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!
PROGRESS AT ASELER:
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…
A GLIMPSE INTO CASE WORK:
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?
QUITO AND THE REST:
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.
ALSO, here is my address: 373 Calle Grecia, Departamento #2, Quito, Ecuador.