Updated: Mar 3, 2021
In my case, my parents guarded my past in their basement. Refugees don't have that luxury.
Versión en español aquí.
Belky Hernandez carries out a Covid-19-safe activity with Venezuelan refugee children, now living in Bucaramanga, Colombia.
My parents are here for a visit – they’ve been fully vaccinated. (!) They brought with them (as they have been doing for the past couple of visits) some of my things that have been patiently waiting at their house while I lived in Costa Rica. They’re from the time in 2008 I dropped everything and took off with only a hiker’s backpack and my book bag, when my life changed drastically and I moved to a new country.
I currently have boxes and bags sitting at the bottom of the steps, each one a sort of potential emotional ticking time bomb. I opened one to find old stuffed animals that I’ll probably just toss. But then I opened another and found a collection of letters from my dear friends at the Gloria Dei Hispanic Mission where I worked before I moved, which I think made up a packet that was sent to me over the summer before I left. One said, “We miss you!” Another said, “the last night before you left you looked really sad.” I widened my eyes. And quickly put that back in the box and closed it up tight.
How many carloads will it take to unite my past selves to my present one? Many of these things will be tossed. Some will be carefully preserved, incorporated, transformed.
As I was thinking about the topic of this post, people who leave their hometown or their country against their will (refugees), I was thinking back to when I left my country, and what it felt like. My parents’ bringing many of my things from just before that move turned out to be a strange coincidence this week.
I left my country by choice. By very happy choice overall, not-withstanding the sadness that I definitely did feel when I left the community that had made me a part of it for 5 years – Gloria Dei. But I had studied Spanish and International Service in college, and I was in need of an internship and had the opportunity to spend a year as a volunteer in Costa Rica, so leaving my dorm-style kitchen supplies and boxes of three-ring binders behind at my parents’ house wasn’t difficult. I even made an adventure of it, purposely adding more danger to the trip than necessary, flying to Mexico City and then taking buses and meandering touristically through Central America to reach Costa Rica by my internship start date.
So here's an interesting twist we can explore later: those who stay behind. On my journey down to Costa Rica, I stopped off in Guatemala City and stayed with the family of Guatemalan refugees that I know in Indiana. This is the family business - a fruit juice shop.
I have been thinking about how I have been living like a migrant for the past 13 years. I moved to Costa Rica from the US, dropping everything, and in 2017 we dropped everything again to come back. It can be exciting, but this lifestyle is also pretty disruptive: it can be difficult to find a job, an apartment/house, a car, friends, and a picture for what the future may hold.
I tell you all of this because there is a LARGE group of people in the world who leave home and go through similar things: inability to find a job, culture shock, separation from family, homesickness, leaving most material possessions behind, etc., and they don’t have the advantage of knowing a single soul in their final destination city or country. They may be fleeing violence and are carrying a lot of trauma, they may have zero money to their name, and certainly no one waiting for them on the other side with a visa and a job. They are refugees, both internally (within their own country) and externally (international) displaced. Economic refugees, political refugees, fleeing from violence or instability.
As I was thinking about refugees, and my own experience with migrating, I went back and found the blog I wrote back when I first moved to Costa Rica to keep people informed of my journey. In one of the early entries I wrote about how I both was and wasn’t an immigrant to Costa Rica (I was a tourist until I did become “an immigrant,” when I got a job and became an official resident after my first year). Here, from September, 2008:
“Here I am in San Jose, starting to develop a little bit of a life. I hadn´t realized how much emotional energy it takes to uproot and begin, again. Not only do I no longer have a car or a phone, but I don´t have a schedule or a kitchen (!!! that´s very difficult for me) or any real knowledge yet how most of my days will be spent. And I don´t know if my money will last, or if I will need to be looking for some kind of job, like teaching English somewhere. I would rather have time than money, though, so I´m going to try to live very frugally. Costa Rica is actually about as expensive as the US in most things, less expensive in others, and more expensive in others (like, $20 for the cheapest hair dryer in Walmart??? $50 for the average ones????!!!!).
