By Paula Fynboh
There’s a cemetery near Montgomery, Minnesota (USA) where my parents will be buried. It’s the same cemetery where my grandparents were buried. And it is the same place where my great-grandparents found their final resting place. What does this have to do with displacement? It offers me a physical connection to my roots, something many internally displaced people in many countries do not have.
I recently sat down with Maria Isabelle, one of the participants of the Bogota Wage Subsidy Project (BWSP), to hear her story. The BWSP is a start-up organization working with women displaced by conflict in Colombia to build personal equity and transition from informal to formal employment.
Colombia has experienced violent conflict for 50 years. The conflict is rooted in a long-standing history of struggle for economic, political, and social rights. Since the beginning of Colombia’s civil war in 1964, the conflict has involved multiple armed actors and agendas of violence, power, drugs, and greed. Much of the conflict—including active land mines, kidnapping, and murders—occurs in the rural areas where the state does not have a strong presence, significantly affecting peasants and farmers. Many of their children are forced by gunpoint to leave their homes and join illegally-armed groups to carry on this war. As a result, many of the families flee to the larger cities in Colombia, including Bogota, often in the middle of the night with nothing more than their children and a few meager belongings. Once in the city, these internally displaced persons have few transferable skills, assets, or social networks. According to a 2011 report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based policy think tank, the majority end up working in “informal” employment situations, a nice term for work that includes sifting through garbage to find used objects to sell in the street, or even worse.
Maria Isabelle’s real name is not Maria Isabelle; She’s unable to use her real identity because she was a community organizer in a western province of Colombia that is currently under control by guerilla groups. Maria Isabelle and her family members were issued identification cards by this illegally-armed group and had to pass by their checkpoints daily. When Maria Isabelle spoke out too loudly about the injustices facing the community, she became a threat. She is now in Bogota, working as a domestic servant for a wealthier Colombian family. She told me her favorite part of the day is walking her employer’s dog, a boxer, in the mornings to a local park. There, she feels safe and is able to slowly start building connections with other domestic servants, locally names “empleadas”.
As a little girl, Maria Isabelle went to Catholic school. Her mum and dad allowed her to spend school vacations and occasional weekends going along on community mission trips with the school’s nuns. Maria Isabelle attributes her career in community organizing and social justice—ironically the same career that led to her displacement—to what she learned from these nuns. She also confessed that when she was a little girl she wanted to become a nun some day and help poor people. However, life worked out differently for Maria Isabelle, who now says her career goal is to open a restaurant in Bogota specializing in traditional rice dishes, which leads me back to the issue of displacement.
Maria Isabelle’s mother taught her that the most important thing in life is to be near her family. The ongoing conflict in Colombia has made this advice all but impossible for Maria Isabelle, who now, because of threats from guerilla groups, does not know where her sisters and brothers, cousins and life-long neighbors are. Even if she did, it would be unlikely that she could contact them for fear of her safety and theirs. Maria Isabelle’s family connections and community identify have been destroyed by Colombia’s longstanding conflict.
When most people talk about the violence, and resulting displacement in Colombia, it’s usually either a numbers or a blame game. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that between four and five million people have been displaced by Colombia’s violence, and in July 2013 The Guardian newspaper reported that more than 200,000 Colombians have died during the course of the conflict.
However, for Maria Isabelle, the story is more than numbers. The violence and displacement forced her to adopt a new name and identity, erasing her personal connections, work history, cultural identity, and community. Maria doesn’t have baby books of her children, a gravestone where she can visit her parents, or the luxury of a Facebook page where she can keep up with old friends. Maria Isabelle was forced to start over.
She told me that the worst part of being displaced, however, is not losing her past, but experiencing prejudice in her new environment. She says many people look at her and assume she’s a stereotype, meaning that’s she’s either mentally ill, untrustworthy, or somehow to blame for her circumstance. This prejudice comes when applying for jobs, as her physical address identifies her as living in a very poor and transitional neighborhood and her past work experience identifies her as displaced. Additionally, Maria Isabelle’s work uniform of basic hospital scrubs identifies her as a domestic worker, often assumed to be poor and uneducated. Maria Isabelle told me a story about how no one offered to help her up when she fell while she was trying to get on a bus for her hour-and-a-half commute home from work. This story felt symbolic, as she later shared with me that while displaced people have experienced much trauma they only need a temporary hand. She said that the Colombian Government and employers can work to help provide initial mental health care, skills, and job training to displaced people, but then, displaced people want to be able to help themselves again.
A combined challenge for Maria Isabelle is not only her displacement, but also that Colombia has one of the strictest socio-economic strata systems in the world, ranking seventh among countries with the highest degree of economic inequality in a rating by the World FactBook, a site that compiles U.S. Government profiles of other nations and territories. The Colombian strata system identifies individuals by socio-economic rankings from one to six. People like Maria Isabelle are ones and sixes are assigned to the six percent of the wealthiest people in the country. The Strata system was made into law in the 1980’s to group urban populations with the similar characteristics to be able to provide services more efficiently. The International Federation for Housing and Planning (IFHP), an international organization focused on urban development issues, has shown that the System has also been used to put a higher utility payment burden on the upper stratas to support the lower stratas. While this may be good for income inequality, there are unintended consequences for lower strata individuals. In a country where relationships are everything, both the strata system and the stigma of displacement create additional barriers for Maria Isabelle to access certain jobs that could give her the independence she so craves. If Maria Isabelle were to interview for a job as a receptionist, it would be legal to ask her where her parents lived and went to school, thereby legally identifying both her strata and classification of displacement, and this information could be used to deny her certain jobs. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Maria Isabelle would even have the opportunity to interview for the position, as higher-strata Colombians—who tend to rely on personal networks when hiring and recruiting for jobs—perform the majority of hiring and all of Maria Isabelle’s references are now also displaced or in hiding from illegally-armed groups.
Despite the heart-breaking circumstances and institutional challenges stacked against Maria Isabelle, it’s striking that she is not asking for an overhaul of the system or that she is not invested in self-pity or resentment. In fact, when I asked Maria Isabelle what advice or recommendations she would give to the government or employers, she said she would ask them to see displaced people not as victims, but as part of the solution. She asked for space to organize displaced people and showcase their strengths and culture, giving displaced persons another chance to change their identity from one of political or economic burdens to one of self-resiliency and strength.
Maria Isabelle’s ultimate dream would be to know another culture or country and be able to travel to places like Europe or the United States. I don’t know if Maria Isabelle’s dream will come true, but even if for now she can’t travel, her story can.
If you would like to help displaced women like Maria Isabelle transition to independence and build their personal equity, please visit the Bogota Wage Subsidy Project at: www.bogotawagesubsidy.org.[contact-form to=’firstname.lastname@example.org’ subject=’Paula%26#039;s Colombia article’][contact-field label=’Like this article? Enter your email for weekly updates from Development Roast’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]
Paula Fynboh is a consultant specializing in engagement and campaign strategy. She currently lives in Bogota, Colombia and serves as an advisor to the Bogota Wage Subsidy Project and recently contributed an essay about integrating strategic story telling, social media and grassroots engagement to the recently published book, Millennials Speak. Essays on the 21st Century, by R.P. Thead, Rachel Kerwin and Sabith Khan (March 30, 2013).