Ok, make sure you check out Part I before you continue with this one here! enjoy -
ASELER/ASYLUM ACCESS: Progress
Not surprisingly, the tremendous successes that ASELER has achieved in the past few months have made it nearly impossible to disconnect completely. I had thought we were making great progress in my first few months at ASELER, but these past few months have absolutely blown me away. In addition to helping more and more refugees and hearing more positive results (of the 10 clients we’ve prepared for their RSD interview, all of them have received refugee status), we’ve made particularly significant headway on the policy front. For example, refugees previously were not allowed to take their files from the Ecuadorian Government’s Refugee Office. This not only meant that if you were a refugee whose case had been denied you could not have a copy of your files, it also meant you did not have access to the reasoning for why your case had been denied. You’d simply get a letter stating that your case was denied either because of ‘inconsistencies,’ a lack of credibility,’ or because you (summarized here) ‘did not show you needed international protection.’ While this was problematic for refugees, it was also difficult for us legal advocates to represent denied refugees properly. In sum, without motivation for denial, appeal writing is a very tough task.
But now, due to some impressive and strategic work by our new Director, clients can receive their entire files, including the rationale of the eligibility officer who conducted and denied the refugee’s interview. This breakthrough happened in mid-August, and I’m anticipating that we’ll be able to write much stronger appeals for our clients. It is exhilarating and satisfying to be a part of change that comes from the bottom up and that has such a positive impact on a larger scale. Plus, when you’re not working to increase profit margins, advances such as these are great indicators of progress.
These types of policy advances, as well as many more including - improved relations with the Ecuadorian Government’s Refugee Office and increased collaboration with UNHCR and other refugee service providing NGOs - have deemed ASELER to be considered a civil society leader with regard to refugees’ rights in Ecuador by the other players in the field. For an organization just over one year old, it is quite a feat! And these policy strides are even more interesting given the current political context in Ecuador. The Government recently re-wrote their constitution – for the 20th time – and it was approved in September. (I know, quite unimaginable given the age of the U.S.’s Constitution) It is the first constitution, and quite possibly the only constitution, that gives specific rights to refugees as well as to the environment. Back in March, (prior to my arrival) when the Ecuadorian Government was considering proposals for the new constitution, ASELER proposed guaranteeing employment rights for refugees. This idea was motivated by the fact that people seeking refugee status are not legally allowed to be employed in Ecuador, and they therefore have to work illegally for the numerous months or sometimes years while they are waiting to hear the decision on their case. Thus, it is gratifying to read that the text from ASELER’s proposal is now included in Ecuador’s Constitution. Let’s hope this one lasts a bit longer than the past 19 attempts!
In other related refugee policy changes, the Ecuadorian government is in the process of implementing a new policy that will drastically change the refugee status determination process in Ecuador. Recognizing that the UNHCR estimates there are 250,000 Colombian refugees in Ecuador – most of which are thought to be ‘invisibles,’ meaning they have not been registered as refugees and are up on the border of Colombia – the Ecuadorian government is implementing an ambitious initiative called ‘Registro Ampliado.’ Literally, ‘Wide Registry.’ The idea is to recognize 60,000 refugees by June 2009 – which is an incredible task given that there were only a few thousand refugees registered in Ecuador last year. Thus, the way the goal will be accomplished so quickly will be by applying different legal instruments to determine each refugee’s status. Currently, the Ecuadorian Government relies primarily on the UN’s 1951 Convention, which has a fairly individualistic criterion for the international definition of a refugee. However, for the Registro Ampliado, the Ecuadorian Government’s Refugee Office will use the Cartagena Declaration, which bases its definition on broader themes rather than individual persecution. For example, if you can prove you are fleeing an area of ‘general violence,’ under Cartagena, you fit the definition of a refugee. Under the 1951 Convention, however, you have to prove that there is an ‘agent of persecution’ that is specifically after you. And since many of the Colombians fleeing their homeland, or at least the ones I’ve interacted with, have often been indirectly involved in the conflict, this change will bring very good news to many Colombian asylum-seekers.
