A Travellerspoint blog

PART II. Settling in without settling down

Ok, make sure you check out Part I before you continue with this one here! enjoy -

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


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

Peruvian Market

Machu Picchu

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

Oregon Coast

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

Robin Trangsrud
Avenida República esq. Inglaterra
Edificio Renacimiento Apartamento 9D
Sector La Carolina. Quito, Ecuador
mobile: (011) 593 9 584 3313
skype id: robintrangsrud

Posted by Rtrangsrud 10:41 Comments (0)

PART I. Settling in without settling down

Ages, it has been ages…

Hi Everyone! My oh my, so many exciting updates to share with you all. Here is another very long and overdue posting; but the short story is that life in Quito is excellent, in nearly all respects. There have been some significant changes including: taking a break from ASELER, gaining work as a research consultant for the Brookings Institute, moving apartments two times, joining a soccer league, and even meeting someone wonderful. All these changes - and more exciting events that I’ll describe below – have been very positive. In fact, I have again decided to extend my stay in Quito: I’ll be here until at least June 2009, possibly longer. (This means more time to come visit!) There have been a few struggles, but I’m doing my best to soak up all the great experiences and learn from the difficult times. I hope you all have been experiencing equally positive adventures in life…Enjoy the post, and please do send along your thoughts/comments! It is always fun to hear updates from “home.”

Waterfall in Baños

Taffy making in Baños

Woman selling choclos in Baños

Grilling Guinea Pig, who wants some Cuy?

Cotopaxi from Quito

And then the long story. At the time of my last posting, which I’m ashamed to admit was about six months ago, I was on the verge of a number of transitions – all of ASELER’s summer volunteers were about to leave, the new director was about to start, there was the possibility that I’d move into a new apartment, and many of my closest friends were about to return to their respective home countries. Thankfully, all of these things fell into place quite nicely. ASELER continues to attract bright and committed lawyers and law student volunteers, the new director came in with a force, I moved into a fabulous little studio in July (and then moved again in mid-November), and I have met some more great people – Ecuadorians and foreigners. However, since all these things happened so many months ago, I’m going to focus on what has happened in the past few months.

ASELER to the Brookings Institute: Vice Directora turned Research Consultant
First, changes with regard to work. Earlier this spring, I made the transition from volunteering as a legal advocate to working as the Vica Directora for ASELER. I loved being a VLA, but working as the Vice Director for ASELER proved to be rewarding in a very different way. Working as a volunteer legal advocate (VLA) was a great learning experience in terms of understanding what it is like to represent clients, to write legal arguments, and to work with refugees and the emotional stress that comes along with it; and it certainly confirmed that I do want to become a lawyer.
But being the Vice Director brought on unique responsibilities and challenges. Between training the new director, managing the organization’s finances, leading the team of VLAs, writing the quarterly and annual reports, creating numerous templates for the young non-profit, and more – I think I gained a sense of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how to run a NGO. I, again, felt as though I was learning something new each day, which is the type of work I always seek to have. And from this experience and various other experiences working at NGOs, I have a particular value for the personal and professional growth achieved when you’re ‘thrown’ into a position that has responsibilities beyond any experience you have previously had. Though it is not comfortable to feel overwhelmed, the learning curve can be pretty steep when you’re trying getting on top of everything. In addition, our new Director, a savvy Ecuadorian woman who is well connected, has also pushed me to work beyond my comfort zone, and I am very appreciative. I particularly enjoyed the opportunities to think strategically about the growth of the organization, to create and implement efficient systems within the office, and to think consciously about managing a staff and inter-office communication. Though I am certain that law school is the route I will pursue, the idea of starting a small business or non-profit could be an intriguing future project. And, I am grateful that I have gained – or at least think I’ve gained - a good sense of all the components that have to come together to make a start-up happen.

Thus, when I found out in mid-October that ASELER would not have the funding to extend my contract and provide my $550 a month stipend post-January 2009 (which is what the ASELER Director had proposed to the Asylum Access Director in San Francisco), I was quite disappointed. I completely understand and agree with the decision – after all, the Director of the Ecuador office is only working part-time because of their lack of funding, so concentrating all efforts on getting her up to full-time has to be a priority – and I think I would be making the same decision if I were in their position. (FYI: ASELER is a project of Asylum Access, which is based in San Francisco. Asylum Access has projects in Ecuador, Thailand, and one to be opened in Tanzania next summer. Asylum Access funds refugee legal aid clinics, such as ASELER, with the intention that they will become financially independent and domestically run as soon as possible. ASELER is the most developed project, but all major decisions are still made by the Asylum Access office in San Francisco. Want to learn more and/or donate!? http://www.asylumaccess.org/ ) However, when I found out they could not extend my contract, I decided I wasn’t ready to leave Quito. But I also knew I could not afford to volunteer any longer, so I began seeking work in Quito. About a week later, I gained work as a research consultant on a short-term project for the Brookings Institute. I feel extremely fortunate that this came together so quickly, and I’m seeking other longer-term options down here as well.

