My last couple of weeks ‘in the field’ were spent in the Choco región of North West Colombia with the community of ‘Las Camelias’. It’s in what used to be part of the rainforest, but has now become home to field of palm and banana plantations and open fields for cattle grazing.
The community is a mix of Afro-Colombians and ‘mestizos’ (mixed race). Almost 20 years ago the whole area was ‘purged’ by para-militaries allegedly looking for the FARC terrorists. Many innocent people from these communities were killed and the people of Camelias remember seeing bodies floating down the river. They did what most of us would do and fled the area. They lived as refugees wherever they could for several years, but in 2006 decided to return and formed the Humanitarian Zone of Las Camelias, with the help of the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace. It is recognized by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and no arms are allowed within the community. In this way the people were able to return with a measure of security.
However on their return they found that the land where they used to grow all their food had been taken over by palm oil companies and the whole area had become an agro-industrial machine. They bravely went and cut down some field of palm so that they could replant their own crops, and they are still fighting to get the collective ownership of the land.
One aspect of life as a refugee that gets overlooked is education. David is 18 and was a baby when his mother fled with him in her arms. His grandfather and several of his uncles were killed. His family only returned to the area about 7 years ago and he has not been able to complete his education due to the displacement.
That is why ‘Justice and Peace’ have initiated a school for people to complete their senior education. The school runs for one week a month and covers all areas of the Colombian curriculum in order for students to attain their bachillerato. It started about 18 months ago with 30 students and now has 100 ranging in age from 13 to 30. Students come from other communities too, including some indigenous people who travel for several hours for the opportunity to learn.
My task for the week was to teach English!! This was not easy for someone with no proper training as a teacher and very little experience. But we went through the basics of introductions, the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, talking about family, etc. We played games and the 11th grade even learnt ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’! I was readily accepted and addressed as ‘profe’ along with the other (real) teachers who come in for the week on a voluntary basis.
The rules of the Humanitarian Zone apply to the school and those who come from other areas adhere to these rules – no arms, no association with para-military or terrorist groups, no drugs or association with drug dealers, respect for all and equality. The students also learn about their local history and hear accounts of those who were affected by the displacement – it’s important to keep the memories alive and that the stories are passed on – it’s now part of who they are.
It was a wonderful experience to be part of giving something back to these young people that was taken from them – the right to education. This will give them more possibilities and potential for their future.