In addition, the entire refugee status determination (RSD) process – interview, case review, and decision – will be completed in one day. The Ecuadorian Government’s primary Refugee Office is in Quito, so they plan to send brigades of eligibility officers to the border towns in order to register many of the ‘invisible’ refugees. ASELER is co-leading a ‘watchdog’ group of civil society organizations and refugee associations to monitor and report on the government’s brigades. Thus, as you can imagine, this new policy, which was initially intended to start in November but has been delayed until January, is bringing on an entire new set or responsibilities for ASELER. Thankfully, we received a grant to fund the salary for a person to work specifically in this role, which we’ve recently hired, and she certainly will have her hands full.
Prior to hiring this person, however, I attended one of the first meetings on the watchdog project in late October. The meeting was in Lago Agrio, a border town where many Colombian refugees pass through, and it was attended by many Colombian refugees, a handful of NGO representatives (including myself and a fellow ASELER volunteer), and a few representatives from the Ecuadorian Government and the UNHCR. The purpose of the meeting was to quickly create the plan and procedure for the watchdog project as the first brigade was intended to start just three weeks from the date of the meeting. ASELER was assigned to design the methodology and training of the project – including the politically controversial task of suggesting who should participate – and the experience was quite surreal. None of us from ASELER working on the project (neither I, nor a fellow volunteer, nor our new Director) had experience in anything close to this field. And while I was quite confident in our proposal and the presentation that the fellow volunteer and I gave - particularly after the Government officials and some of the other proposals that seemed to have a complete disregard for the concept of a “conflict of interest” - it was amazing to know that this is how the process unfolded. Knowing that this project would be responsible for ensuring there were no due process violations by the Ecuadorian Government, which I heard about on a daily basis working in ASELER’s office in Quito, I had imagined the procedure for creating the watchdog group would be more official. But instead, the situation was as follows:
A representative from an NGO in Quito that provides somewhat similar services to ASELER led the meeting. In his machismo way, he boasted about his connections to high-up officials, seeking to gain respect as he introduced the 2 representatives from the Ecuadorian Government’s Refugee Office and the UNHCR. Those two spent the majority of the morning providing information on how the Registro Ampliado process would be implemented. Quite frequently, their responses to questions or their sentences ended with: “that part of the process should be decided at the next meeting. We just don’t know yet.” (Mind you that at this time, the government’s first Registro Ampliado brigade was supposed to go out in less than three weeks.) Meanwhile, many of the 30-40 Colombian refugees in the audience would raise their hand, eager to “ask a question.” Upon being called on, their ‘question’ was more often a dramatic announcement of how they had been unjustly failed by the system as well as a public plea for them to be recognized as refugees. Then the machismo representative, who I later that evening saw feel-up a Colombian Refugee on a bus, (ASELER is following up with legal actions on the event) would respond of behalf of the Government and the UNHCR official since they had no part in the decision of any particular cases. Following a break for lunch, two American women (myself and a fellow volunteer) presented our printed-out power-point presentation, the projector was of course broken, to a group Colombian refugees and a handful of representatives from other organizations. The government official and UNHCR representative left to fly back to Quito after lunch. While we all sat on folding chairs in a barren room that was 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity, a few more sexist comments were made by the machismo representative, a baby cried in the back of the room, more passionate pleas, more discussions, and poof: a group consensus on how the watchdog project should be carried out was decided upon. No two-thirds of the vote was necessary and no decision-making hierarchy was apparent. But who should participate, what their roles should be, and how civil society would oversee the Government’s new procedure was all determined by 4:00pm -- early enough for everyone to have some beers before getting on the overnight bus ride back to Quito.
What a day. The experience pointed out the possible rationale for how and why certain processes that exist in Ecuador are conducted on such an ad hoc and seemingly illogical basis. When there is little time for planning and little time to strategically consider the consequences and effects of policies (in addition to all the other complicating factors that are so apparent in the above), individuals implementing the incomplete or inadequate policies end up making decisions with limited knowledge, direction, resources, and time: a recipe for inconsistent, inefficient, and unjust policies. Though the overall situation can be a bit daunting, I’m very glad that ASELER is not only involved, but has a strong leadership role. As I mentioned earlier, I’m very confident in the skills of our new Director. I believe she’ll be able to influence most upcoming refugee policies in Ecuador to be more thoroughly thought out and logically implemented, and this is very needed indeed.