“While I am living with immigrants and they seem to be a lot more comfortable than I am at this point, with an established community and routine, and a place, however humble, to keep their clothes and their toothbrush, I realize that they must have experienced a lot of what I am experiencing now. Feeling cut off from family and friends back home, but curious about what my new life will bring me. Fleeting thoughts of regret at having left, but a drive to stick it out and see what happens. Confusion over bus routes and new ways of using Spanish, but excitement over conquering those new ways…” – September 15, 2008
Here's another one from that same month:
“Technically I´m a tourist. It says so on my visa, in my passport. I will dutifully leave the country every 90 days, I will not be paid in the country, etc etc. And I am not here out of financial need, nor am I fleeing war, nor do I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like many of my friends, here.
“Like M— and her family, with whom I recently had dinner. I couldn´t find her house, at first, so I asked around in the area where the church is. No one seemed to know who she was. Finally I peeked my head in a house and said, ¨Buenas!¨ the typical greeting… ¨¿Saben Uds dónde vive M—?¨ Do you know where M— lives?
““Oh, yes,” they said, “right here.” They led me back through their one-room of a house, dirt floor, back through a dark room and through a tiny wooden doorway. Here is M—! And her son, L-, 3 years old. They have one tiny bedroom, one bed for the three of them (L-´s father was at work when I arrived), and a little kitchen space, with an electric stovetop on the table, clothes hanging from lines, taking up all the space in the room. There was one chair, which I was offered. My knees obstructed the path from the door to the bedroom. The other room in the area is used by 2 young women, who came while I was eating and started laughing and talking loudly. Everyone in the structure uses one bathroom, the door of which is a piece of tin. No seat on the toilet, no light, really.
[I later learned this was a typical cuartería, a place where an entire family can rent one room in a dilapidated building of many one-room “apartments,” often with a shared bathroom.]
“I was received graciously and with delicious food, and L- kept me very entertained with his giggles and shrieks, and his stories. The family has lived there for about 10 months; they´re from Nicaragua. I was thinking, “Wow, they must have a very good reason to be here — I am sure their house in Estelí was much nicer than this.” In fact, they do have a good reason. They are hoping that L- can have a surgery here, or that they can make enough money to get the surgery back in Nica[ragua]. His eyes are crossed, and they hope to have that fixed. M— is afraid to leave him alone, because she believes that this happened to L- because of the person she left him with when he was a baby in Nicaragua (evil eye? something else?). So M— has few friends and does not get out much.
“I´m still not sure how my work will unfold this year, but I am grateful to be received by the families of the church, and to get to know them better. Right now I am off to another lunch appointment in the same neighborhood, but with a family that has a very nice house, tile floors and several rooms. Quite an interesting diversity in one small community.” – September 22, 2008
L-: one of the sweetest kids I've ever met, celebrating Palm Sunday in Costa Rica.
Many Nicaraguans have migrated or arrived as refugees to Costa Rica, particularly since the earthquake of 1972, the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and most recently due to political unrest at home. Today, the largest external displacement crisis in Latin America, by far, is the number of refugees and migrants leaving Venezuela: 5 million people have left in the last few years. The largest group of them, 1.8 million people, have gone to Colombia, the country to the west. My friend Belky Hernandez, herself an immigrant to Colombia from Nicaragua/Costa Rica, has been working with Venezuelan migrant children since 2018 in a program that she founded, called Club Infantil (Children’s Club).
Belky lives in the city of Bucaramanga, Colombia, the largest city that is close to Venezuela, the city through which many migrants leaving Venezuela by way of Colombia will pass, regardless of their final destination. Her work with the Lutheran Church and in ecumenical circles in Colombia, such as with the Methodist church, has allowed her to be connected with the local community and with opportunities for participating in training in many countries of Latin America to work with children.
Many Venezuelan refugees pass through Bucaramanga, in Santander, Colombia.
I know Belky from our work together in the Central American Lutheran Church in Costa Rica. She arrived to Costa Rica after working for some years with children on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, one of my favorite places in the world. She is a trained educator and counselor, and a specialist in vulnerable populations. I had the great privilege of attending and photographing her beautiful wedding in Rivas, Nicaragua. So I know that she is serious about her work, and dedicated to children and their well-being. Here is some of what she told me about her work with Venezuelan refugee children:
“When I was finishing my certificate program in Childhood and Vulnerability, I presented a project proposal with a Methodist counterpart, to start a program for Venezuelan refugee children. The idea was to provide a space for them when they arrived in Colombia – a welcoming place, where they could express their experience of this huge change in their lives, and where they could get practical tools for interpreting their experience. Going from one country to another is difficult, and they have left behind the things they love, their school, their activities, their grandparents, etc.