And while I’m still in the early stages of this project, the work is absolutely fantastic. I am researching various ‘cluster initiatives,’ which are fairly broadly defined, but essentially are organizations or projects that are organized as collaborations between a broad group of public and private sector actors. The concept was introduced by a renowned Harvard Business Professor, Michael Porter, and cluster initiatives are used as a strategy of promoting regional economic growth. (I am working for Karen Mills and Michael Porter for the project). I will be creating briefs on clusters from each of the 50 states that highlight the successes of the various cluster initiatives. The final result will be a book presented to congress - essentially a proposal trying to convince the federal government to invest in cluster initiatives -as well as a website with links to the different cluster briefs. The change in the type of work, though it came quicker than expected, has been a very nice break from working in an office. It was an intense two weeks in early November trying to work for ASELER during the day and Brookings during the evenings and weekends, but I am now thoroughly enjoying working from home. Having more flexibility in my schedule is great, as is working while in my pajamas and listening to music. And although I didn’t realize I needed a break from ASELER, I think it is actually a very healthy change for me right now. People who work in emotionally demanding work – particularly people who work with war and torture survivors – often speak of burnout, and while I think I am no where near that point; it is refreshing break. Plus, it is great to be researching again. Given the financial situation in the States, it also is nice to feel as though I’m contributing to resolving the enormous dilemma that is about 5000 miles away.

And I am also quite pleased, as ASELER’s Director in Ecuador is intent on finding funding to bring me back on as soon as possible. While I’m not sure if it will happen, it is an encouraging gesture, and I’d love to come back full-time. In the mean time, I’m still volunteering with ASELER on a part-time basis. I feel too invested in it to leave, and I hope to always be involved – I just can’t work for free for forever!

Ok...now, find part two

Posted by Rtrangsrud 10:19 Comments (0)

Ups and Downs

and why I now love cornflakes

Ups and downs

I’m over three months into living in Quito, and the time has absolutely flown by. I’m increasingly glad that I’m staying here through next January (as opposed to leaving in November, which is what I had initially planned) since there are certain things about the lifestyle here in Quito that I adore, and I still feel I have so much to learn…particularly with regard to my Spanish skills.
Overall, everything continues to go great. There was a stretch between mid-May and mid-June that was very stressful with regard to work, but it eased up about three weeks ago, and everything – work and play - has been much more enjoyable ever since. (I’ll explain more below.) Hence, things have been a bit up and down, but all seems to be looking up again, and I’m very glad…