Registro Ampliado meeting in Lago Agrio, on the border of Colombia
ASELER CLIENT STORIES
In the midst of all the policy successes and administrative changes for ASELER, we are also taking on more and more clients. For me, the client work is definitely the most rewarding part of working at ASELER. Below are a few memorable moments and noteworthy follow-ups from my last postings.
In early September, a nurse, who we had helped prepare for her interview for refugee status, came back to our office absolutely beaming. She was granted refugee status. She was hugging us all and nearly crying. And she kept saying she didn’t know how to thank us. No matter how miserable of a day you think you’re having, it is hard to feel that anything could be that terrible when you know you’ve had a small part in making someone so happy. Days such as these, when you hear overwhelmingly positive news that carries you through the day; however, are a seemingly necessary balance for the other days when you meet with clients that are on the opposite end of the spectrum. These can be the cases where people need help but we can’t do anything. For example, I met with a Peruvian man for a consultation who came to our office a few months back. Though he was not a refugee, he came to Ecuador with the hope he could get work to pay for the surgery he needed for the tennis-ball sized tumor he has on his neck. But apart from sending him to another NGO - even though there are no such NGOs that provide free health services or that assist people find work - there was little we could do.
Or, there are those asylum-seekers who come to our offices with strong cases for refugee status, but whom have been denied at each stage of the process. These refugees are often denied due to their failure to account for the specific dates or irrelevant details in their interviews or due to flagrant due process violations. They are left with two options: stay in Ecuador illegally or go back to Colombia. For me, these are the hardest client consultations: when they’ve exhausted the system, or rather, have been exhausted by the system, and you feel as though you can do nothing for them. But, we are constantly seeking alternative legal avenues for these cases, and even in these situations, the asylum-seekers are grateful for our guidance. Perhaps I write this in every posting, but the strength that people have never ceases to astound me.
And, in a convenient segue, the nearly deaf woman and her husband whom I had written about in a previous posting, returned to our office in late September to introduce me to their son. When they first left Colombia, they had to leave one teenage son behind with a grandmother, because they did not have enough money for a bus ticket (which I believe is around $20). Thus, when they were granted refugee status, they had to request permission from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to return to the border of Colombia to get him. We wrote the letter for them, so they proudly came back to our office to introduce him. Writing ‘family reunification’ or ‘border crossing’ requests is a newer service that ASELER began providing for our clients earlier this summer. They are fairly simple one-page requests but have a tremendous impact on our clients and their families.
However, the most unforgettable moment from the past few months occurred in October. I had returned to the office from a meeting to find the sister of the young Colombian man who was kidnapped in Quito earlier this year sitting in our waiting area. I was in a hurry, and I didn’t think much of seeing her as she is often in our office because we are still working to get the family refugee status and resettled to another country. But when I went to retrieve my laptop in the back room, I found the disappeared Colombian man sitting on our couch. My eyes dropped open wide. I stood there, frozen, just staring at him for a few seconds. I don’t even remember what I said to him. But what in the world does one say to someone when you were convinced were dead? If you recall from my earlier posting, he was kidnapped once in February 2007 by the ELN, escaped in April 2008 and fled to Ecuador. About a month later, he was kidnapped by the ELN again. He miraculously managed to escape, again, just a few weeks ago. Once I found out the ELN caught him the second time in May, after he had run away from them for the first time, I was certain there was no way they’d spare his life. I don’t understand, but it is remarkable. Regardless, we are doing all we can to get their entire family out of Ecuador, as soon as possible. We submitted their case to the Inter-American Commission this summer, the first case sent to the IAC to ever come out of Ecuador, and it looks as though we’re making some progress as they recently contacted the Ecuadorian Government about the case. Interestingly, only one other volunteer and I have been at ASELER long enough to know the whole story with this family, since all of the other volunteers started in September. Thus, when I stepped out of the room after seeing the re-appeared Colombian man, one of the other volunteers inquired, with unintentional irony, “Are you ok? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
Wow, so much more to write about, and this posting is already far too long! Ok, hang in there. I’ll try to be a bit more concise.
