro. Gracious hosts in their modest home, they can offer guests only water. They have lost almost everything and are now living apart from friends and relatives, but they are grateful to be alive.
I met them recently while in Ecuador with a delegation from Catholic Relief Services (CRS). We were there to learn about one of the biggest refugee crises in the world today though most know nothing about it.
The Sanchez family –– I have changed their names for security reasons –– are among the 500,000 refugees from Colombia living in Ecuador, just a small portion of the 6.5 million Colombians forced to leave their homes during decades of violence – both political and criminal. Revolutionary groups battling the Colombian government have made areas of the countries virtually lawless. Armed gangs that deal in drugs and illegal extractives have moved in.
This is the second largest refugee crisis in the world today, behind only Syria and Iraq, but it has been going on for so long that few journalists bother writing about it anymore, few TV correspondents bring their cameras and microphones to hear stories like the one we were told.
Three months before, the Sanchezes were living in Colombia running a successful business baking bread. Then some guerilla fighters demanded an exorbitant, unaffordable tax, saying that if it was not paid, Alejandro would be taken as a “recruit.”
They made a prayerful decision and fled that night, taking an all-day bus ride to Ecuador with no possessions beyond what they wore.
Fortunately, in Ecuador the family found the Scalabrini Mission, a CRS partner that is working to help refugees. Scalabrini Sister Lelis, a joyful woman from Brazil who greets everyone with smiling laughter and a big bear hug, went with us to the Sanchez house.
As Daniela told her family’s story, I marveled at young Diego, sitting on the floor contentedly eating an apple with one hand, coloring with the other. His parents had shielded him well from the traumatic scars that often accompany refugee life.
The toy trucks scattered on the floor were familiar to me as I have a 3-year-old boy at home. I wondered how I would do in their situation, imagining the angst and stress that must have been part of every decision they made. Without knowing what was ahead, they chose to have faith that the future would be better than what they left behind. Sister Lelis’ smile and hugs, and the help of the Scalabrini Mission, were the answers to that faith.
With the support of CRS, the Sanchezes are safe and secure, and now active participants in their new community. Alejandro has become involved in a youth program that brings Colombian refugees and Ecuadorian youth together to foster understanding. Daniela attends a mothers’ group that offers support and shared childcare responsibilities. Carlos, who lives with a disability, has found help through the psychosocial program. Diego plays with other kids at the Scalabrini Mission playground.
If we ever wonder if the gifts we make to CRS make a difference, we just have to be introduced to people like the Sanchez family and Sister Lelis, indeed all the Scalabrini sisters at this mission. They serve 8,000 refugees annually through a variety of programs in two different locations in Ecuador.
New arrivals start with any immediate assistance needed and then get a comprehensive assessment that leads to specialized help for their specific needs: health, education, counseling, legal issues, even a microfinance loan to start a business and build credit in their new country.
CRS partners with the Scalibrini sisters because it is clear that they are making an impact on the lives of those they serve, helping them on their way to the goal of self-sufficiency. The violence these refugees fled has been going on for decades and shows little sign of abating. They must be prepared, like so many refugees around the world, to begin a new life.
Carlos was quiet during most of our visit, but spoke up at one point to say how much they miss their relatives in Colombia, wondering when they will see them again. He said that having us there felt like family to him. A joke from Sister Lelis lightened the mood. Everyone laughed.
Sister Lelis is a shining example of the partners CRS works with around the world. They are the reason CRS has the ability to connect with those we serve on such a personal and impactful level. I was struck by the enthusiasm and joy that all the sisters I met poured out to those they serve.
As we left the Sanchez house, Sister Lelis hugged Alejandro as if she has known him forever. At first he made the kind of face that only teenagers can muster, but then started giggling. The room was filled with smiles, with laughter, with hope.
Catholic Relief Services carries out the commitment of the U.S. bishops to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas. CRS is the international arm of the Catholic Church and is currently serving in 101 countries and serving more than 100 million people every year. As part of the universal mission of the Catholic Church, CRS works with local, national and international Catholic institutions and structures, as well as other organizations, to assist people on the basis of need, not creed, race or nationality.
To learn more about the work of CRS, visit www.crs.org.