This year, Lent Fast Day is focussing on how CAFOD partners are helping displaced people in Colombia begin a new life following years of internal conflict. Our stories feature CAFOD’s work on Economic Justice and peace building, attempting to show that by enabling and supporting people to fulfil their dreams, they become empowered to shape their own communities working towards the creation of a better world for themselves and their families. Our Bishop, Terence Patrick, will be visiting Colombia with CAFOD later this month and will meet some of our partners.

Colombia has suffered over 50 years of internal armed conflict with fighting between the armed forces, FARC guerrillas and paramilitary groups resulting in widespread violence and human rights abuses. The civilian population has been caught in the middle of the fighting with over 4 million people displaced.

Throughout this massive displacement, the Catholic Church has accompanied the poorest families, receiving them into their new parishes and helping them with food, spiritual help, psychological support and community integration. The majority of the displaced, as in Amparo’s case, are women and children.

photo to promote 'Give it up! during Lent for Cafod' campaignAmparo was forced to leave her home by FARC guerrillas in 2005. Her canoe was burnt by the guerrillas and she was stranded on an island. She escaped by swimming across the river to get her two children and dog. She had no time to pack her clothes, just the clothes they were wearing. They fled to Neiva in the south of Colombia and started a new life in the city, living in a shack with corrugated iron sheets for walls. Amparo was traumatised by the experience and felt angry and afraid of people. It was difficult to find a job because she didn’t have the correct skills. The only thing she knew how to do was to grow vegetables and look after animals but she had no land. She scratched together a living washing clothes. She would start work at 2.00 am and earn £2.50 a day. Once she took off transport costs, she would only be left with £1.75.

In 2007, Amparo joined the AIPODE project supported by CAFOD and Pastoral Social/Caritas Colombia, which helped displaced and vulnerable communities set up small business cooperatives to make a living. Amparo joined the metal furniture making business ‘Hay Paz’ which means ‘There is peace’. There are six members of the cooperative. They all received training, equipment and capital to set up their business. Around 70% of the members of the small businesses are women. Giving them a voice and an income has been one of the greatest achievements of the project.

Today, Amparo earns a small but regular wage, around 400,000 pesos a month (£150) and has transformed her home into a solid, concrete house – she’s even managed to build a one room extension with the extra money she’s made.

‘Displaced families suffer poverty, bad housing, lack of employment, ill health and psychological consequences. They find it difficult to accept their new situation and can become irritable and aggressive with their children. They struggle to be accepted in their host communities and they face segregation. They suffer sadness, sickness and depression. When they first arrive, they don’t have a home or clothes. They don’t have an identity. It’s like having a face that’s been crossed out – they feel dehumanised and worthless. When we asked families what they needed, they said to us ‘Don’t give us more food, give us a job or some way of earning a living’. That was how we began working at a regional level. We began talking to local priests and thinking of ways to get funding so we could support these families to make the income they needed. We wanted to help them get better housing and not to have to resort to prostitution or robbery. Our dream was to help people regain a dignified life.’

– Lorena Yucieth Proanos Hernandez, Coordinator of the AIPODE project

The AIPODE project

  • Brings communities together and encourages rebuilding in a country once torn apart by war
  • Provides trauma counselling and legal support to enable people to grow, flourish and be able to act on their own behalf
  • Provides business training, including marketing, accounting, etc so that people can successfully run their small businesses
  • Allows access to equipment which would otherwise be out of the question and enables people with credit to purchase raw materials to get started
  • Creates networks of building alliances with public and private institutions so that small businesses have access to work

There are now 23 small businesses up and running, ranging from a hairdressing business, coffee business, bag making business and the metal working business where Amparo works.

‘I find Amparo, Luz Mila, Ruth and the rest of the team so admirable. They have worked hard and found a direction for the business even though they thought they didn’t have the knowledge and strength. They were women so beaten down by violence but their vision in life has changed – they feel like new people. It is very gratifying for me to see their business grow along with their confidence. From the human perspective, the metal workers desire to go forward is their biggest strength.’

We are sure you will agree with us that Amparo’s life has been transformed. This has only been possible through the generosity of our Catholic communities here in the Middlesbrough Diocese and throughout England and Wales.

This year, we are again inviting parishes and individuals, who wish to do so, to raise funds throughout the season of Lent. The popular ‘Give it up’ collection boxes, which were introduced last year, are available for people who would like to spread their fundraising over the whole Lenten period. If this appeals to you, supplies of boxes can be obtained through contacting the CAFOD Middlesbrough office on (01904) 671767. There are also lots of Lent liturgy resources available online: www.cafod.org.uk/fastday