Calm in Quito?
And while all the ASELER stories make life here seem quite intense, in reality, it is not all that crazy. I have eased into a comfortable routine that keeps me stimulated, balanced, and overall very fulfilled. There are so many fun things to do in Quito and so many great places to explore in Ecuador, that I do not feel totally consumed by the work. And, I feel very fortunate, as I’ve loved where I have lived - even though that too has changed.
In early July, after realizing I was more than ready to live without roommates, I moved from the four-bedroom apartment on the second floor of my building to the studio on the top floor. The arrangement worked out perfectly. I had my own space – there was one bedroom, two bathrooms, and a decent sized kitchen and living room – and I still was able enjoy the benefits of a prime location next to the park with friends living downstairs. My favorite part, however, was being on the top floor. I had two terraces with views of the volcanoes that surround the city, and I quite enjoyed a rooftop breakfast in the morning sun. That being said, the apartment did have its quirks. It was minimally furnished with undeniably 1970s décor – thanks to my kind but eccentric, elderly Ecuadorian landlord that is a worse packrat than I am. Also, my landlord, who lived on the floor below me, has an obnoxious little guard dog named Valentina, who either barked or snapped at anyone who came past her. But, these were generally small scarifies for all the wonderful things about the apartment. And at $180 a month, which is what I paid, the apartment was a steal, even by Ecuadorian standards. Lucky, I am very lucky.
Calle Grecia Apartment Photos
Hence, it was quite sad to learn (on my birthday, November 3rd) that I’d have to move out of the apartment by the end of the month because my landlord wanted the extra space for storage. (Did I mention that he was a bit strange?) And the situation was further complicated since I was going back to the states for 10 days at the end of November, which meant I had 2 weeks to find and move into a apartment. Yikes! Thankfully, I found an amazing apartment (Miss Livesey, you’re apartment in Cambridge is still my all time favorite!), at a similar price, just two blocks away. I insisted upon living by the park, so this was a particularly great find. It is on the ninth floor, it is modernly designed with has brand new hardwood floors, there is a security guard, and there is no dog hassling my visitors! Most importantly, it has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, which means that I’m fully equipped to host out-of-country visitors!! (Hint, hint) I loved my last place, but this place is even better. Again, I feel so lucky. The only downside to the apartment was that it was not furnished. So, after a bit of contemplation and the realization that I was really a ‘grown-up,’ I recently purchased all those big household appliances and other essentials to make a place livable. I never imagined I’d be buying a refrigerator in the states within the next few years, let alone buying one in Ecuador. To me, owning all this stuff seemed to confirm that I now live in Quito. But if you own a fridge, an oven, a kitchen table and a bed, I don’t think you can claim to be ‘just visiting’ any longer!
Edificio Renacimiento Apartment Photos
But, I’m really happy to have decided to stay longer as I continue to love Quito. I joined a soccer league this fall, and had an absolute blast playing in the community league each Sunday. I still go salsa dancing on the weekends, though not quite as often as I used to, and I still go running in the park that is about a block from my apartment. I have made a few great friends – including some expats that are here for the long run – and, overall, it is nice to start to feel like I’m gaining a bit of a community here. The highlight, which I will bashfully note, is that I’ve met someone who is absolutely lovely. I typically refrain from being very specific in my descriptions of people on my blog, since, after all, this is posted on the internet. (Though, I sort of break this rule this posting with all the photos from the wedding!) I will share that I met him earlier this summer, and we are having a blast together. As you may have guessed, he is another motivating factor for me to stay here a while longer…
With Evid in Baños
Visitors! Hiking in Peru and Surfing in Canoa
This fall I had my first two visitors. A friend of mine who I worked with at the National Lawyers Guild in Boston came to take me for a weeklong trip to hike in Peru and visit Machu Picchu in the end of September. We had an amazing time! We spent a few days seeing sites in sunny Quito, but we spent the majority of the trip surrounded by llamas and alpacas while we hiked near 4000 meters in the highlands of Peru. Absolutely breathtaking. It was also a great trip as we did not do the traditional Inca Trail, but went for an alternative route, and we therefore had the opportunity to see some of the indigenous communities that live in the highlands. We made it to Machu Picchu on our last day, but I got food poisoning, huge bummer, so I didn’t get to enjoy much of the historical site. What I did see, however, was stunning. Mostly though, I it was wonderful to catch up and laugh with a close friend. And then, another very fun visitor from Boston came at the end of October. A fellow yogi and I spent a week together in Ecuador. She bravely ventured out to the Amazon for a few days, while I was up in Lago Agrio for the Registro Ampliado meeting. And after that, we explored a bit of Quito, and went to my favorite beach, Canoa. I’ve been to the coast of Ecuador four times since I arrived, and three of those times have been to Canoa. (If you find something great, stick with it!) We also had lots of great long talks, and I was glad to hear more about what was going on in the states. We saw a baby sea turtle, watched lots of crabs scurry along the sand, and had a memorable plethora of stray dogs that followed us when we went exploring on the beach. We also had our first surfing lesson together! I do not know if it is because of the yoga, but we both got up pretty easily, and we so had so much fun. I think surfing is going to have to be the next sport I pursue. Plus, it is an easy excuse to try to get to the beach more often.