Mompiche sunset

ASELER: Missing and almost missing
The beginning of the tough stretch was an unprecedented week of work at ASELER. On a Tuesday near the end of the May, one of our clients was almost kidnapped. Our client, BC, and his family had been staying at a homeless shelter and were on their way to our office for their afternoon appointment when the incident occurred. They were walking along a busy street about a mile from our office when a 4x4 pulled up along side of them. Three FARC members jumped out and tried to take BC. Fortunately, BC and his family had been walking with another one of our clients, RS, and his family (they met the fellow refugee family and had become friends at the homeless shelter) and RS managed to fight off the FARC members and prevent the kidnapping. As I so often think when reflecting on these stories, I just can’t imagine what it must have felt like. With the two families combined, there were six children there, witnessing the event, and the two mothers pulled them into nearby restaurant amidst their screaming.
They came to our office immediately thereafter, and our office went into ‘lockdown.’ We managed to contact the right people so the two families were both relocated to secret hostels in Quito for the night, and they then were relocated to unidentified cities over 6 hours from Quito – where they would stay until a decision was made about if they were refugees. In addition, we convinced the refugee office to expedite the refugee status determination process, and thankfully, there is a possibility that the UNHCR will consider BC and his family for resettlement in another country. Which, as I’ve written before, is very rare. The process is a mysterious one. Essentially, the client must show that they are receiving threats in the host country (in this case, Ecuador) and that they exhausted all avenues for state protection – meaning, they’ve denounced the persecution attempts in Ecuador to the police but continue to receive threats. It not only is difficult to show, but the process if further complicated by the fact that a person cannot apply for resettlement. The UNHCR, who has access to the database at the refugee office, selects refugees and offers them a resettlement interview in one of the least transparent processes fathomable. Fortunately, we have a relatively strong relationship with the UNHCR here, but, as with much of the laws and procedures here, the lack of accountability in the procedures make much of the decisions based on ‘who you know.’
Coming back to the families, the two families were both wonderful, and had created an unlikely friendship. The BC family was well-educated and middle-class. BC was a politician in Colombia – which was a rarity for us – and he had an anti-FARC stance: a bold and dangerous platform to hold in Colombia. Thus, it is not surprising that the FARC would come to Quito to find him. The RS family, however, lived and worked on a farm. They had very little money, and neither RS nor his wife had been educated beyond 4th grade. I worked primarily with RS and his wife, and preparing people for an interview who had minimal reading skills presented new challenges for me, but it also was even more rewarding to seem them make progress in their preparation. The RS family had their first instance interview about two weeks ago, and we are still waiting to hear the result.
That Tuesday was an intense and high-pressure day, but at the end of the day, I at least felt assured that we had done all that we could for the two families and that they would be safe, at least for the time being. The following day, however, I did not go home with that same feeling. On Wednesday afternoon, one of our clients came into the office in tears. In the same day, her father had been put in jail, her brother-in-law had nearly been detained by the immigration police, and her brother had been missing since the previous day, which meant he was likely kidnapped because he had been kidnapped before. This family is the same family I wrote about in my previous entry: the father and son who had been reunited after the son had been kidnapped by the ELN for 14 months. Though I never could have thought it was possible, the son was kidnapped again, here in Quito. He went to work in the morning and never returned, which is precisely how the last kidnapping happened. The father was put in jail because his Ecuadorian landlord accused him of stealing. Someone had broken into her house and stole her TV and DVD player, and since – as with so many Ecuadorians, I regret to write about this stereotype – are very discriminatory towards Colombians, she automatically assumed it was the father and son. To give you a sense of how ridiculously unjust and prevalent the discrimination is towards Colombians, when the police came to the landlord’s home to take the father to jail, the police took all the official documents and papers from the father and gave them to the landlord, telling her she could keep them until her stolen goods had been returned. Despite the problems with the police system in the United States, I can’t imagine anything of the sort EVER happening there. We were able to get the father out of jail and get his papers back; and the brother-in-law, was lucky that when the immigration officers came to the restaurant he was working at and demanded his papers, they decided to ‘let him slide,’ but he could no longer work there.
We, again, exhausted our resources in advocating for this family – including going to the anti-kidnapping unit of the police that evening, where were told that since the family did not have any money, and since they were Colombian, they could not do anything for us. Plus, they weren’t convinced he actually was missing; despite the fact that he had already been kidnapped before. The mix of emotions that come up in these sorts of scenarios is not something anyone can really prepare for. Frustration, sadness, and fear are only the beginning, and seemed to be compounded by my exhaustion. I’ve never known anyone who’s disappeared before, but the inconclusiveness is wearing to say the least. After some rest and many tears, I began to feel better; but, for a while, I would walk through Quito and do double-takes at people’s faces, thinking I was seeing the son. We are putting pressure on UNHCR to resettle this family, though they have not been very responsive, and we are also trying to get connected with immigration lawyers in the states that might have ideas on how to get this family our of Ecuador. It is so clear, they simply are not safe here. Of course this time forced me to consider my own safety here in Quito. I know I am cautious, and I take more precautions than most (I recently started carrying pepper-spray with me) but I know I constantly have to remind myself to never feel too comfortable here, as there are things that happen here that I simply don’t see.
So this extraordinary week, and its aftereffects, was primarily what made the stretch or work so tough. But we also had a brand new set of volunteers – who wanted to be helpful but did not know how – and we were in the process of hiring a new Director, which became a seemingly never-ending process. Fortunately, the majority of these things have subsided. The new volunteers now have found their respective grooves, and they do just fine. I seem to be taking on more and more administrative and management roles, which I enjoy because it is interesting, but struggle with because it takes me away from working with clients, which is what is really what makes the work rewarding. And we hired a Director, though the transition coming up over the next few months is going to be tough! (More to come on this below)
And, following up from the last posting, the deaf-woman and her husband got refugee status! They came by the office last week to let us know, and I was so excited I sort of screamed when I found out. I think I was more excited than they were! They also came to give me a gift, a little box of chocolate cornflakes. We are not supposed to accept gifts, but when I tried to refuse, he looked deeply offended, so I had to accept it. They often don’t have money to take the bus to get to our office…I never thought I could be so touched by a box of cereal.

