Syrian refugee flees all the way to Colombia to escape the violence at home

News Stories, 24 June 2013

© UNHCR
Syrian refugee Ahmed goes shopping in Colombia. He asked that his identity be masked.

BOGOTA, Colombia, June 24 (UNHCR) Millions of Syrians have been displaced internally by their civil war or fled abroad, but few have gone as far as Ahmed to escape the violence. Now he is a refugee in Bogota, learning Spanish so he can support himself in Colombia.

Ahmed, aged 25, had a normal life in Syria with a job, a house and friends, but with the arrival of the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring in Syria two years ago, he joined the demand for more freedom.

"When the movement started I could not be just an observer, I could not keep silent anymore and I participated in a peaceful demonstration to fight for more freedom and for more rights," said Ahmed.

The peaceful protests were crushed and changed into the armed conflict of today. With friends in jail or dying at his side and his society disintegrating, he decided to leave. More than 4.5 million Syrians are internally displaced, and about 1.5 million have sought refuge outside Syria, mainly in neighboring countries. There are few cases like Ahmed.*

Carrying a backpack, he took a taxi to the Lebanese border and slipped across the frontier from Syria. From Beirut, he flew off and arrived in Colombia in May 2012.

But life in the Latin America country was more difficult than he had expected and he struggled to survive on his low income. It was in this difficult period that Ahmed met a Syrian who changed his life. The man, who translates for UNHCR and its implementing partner Pastoral Social during interviews of possible refugees, explained the importance of official refugee status.

"I got the refugee status after six months having submitted my application. Now I don´t have to be worried about a visa anymore," he said.

Not knowing any Spanish, it was difficult to integrate into a new society but with the help of Pastoral Social and UNHCR, Ahmed is now learning Spanish so he can find a job and be more independent. He receives a monthly minimum salary of 500,000 Colombian pesos (US$250), of which 60 per cent goes for rent and the rest on food and transportation.

Ahmed keeps in contact with his family via the internet, but even at this distance is careful because his illegal exit for the country might endanger his family. He does not know if his friends are alive.

"Media do not report exactly the situation in my country and around the area . . . but I can assure you that the living conditions of my people are deplorable," said Ahmed. "I was there helping them, as I did some volunteer work for an NGO, and I saw unimaginable things.

"People cannot move, cannot circulate, do not get medicine or food, and controls are more and more restrictive, especially at the border," he added.

Ahmed wants the international community to do more to help displaced Syrians and dreams of one day returning to a different, freer, homeland than he left. But he says no one can know when the fighting will end,

"If Syria continues in this way, we are losing a generation who can contribute to building a new country," said Ahmed, who is one of those educated young Syrians who have taken their skills to other countries where they are appreciated.

*Name changed for protection reasons

By Francesca Fontanini in Bogota, Colombia

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UNHCR country pages

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

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