“Su Actitud Determina Su Calidad De Vida” or, “Your Attitude Determines Your Quality of Life.” That was the (rather blunt) title of our recent workshop at the Refugee Project at the Mennonite Church in Quito. As a team we were very excited to partner with a fantastic Ecuadorian organization, CEMPROC (Center for Mediation, Peace, and Resolution of Conflict).
The workshop was the fruit of an ongoing conversation within our team, and with CEMPROC about how we as a church can continue to cultivate community, dialogue, and integration within the refugee population we encounter. Quito can feel like a stopping-off point for many refugees and immigrants arriving and then moving on, perhaps through the resettlement process to a third country, or electing to try their luck at another Latin American country like Chile. They may even come to the conclusion that building a life in Ecuador is just not possible and therefore return to Colombia, despite the dangers. Just a month ago we met a young man, Josue* who decided after a year in Ecuador that he could no longer live in a cramped pieza (often a one or two room simple lodging space) with few friends and barely enough food to live on. Josue had only recently opened a case with the UNHCR for voluntary repatriation back to Colombia. There was nothing that felt “voluntary” about a young man whose eyes reflected defeat, hopelessness, and exhaustion.
The challenges of integration in Ecuador are complex, and it seems overly simplistic to say it comes down to transience, or to the cultural shock of the “vivacious” Colombian meeting the “reserved” Ecuadorian. Indeed, there are many people who do manage to get a foothold in Ecuador, make friends, and build a life here in Quito and in other parts of Ecuador. Discrimination, though, can seem pervasive and many refugees talk about the challenges of renting an apartment, finding work, or even riding the bus. We hear stories of owners refusing to rent to Colombians, and even in our first weeks here David and I heard many stereotypes of Colombians as sneaky, addicted to drugs, and too pushy. So, why is it that under these conditions some refugees manage to succeed while others still struggle years into their time in Ecuador? Omar Rodriguez, the Director of CEMPROC, reminded us that a major determining factor in an individual’s ability to integrate in a new culture, here or elsewhere, is that individual’s personal attitude and capacity for resilience. A positive attitude helps a person face the challenges of daily living and to open up to new encounters and new friendships. Those friendships and connections may well form a social safety net that can help a person survive under difficult circumstances.
We are trying to take a lesson from this workshop for ourselves as newcomers here, too. Sometimes it can be hard to feel at home in a new place and we have had our own cultural struggles in these first six months, and that has been without the added challenges that refugees face when they arrive.
The workshop was a half-day long combination of listening, sharing, acknowledgement, and active participation through social dramas, or skits, in which participants depicted a challenging moment they had experienced in Quito and how they could respond, negatively or positively. One of the groups reflected on an experience of witnessing another refugee being harassed and having his bike stolen. The group talked about the desire in the moment to respond violently, or to watch passively, and then discussed how they might be able to also react calmly and thoughtfully as peacemakers. We talked about the importance of such simple daily practices as breathing deeply, smiling, looking up as we walked, and being grateful.
It reminded me of a recent interview I listened to with Congressman John Lewis, a well-known civil rights activist in the United States. “Well, long before any sit-in, any march, long before the freedom rides, or the march from Selma to Montgomery, any organized campaign that took place, we did study,” John Lewis says.”We studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied the great religions of the world. And before we even discussed a possibility of a sit-in, we had role-playing. We had what we called social drama.”
This was the first in a series of workshops we will be offering through CEMPROC, and which we hope will help plant seeds of peace and offer skills to last a lifetime.