Otavalo, Peguche Falls, Mompiche
During those few weeks when things were tough at work, I hung around Quito during the weekends because I was just too exhausted to do much else. However, when I finally did make it out to a day trip to Otavalo, I felt rejuvenated, refreshed, and thrilled to be out of the city. A friend and I went to Otavalo, which is one of the most famous markets in all of South America and is about two hours from Quito. My friend, a 52-year-old Kiwi who just went back to New Zealand after teaching English in Ecuador for over a year, and I immersed ourselves in the seemingly endless rows of wool blankets, woven hammocks, alpaca sweaters, wood carvings, jewelry and any and everything else that makes this community one of the wealthiest indigenous groups in Ecuador. While I liked Otavalo, we tired of shopping fairly quickly and made our way to a waterfall nearby called Peguche falls. It was fabulous! There was a well-kept trail that lead us to a bridge right in front of the falls, where we were rinsed with the mist from the falls. A natural shower, nothing could be more refreshing.
And then, over the third weekend in June, I went with a random mix of people to a beach called Mompiche. (I’m trying my best to keep my promise to myself to go to the beach once a month…it is so accessable!) Mompiche is a small fishing village with hardly any tourists. We took an overnight bus and arrived in the morning, and it was strange how you could immediately get the sense that life moved at a slower pace there. I, again, played in the waves, got a bit sunburned, read a book, got to know the people I was traveling with, and went for a few long walks and runs on the coastline. I loved Mompiche. Even though it was quite different from the last beach I went to, Canoa – where there were many Ecuadorians on holiday, and a lively nightlife. Mompiche exudes tranquility (if that is even possible) and rarely is there anything to fuss about – except when the restaurants run out of plantains, fruit, or seafood; which did happened one evening. The best part about Mompiche, however, was a nearby beach called Playa Negra (literally, black beach). Fittingly, the sand is black, the turquoise waves are huge, there are hundreds of crabs scurrying around, and I had the BEST time swimming and jumping in the waves. People used to ask me if I preferred the mountains over the beach, and I never really knew, but I am sure now that it is the sea!

Otavalo Market
Otavalo Tienda
Otavalo Basketball
Otavalo - Terrorista?
Otavalo Herder
Otavalo Girl

Peguche Falls
Peguche Falls
Peguche Falls

Mompiche crab
Playa Negra

And the rest
But it hasn’t been all work and weekend trips. I still feel I’m carving our a routine for myself here, and I seem to have no troubles finding things to do and people to hang with to occupy my time. I continue to take Spanish lessons, and my Spanish teacher has become a wonderful friend of mine. We usually meet at a coffee shop, go over my homework and just chat about nothing in particular, and pending the location of the coffee shop, he’ll give me a ride on his motorcycle – which is so fun! (Though I’m quite opposed to them and think they are very dangerous, I trust him and I’m never on it for more than 5 minutes.) Last weekend there was a birthday fiesta for him, and it was a blast. I was so grateful to be a part of an Ecuadorian party…it was MUCH more lively than any sort of birthday party I’ve been to in the states. Not to mention, I was literally sore the next day from dancing so much! And, in an attempt to bring in a little money, I was teaching English to a hilarious and animated 13-year-old boy for a few weeks in May. It was really fun, but I found it was just too much with work and everything else. So, I’m back to just my own Spanish and salsa classes now (and I’m sure to be very broke when I return to the states.) And while I’m not sure if I’m really improving all that much in my salsa lessons, it certainly is fun and a great workout, so I’ve decided to stick with it.

Liga Game 1
Liga Game 2

Near the end of May, I ran in a 15k race through the middle of Quito, and it was wild! I was in the middle of a sea of about 14,000 people, tromping from the beautiful old town of Quito up to the northern part of the city near my apartment. I was going pathetically slow, but I finished and quite enjoyed it as the demographics of the people who ran were fascinating to me. Of the 10,000 that were officially registered, 8,200 were men. And, I think the majority of the women I saw were foreigners. Women do play some sports here, but it is primarily aerobics or jogging. To my dismay, women generally do not play soccer. Apparently there are some teams on the coast, but not in Quito. The few times I’ve gone out with some of my guys friends to find a pick-up game to play, the guys often stare at me in disbelief that I might actually enjoy the sport also. Along these same lines, nearly a month ago I went to watch Quito’s soccer team, Liga, beat a Mexican team, Americas, in the quarterfinals of la Copa Libertadores. It was loud, rowdy, and everything you’d imagine a Latin American soccer game to be. My friend went early, so we had fabulous seats, right up front at half field. However, being so close turned out to not be the best place for my two 6 feet+ tall friends and myself to be standing, as when the fans behind us threw paper rolls and more onto the field, they were more likely to hit the back of our heads than make it to the field! Blasted height! Nonetheless, it gave us a good laugh. And, we had so much fun learning all the cheers from the Ecuadorians around us. And then, just last week, Liga won the entire tournament! It was the first time Ecuador has won an international cup, and I’m convinced no one in the city slept more than 3 hours that night.

(from the last beach trip to Canoa)
Canoa - Asi es la vida
Canoa boat

Looking forward
A few weeks ago we had a huge party at our place – it was fabulously eclectic mix of foreign and Ecuadorian friends between my three roommates and I. And while I had fun, particularly when my roommates’ co-workers brought out their guitars and pan flutes to play some traditional Ecuadorian folk music – I also have remembered why I don’t have or go to huge parties all that often. There were two or three guys drinking and smoking in our living room for the next day and a half. Definitely not for me. I had recently been thinking that I’d like to be in my own place, and that sort of helped me make the decision. Shortly thereafter, I, conveniently, found out that my friend who lives in a flat on the top floor of our building, was leaving in a few weeks. Fingers crossed, I’ll be moving upstairs into my place where I’ll have a terrace and the option of spending time with my roommates downstairs, but without the hassle of sharing a place with three people. I think it will be perfect!

