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Displaced but not disempowered

Colombia, April 28, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Maria's family was chased off their farm two years ago by Colombian guerrillas. Today, thanks to a trading-goods business she started with Mercy Corps' help -- and her diligence and spunk -- she's able to afford things like a desktop computer and Internet connection for her school-age sons. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

We spent most of Tuesday in Pasto, a 400,000-person departmental capital nestled in the Andes mountains in southwestern Colombia. The city boasts lots of concrete and not enough trees, and the day's cool and cloudy weather added to the dinginess. But no amount of gray could dampen the spirits of one remarkable woman we met, who has refused to let a tragedy in her past define her future.

Two years ago, 53-year-old Maria Isnelda Davila Martos lived with her extended family on a farm in the province. They grew corn, beans, peanuts and other crops. One day the FARC showed up -- Colombia's erstwhile revolutionaries turned drug traffickers -- and demanded payment in the form of peanuts. Maria's father refused, and was promptly assaulted; he later died from the beating. The rest of the family fled to Pasto, the nearest safe haven.

"We came with nothing," Maria told us. "We were 19 people sleeping in two rooms, on the floor. I thought I'd work as a maid or something."

Instead, she met Mercy Corps and our local partner, Nuevo Arco Iris, at a time when we were helping newly displaced families in Pasto get back on their feet. Maria's family received 90 days worth of food, some spending money, even yoga classes as part of a psychological assistance program.

Importantly, in addition to the short-term help, Mercy Corps taught her how to make money on her own. She and one of her brothers attended a series of workshops about running a business, which covered topics from surveying the market to handling the finances. They decided, based on their knowledge of what rural families need, to buy small items in Pasto and sell them in surrounding villages at their weekly flea markets.

Last December, with $200 from Mercy Corps to cover start-up costs, she bought four packages of incense sticks and a dozen boxes of a popular type of cleaning rag. Her newly acquired business skills, combined with her engaging personality ("I'm a very positive person," she says) and hard work, paid immediate dividends. Her business took off, and she started adding items like spounges, rice, even household goods she'd raffle off.

These days, 11 family members are involved in the business (it also supports eight children). Each day, they stuff a rental car full of goods and drive to markets in the small towns surrounding Pasto. "Today it's La Cruz," she says.

Maria tours us through her cramped three-story apartment, which she shares with her sister and their four kids, to show off her success. One bedroom is furnished with a handsome bed and dresser. Another sports a 32-inch television and a desktop computer with an Internet connection. In the kitchen is a microwave she bought two days ago and is still in the box. Soon, she promises, she'll have a refrigerator.

"It was precarious at first," she says. "Now, with the help you gave me, I'm happy. We are fine, we're better." Another reason for her smile, she says, is that her 12- and 14-year-old boys are doing well at school.

Asked if she ever thinks about her old life, Maria shakes her head. "I don't want to remember the past. I want to live in the present."

As for the future, she wants to learn how to use the computer to manage inventory (it's just for the kids now) and move to a nicer home. In particular, she wants a living room.

As we leave, I notice the furnishings for that room had already been purchased: a chocolate-brown vinyl sofa and matching chairs were stacked under the stairwell. Judging from what Maria has already accomplished, it won't be long before they're put to use.