“Many of the children came to Colombia on foot with their parents. It’s a huge trauma for them. So our project was to connect with them through games, art, music, arts and crafts. And we wanted to work with both Venezuelan migrant children as well as Colombians, because there is a lot of xenophobia in Colombia toward Venezuelans.”
Club Infantil activities, pre-Covid-19.
All of this sounds familiar to me, from my experience spending time with immigrant children and their families in Valparaiso, Indiana, and in San José, Costa Rica. And from my own experience living in a new country, which gives me (and you, if you’ve moved, anywhere!) a little bit of empathy for people who have left behind family, friends, and routine. I went to Costa Rica by choice, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience homesickness. Here are a few excerpts from October 21, 2008:
“…I had expressed [to a colleague] that I was feeling a little homesick, something that has not, historically, happened to me on my fairly frequent travels abroad. This time, however, there is more homesickness. More longing for the life that I had begun to develop in Valpo, regret at having left the work that I had invested myself in so completely, but also just missing friends and routines. While I do not feel very alien to Latin culture (the language, the food, the laid-back style e.i.” there is more time than life” are all things that I love and find come very naturally for me these days), I suppose my nostalgia can still be considered a kind of culture shock.
“Several people [from the church] have expressed sympathy for my homesickness, something that they can relate to as immigrants. One woman told me how when she first came from the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, she cried a lot. Another explained the various words that are different in Nicaragua than in Costa Rica, and how, at her first job as a housekeeper, she did not understand what the lady of the house was telling her to do (“Bring me the bote,” she said. Bote in Costa Rica is a bucket, or bin, like they are called in Mexico. But Nicaraguans hear bote and they start looking for a boat. Yes, a boat.). So, it seems that I am in good company, and I feel especially proud to be associated with this community each Sunday in church when people express thoughtful opinions about God and community, or when they tell how they defended themselves and fellow Nicaraguan immigrants to Costa Ricans on the bus who turn to them to complain about “the Nicas” (this actually happens quite often – one friend told me how the Costa Rican woman who had complained to her, on discovering that she was speaking with a “Nica,” said: “Oh, but you´re so pretty. I didn´t realize you were Nicaraguan.”).”
These are the reasons that I wholeheartedly support any program that works with immigrant and refugee kids: the disruption that is leaving everything behind and starting over with few to zero resources, the xenophobia immigrants often encounter in their new homes, and the extra confusion and hardship this must cause for children.
Belky and her colleague were able to secure funding to carry out the Club Infantil project, and they have been working for 3 years with children on the weekends. They are up to 100 children – 2 groups on Saturday and 2 groups on Sunday, separated by age. The children work on topics like citizen participation, human rights, school tutoring, and crisis intervention. The program also provides psycho-social accompaniment to the families of the children. Even though the program was started by people connected to churches, the program does not require any participant to attend church – it’s simply a ministry of love and care for migrants and refugees, and focuses on human needs: physical, emotional, academic.
The pandemic really changed everything. Belky is a very determined person, and she was able to find ways to continue her work with the children through virtual means. She provided video lessons, music, craft ideas, puppet shows, etc, and she brought food items to families once a month. Belky told me she felt it was essential to provide attention through this program during the pandemic to try to minimize the anxiety and stress the children were feeling, especially given the conditions for increased violence at home and even more extreme lack of resources faced by vulnerable people.
Belky says that the work with the children is very gratifying. She can see the kids gain confidence as they participate in the program, identifying their own likes and dislikes, smiling, and making plans for the future. Some of them stay in the program for a while, and others are passing through as their parents use the first stop in Bucaramanga to gather resources before they continue to other parts of Colombia or Latin America.
The program costs $724 per month to work with 100 children. This includes crafts for the kids, snacks, and a monthly meeting with parents, including renting the space the program needs and reimbursing some of the coordinator’s time.
If you are interested in supporting Belky and the Club Infantil in Bucaramanga, Colombia, you can contact Belky directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, and make a donation via Paypal to the project. She can give you the information when you write to her.
Belky is proudly Nicaraguan, and a beautiful person, inside and out.
Thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate your interest in my topics and experiences. After this post, I will be taking a break for a couple of weeks, to work on a project with some friends – I promise that you will see the results very soon! I also want to update the website a little bit, and document our family's exciting transition to spring on my Facebook (Kat Peters) and Instagram (katsodak) pages. You can follow me there!