As for work, it is sort of the calm before the storm. The Director we had initially hired backed out at the last minute – for personal and professional reasons – and so we’ve hired someone else, but she does not have a background in Ecuadorian law, (her background is in public policy, which will be ASELER’s next steps), she will only work part-time, and she will not be able to start until August, three days before my boss leaves. In addition, all of our current volunteers – except for two who will be there part-time – will also leave at the beginning of August, and the next volunteers aren’t able to come until late August/early September. Hence, a storm is brewing! I’ll be getting a crash course in Ecuadorian refugee law over the next month before my boss leaves, and then I will be training the new director and new volunteers. I’m not sure when I’ll be sleeping in August, but I’m also looking forward to the challenge and recognize there is only so much one person can do, so I’m not too worried about it. I’ll do my best, and they can’t ask me for much more.

I’m off for a run in the park on a beautifully sunny day, and then I’m going to help with a seminar that we are giving on refugee rights in a barrio where many refugees live in the northeast of Quito. Oh, and as for everything with Ingrid Bentacourt, while it is amazing that they escaped; despite what many people may be speculating, I highly doubt that the FARC will be dismantled anytime soon…at least not before I leave in January, so there will be plenty of work to do! Thanks again for reading my post, and pretty please send along updates on your life and any thoughts you have from the post!

ps: if you want to donate to Asylum Access/ASELER, you can do so directly from their website. I'd be super grateful! Hopefully the stories from the blog give a sense of what you're money will be going towards...thanks!! http://www.asylumaccess.org/

Posted by Rtrangsrud 10:06 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Exciting news

First things first, thanks for reading my blog! I have another long posting here (I have to try to make up for not writing for so long) and I hope you enjoy it. And of course, I always love to hear your comments and thoughts after reading it.

So much has happened since I last posted, but I have nearly all-wonderful things to report. The most exciting, is that I’ll be extending my stay here in Ecuador. ASELER promoted me to Associate Project Director of ASELER and has offered me a stipend (although it is small, it will be enough to live on) to stay on until at least the end of January 2009. I’m thrilled! I love the work, it is always exciting and there is so much to learn. And now, in addition to working on the cases, I’m working more closely with the Project Director of ASELER here in Quito and the Director of Asylum Access in San Francisco, California. I’m collaborating in the development, management, and growth strategies for ASELER, and since there will be a new Project Director this summer, I’ll be here as the ‘institutional memory’ to ease the transition. It is great for me as the learning opportunities only seem as though they will expand, and I get to put some creativity and problem-solving skills to work – and it is great for ASELER as they are happy to have some consistency within the office. I never would have guessed this could happen, or happen so quickly, but I’m rolling with it seems like a win for all involved!

With regard to work, we’re taking on and more and more cases, and I’m feeling more comfortable with the all the procedures. The place is growing so quickly, it is hard to believe they only opened last October. I am still looking forward to when my Spanish skills are better, but I’m excited about the new chapter ASELER is about to begin. We have made some huge administrative strides in the past month – getting a database and having partitions put into our office to ensure more confidentiality within our office – and we have just transitioned into our summer group of VLAs this past week. I am really sad to have our two current VLAs (volunteer legal advocates) leave, as they are awesome and have become close friends of mine. Our summer team will be 6 new VLAs in total, which will allow us to take on more community outreach initiatives as well as some policy advocacy efforts. We’ve also started taking on more ‘first instance’ cases -- when I first arrived, we were working on mostly appeals cases – which is great for two reasons. Primarily, because the chances of getting granted refugee status on the first interview is about 40-50%, while the chances of getting granted status on appeal is only 3-4%. (We have yet to determine the stats on how our appeals fair in the process.) But taking on more first instance cases is also better because I love preparing people for interviews! (just ask my dear friend Caroline Lorenz). We’ve had some really incredible cases as of late, which I’ve described later in the blog. In addition to training in the new VLAs this week – which entails defining procedures, making power points, and presenting them – I’ve been interviewing candidates for the new Project Director position with the current Project Director. I’ve grateful to be apart of the process since this person will essentially be my boss until I leave. This past week was rather stressful, but I usually find I find I come home each day tired but fulfilled. In addition to seeing the rapid growth of this NGO on such limited resources, I continue to find myself in awe of what refugees endure…