Biking on the Inca Trail
More on Ecuador: the hard parts
And while I usually write about how wonderful things are in Ecuador with much ease, there have been some extremely difficult events. I had the nearly inevitable – a nasty bout of food poisoning that put me in the hospital for a day – but I recovered with a strong boost of antibiotics and have not had any troubles since. Most notably, my boyfriend’s best friend – an American who owned a bar in Quito for over three years – was killed in early September. He was assaulted after leaving a bank, and when he resisted, the three young men - two Colombians and one Ecuadorian - shot him. It was a tremendous shock for the community of expats here and an extremely sad reminder of how dangerous Quito can be. I do my best to maintain a safe lifestyle, even though it is probably the most challenging and draining part about living in Quito, but I generally feel safe. And as I’ve spent more time here, I think I’ve only become more cautious. In the end of it all, however, having to worry about crime and safety is a reason I could never live here for the rest of my life. Not to mention, I know my family in constantly worried about my safety.
10 days in the USA: Beautiful Wedding on the Oregon Coast and a trip to San Francisco
And finally, my first trip back to the states since I arrived over 8 months ago. I could write an entire blog entry just on those 10 days, but in sum, it could not have been better. I explored San Francisco and Berkeley for two days, and I had a blast reconnecting with a friend as we caught up on life and current events over a few long dinners. And I then made my way up to Oregon for my brother’s wedding. Yachats, Oregon might not be on your top ten lists of places to take a vacation, but I highly suggest you reconsider this paradise on the coast. It is beautiful there, and it actually made me a bit nostalgic for Maine. Most importantly, the time I got to spend there with my family was really perfect. The wedding was wonderful, and my nephew and niece were fabulous and adorable walking down the aisle! It was hard to leave everyone after such a short time, but I was so grateful to see everyone. I’m really looking forward to when I live in a place where I’ll be around my family more frequently. If only Minnesota had Quito’s weather!
The Bride and Groom
The Ring Bearer and his Abuela (my nephew and mom)
The Flower Girl (my niece)
Showing their Aunty love
What comes next?
Overall, life is unfolding here in an exhilarating way that I never could have predicted when I decided to go leave last February. For now, I’m here in Quito for another 6 months – happily missing Minnesota’s brutal winter, but sadly missing broomball season with my family – and I plan to return to the states to take the LSATs in June 2009. Between now and then, however, life plans are pretty open. I may go back to the states for good in June, or - pending my employment situation - I may stay in Quito until I enroll in law school in 2010. I will keep you posted – literally – and I hopefully will have a chance to write again in less than six months from now!
Oh, and if you want to keep me posted, below is my contact information in Ecuador. OK, hope you enjoyed the postings, and thanks again for reading!
Sunset on the way to Yachats
Avenida República esq. Inglaterra
Edificio Renacimiento Apartamento 9D
Sector La Carolina. Quito, Ecuador
mobile: (011) 593 9 584 3313
skype id: robintrangsrud