Just over three weeks ago, I was working at ASELER when one of my co-volunteers asked if another volunteer and I would assist her with a family who had just arrived in our office. We of course agreed, and the three of us went to the front waiting area of our office with her to find a father, son, and daughter sitting next to the couch with a few bags. The situation was a fairly routine one: the three of us volunteers were to meet with each one of the family members and ‘screen’ them. Essentially, we’d ask them a number of questions about their situation and determine if/how we’d be able to assist them. I often think of our screening process as similar to a nurses initial visit with a patient; but rather than asking about previous medical issues, we ask about previous threats made on their life.
I ended up meeting with the twenty-five year-old son in a make-shift consultation room in our office hallway. I began to ask him various questions about his past, and although he was polite, he was also quite vague and wouldn’t really answer my questions. Slightly frustrated, I keep pressing him. Finally, after a bit more questioning, and few more smiles and reassurances, he gave in a little; I learned why he wouldn’t answer my questions. In February 2007, he was kidnapped by the ELN. If you’re unfamiliar with the ELN, know at minimum that they are a guerrilla group in Colombia with roots in liberation theology and - due to their human rights abuses - a recently titled terrorist group by the European Union. Not a good group of people to have after you. And after over a year in captivity by the ELN, including unthinkable torture, the son I screened somehow managed to escape. He walked and walked through Colombia’s jungle until he reached the nearest pueblo. He called his father, who, not having heard from his son for so long, had assumed he had been killed. They arranged to meet at a bus station in the city where the father was living in Colombia. The father left everything he had that evening, met his son at the bus station, where they came to Ecuador together. Not long after, they met the daughter who was already in Quito, registered at the refugee office in Quito, and came across the street to our office. The few bags that were with them is all they would have from their past in Colombia.
Having been at ASELER for a month when this family walked into our office, I had screened and met with a number of people who have endured horrendously violent lives – husbands killed, homes burned down, sisters raped, cousins disappeared. It can sometimes seem as though you get desensitized to the stories, but then it also seems that you never entirely do. And though I’m not sure why, this story ‘hit’ me. The son - who had no sense of how long he had been with the ELN and couldn’t remember what had happened to him - clearly was a torture-survivor who would need serious psychological help for the foreseeable future. And, as we learned more about the twenty-something-year-old daughter who came to Ecuador with her husband and family last summer after receiving numerous threats by the ELN, it became apparent that this entire family’s lives had been uprooted and dismantled. The daughter and her family had moved around Colombia 7 times in the past year, with each new move bringing new threats of death. The most poignant being a sufrage – which is a small condolence card that is typically left at a person’s gravesite – that was dropped at the family’s house, including a list of all the family member’s names. In sum, it was foretelling their death.
I can’t imagine what it must be like for any of them: to be the father and receive the phone call from you ‘dead’ son; to be the sister and try to hold the family together; to be the husband and can only find work washing cars when he previously worked only in offices as a professional; (without refugee status, you are not legally allowed to work in Ecuador) to be the son and live in a hole for over a year, be let out to walk during the night, and undergo unthinkable torture. And now, he must try to continue his life and try not to be overtaken by what happened to him, which must be so impossible. He currenly has no fingernails as a result of the torture he endured. Although I can’t go into more detail than what is described here, these three were not involved in any sort of activities that linked them to the ELN. Their other daughter used to work for the police, somehow got the ELN angry with her, and the ELN has been after her and her family ever since. Fortunately, the sister who worked for the police was resettled in the States. But unfortunately, she has not provided her family with the necessary details to defend their case. In fact, prior to the re-appearance of their brother, the daughter and her family did not even know it was the ELN that was after them. They had no idea who it was. The other daughter refused to tell them, saying ignorance was safer and that they needed to be patient. Thus, it is not surprising, that the daughter and her family were denied refugee status in Ecuador by the Refugee Office due to ‘lack of credibility’ and ‘inconsistencies’ between the family members’ stories. When you don’t know who has been after you, and you’ve moved around so many times, but of course the stories don’t match up.
At this point, we are trying to do three things to help the family. First, we are pushing for the Refugee Office to ‘internally review’ (basically re-open) the cases of the daughter and her family who were denied refugee status; based on the new information about the brother being kidnapped and that they now know who the persecution agents are. Second, we’re pleading with the other daughter in the states to give us more information. (I also can’t imagine how furious I would be at her if I was in that family.) Third, we are preparing the son and the father for their interview with the Refugee Office. If they are able to get refugee status, there is a chance we can get the rest of the family status as well. It is one of the larger cases we’ve taken on as of late, and it is one that has pushed me in many ways.
And while it is nearly impossible to make any sort of transition into a lighter topic after describing that story – although I hope in the future to be able to update the blog with a positive result for this case – the work we do does not always sting with such sorrow. About two weeks ago, I was assigned to prepare a Colombian couple for their upcoming interview with the Refugee Office to determine if they’d gain refugee status. They were from a farm in the middle of nowhere – 8 hours via bus to the nearest pueblo – in which there was not much more than mountains, chickens, plantain fields, and FARC members passing by. And, since they lived on the other end of Quito, and had absolutely no money, they walked for over an hour and a half every time they had an interview with us. Needless to say, whenever they showed up at our office, even if it was outside their scheduled appointment time, which happened a few times, we did everything we could to accommodate them. They were an interesting pair: he was a outwardly gruff but sensitive former member of the Colombian Military (not to be confused with the paramilitaries), and she was the nearly deaf mother of five children. Four of which were from a previous marriage, and which he had adopted and supported as his own. They had received a series of threats from the FARC to pay the vacuna – a tax imposed by the FARC – whereby the last threat they received said if they didn’t pay it in 24 hours, they’d be killed. They left their farm two hours after receiving the threat and came to Ecuador shortly thereafter.
I loved working with them. Most questions were directed towards him because she had lost 75% of her hearing, but he would scream any questions into her ear so she could understand and respond. Surprisingly, it worked quite well. She had an impeccable memory for dates and he was a quick learner with regard to the refugee status determination process. One of the most hilarious results of their style of communication was the “inside” conversations they tried to have amongst themselves when I was with them. What normally would have whispers between a couple so I couldn’t hear had to be him yelling into her ear, and thus I could hear all their side conversations. My favorite was when, after I had asked them a question, he shouted at his wife, “I think she [referring to me] studied psychology!” No way for secrets between those two. It just made me smile. Nonetheless, we had to meet with them separately in order to find out if there was any conflicting information with their stories. This entailed my boss taking her out to the parking lot, where no one was around, and screaming questions at her to find out what had happened to their family. Though it took more time, I also typed questions to her that she’d answer for me. The creativity and extra efforts in interviewing her turned out to be essential. Two days before their interview, I found out that she had been raped by a group of FARC members, twice. The second happened just before her family fled for Ecuador, whereby her husband had found her when he returned home one day. The first incident happened three years earlier and was extremely brutal. So brutal, in fact, that it was that incident that caused her to lose her hearing. The doctors said she was lucky to be alive, and the husband still did not know about it. She was so ashamed; she didn’t want him or her children to know about it. Put it shortly, there were definitely some tears shared between the two of us when she shared her story with me.
Although on the one hand this is a heart-wrenching story, on the other hand, they did have the strongest case I’ve worked on yet; and from what we’ve heard, it seems promising that they’ll get refugee status in Ecuador. They returned to our office after their interview, and they also were very grateful for our help. Had we not met with them, there is no way she would have shared her story, and their chances of gaining refugee status would have been much less. It can be hard to gauge ‘success’ when we have yet to hear the results of so many of the cases we’ve worked on, but we all were feeling good at the end of that day when they returned to the office. They will find out if they’ve gained status by mid-June, and I’m so eager to hear the result, I just keeping thinking that they HAVE to be considered refugees. After all that happened, how could they not?

Outside of work, I’ve been having a really fun time in Quito. I just started taking Spanish lessons, and I’m actually quite excited about my homework. A friend of referred me to an excellent teacher, and he is essentially going to prepare me for a Spanish certification that requires you to take a very difficult test. I have yet to decide if I’ll take the test, but the process will hopefully prove a good way to ‘perfect,’ as he says, my Spanish. I’ve also begun taking private salsa dance lessons one night each week, and it is always something I look forward to at the end of the day. Though I always feel a bit awkward, primarily because I’m quite tall by Ecuadorian standards, my instructor always has me laughing before the lesson is over!
And, my two roommates and I get along really, really well. We often cook together and share bits about our respective home cities (they are from Berlin and London). I’ve even taught them a few yoga lessons. Actually, we’ve gotten into a bit of a routine on the weekends. We either go on some sort of weekend trip, or we stay in Quito for the weekend where we have a dinner party and go out dancing. It is great! Our apartment is really centrally located, and with a huge dining room and living room area, it is perfect for hosting. We always have people we’ve never met showing up, since it is always friends of friends that are coming – usually from all over the world – there are always interesting stories to be heard.
As for weekend trips, every time I go on one I can’t wait for another. About a month ago, I went with a few friends from work to Mindo. It is a small town, about 2.5 hours away from Quito, in the midst of beautiful cloud forest. The drive down (literally down, since Quito is at such a high altitude) was spectacular, as I never grew tired of seeing the lush green mountains with waterfalls running down the sides. And Mindo itself is a tranquil town, but we had a fun adventure. First, we went canyoning, which is basically zip-lining. You wear a climbing harness and get connected to zip-lines that stretch high across the trees and offer, again, striking views of cloud forest. The first time was sort of unnerving, but I quickly got into the thrill, and absolutely loved it. On the last few times through, we’d go upside-down or in a ‘superman’ position. It was awesome! The following day we went hiking to a nearby waterfall. The hike was extremely muddy, but short, and led us to an area filled with a few waterfalls and many Ecuadorians jumping off high cliffs into the chilly water. The lifeguard in me was freaking out about people jumping off the cliffs, but everyone seemed to be fine. Then, after our hike back, and many bug bites later, we went to a quaint orchid garden/museum, took some photos, and made our way to the bus for more spectacular views along the way back to Quito.
Another trip we took was to hike a volcano, Pichincha. Well, it is hardly a trip, since it is about a five-minute cab ride from my work, but a few friends and I hiked up it a few weeks ago. And though I seem to be using this word quite a bit, it was, again, spectacular. First, you take the Teleférico – think giant ski lift – up to 4100m. Seeing Quito sprawl out from up that high was extraordinary, and it continues to stun me how large the city is. And, when we got to the top of the Teleférico, we then could begin our hike up Pichincha. The altitude was so high, we found ourselves taking baby-steps and going at a snail-pace, but we were enjoying ourselves. I’ve never felt anything so strange. I wasn’t physically tired or sore, but I couldn’t force my legs to move any faster, my lungs/heart just wouldn’t let me. We got quite close to the top when, unfortunately, it started to rain. We decided it’d best to turn around, which was a good thing as by the time we got back to the Teleférico, it started to hail! But since it is so close, I’ll definitely be making my way to Pichincha again (hopefully with some visitors from the states;) before I go.
My favorite weekend trip, however, was one we took the first weekend in May. We had May 1st and 2nd off from work because the 1st was Labor day, and about six of us went to Canoa, a sleepy beach town about 9 hours from Quito. It was absolutely perfect. The weather was sunny and lovely, which was particularly nice since it has been quite rainy in Quito, and we spent nearly all day, every day, hanging out on the beach. I often would get antsy laying around all day, so I would go for runs in the morning and then get pummeled but huge waves while swimming in the afternoon. The waves were huge and the water was warm, perfect for surfing, which I think I will have to take up before I leave Ecuador. There were some people around, mostly Ecuadorians, but it was never crowded and it was fun to watch the families making sandcastles together and kids playing soccer on the beach. We also drank yummy juices and ate delicious seafood. I was quite happy to read on the beach or in the hammocks at our hotel. The days felt long and relaxing. Are you sold on Canoa yet? Cause I sure am! We took an overnight bus on Sunday night to get back to Quito, which made for a long Monday at work, but not as tough as I thought it’d be. I decided I need to make an effort to get to the beach once a month or so, especially if I have hopes of learning to surf! The next trip planned: the second weekend in June….
Quito is still a city I’m enjoying exploring. Though I could do without the dogs and smog, and I miss my friends and family, this adventure is a fulfilling one that is flying by fast. I still see things every day that surprise me – the frequency with which I see men with bandages on their noses from getting nose jobs, the large German-Ecuadorian connection, the taxi-drivers that play volleyball at 6am in the park at the end of their work shifts, the craziness that took over the city when Liga (Quito soccer team) won the quarter finals of the Copa Libertadores (I’m hoping to go to the semi-final game in early June), the sad family that lives outside our office selling candies, the eyes that always seem to be on me since I’m a gringa…The past few weekends I’ve stayed in Quito – which was particularly this weekend as I’ve been able to catch up on some sleep, reading, and the blog. And, I’m still trying to squeeze my runs in before work, so it is nice to be here for the weekends and go for longer runs in the park…particularly since I signed-up for a 15k race on June 1!
Mostly, I’m so grateful for my experience at ASELER thus far. I work with great people, and though there are days that are emotionally draining, there are days that are very uplifting -- especially when you receive the many, many thanks from our clients. And I learn so much each day. In part because you never know who is going to walk through the door, but also because there is so much substantive knowledge to soak up. Every time we write an appeal we do research on various armed groups and places in their country of origin, we read UNHCR manuals, find legal arguments, and we and forever trying to get inside of the minds of the people at the refugee office who determine if our clients will be able to stay Ecuador. All of this combined with the constant inventing of procedures and templates for a less-than-one-year-old non-profit, there is never a dull day.
I love love love reading updates from you all, and I hope some of you will be able to send me emails about your lives soon.
Un abrazo,

ALSO, here is my address: 373 Calle Grecia, Departamento #2, Quito, Ecuador.

Posted by Rtrangsrud 14:50 Comments (0)

Because a posting is long overdue,

here are some photos until I write another proper posting.

Photos from April 2008

Surrounding Quito

View of Quito from the West

El Panecillo: literally, the little breadloaf. Statue on top of a hill in Quito

Waterfall in Mindo

Cloudforest in Mindo, where we went ziplining/canyoning

Stream in Mindo, on the way to waterfalls

Ziplining/Canyoning in Mindo: superman style!

ASELER office

ASELER office, with lovely Meagan and Angie

Cloud before the storm in Parque Metropolitana

Parque Metropolitana, in northeast Quito

Dinner party in our living room

our kitchen, after the dinner party

hallway of our apartment

living room of our apartment

Posted by Rtrangsrud 21:11 Comments (0)

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