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Graduation day in Mocoa

Colombia, May 3, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nearly 30 graduates of a Mercy Corps sponsored gastronomy class celebrated the completion of their course with a party by the river. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sandra, a 33-year-old single mom threatened from her home in January, hopes to put what she's learned in a Mercy Corps-sponsored cooking class selling homemade meals door-to-door. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Alexander demonstrates in his home kitchen how he learned to chop onions in a Mercy Corps-sponsored gastronomy class designed to give people who've been displaced the skills to make a living. Currently he and his wife make and sell a peanut-flavored caramel on a stick in the streets of Mocoa, Putumayo. "Life continues, and while we are living, we have to struggle." Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

At the end of our day in Putumayo's capital, we stopped by a graduation celebration of sorts. More than 30 people displaced by the armed conflict were marking the end of an 80-hour course in gastronomy with food, music and a dip in the river.

The course was sponsored by Mercy Corps' partner organization, Fundacion Diosésis, and Colombia's technical training institute. The teacher, Lia Caicedo (who's not pictured), explained to me that her students had learned the basics of everything from proper food hygiene to preparing all sorts of meats, salsas, snacks and desserts.

"The idea is to give them the skills so they can start their own microenterprise," she said, "even if it's just selling empanadas, tamales or other snacks. It's so they can earn an income."

The class also offered a chance at solidarity and friendship for people who, in most cases, had recently been forced to leave behind the only life they'd ever known.

Skills trainings like these complement the income-generation component of the program we offer to displaced families. There, they learn the basics of running a business, from surveying the market to setting prices and coming up with a business plan. At the end of those trainings, they receive a small amount of seed capital — about $200 — followed by a grant for capital purchases.

The gastronomy students included men and women mostly in their 30s and 40s. They were eager to tell me what they'd learned — like how to correctly carve a chicken, cook three types of rice, or concoct a sweet milk-based dessert.

One 33-year-old woman named Sandra told me she learned how to make an "American salad," a dish which resembled a pasta salad and that she described as "muy rico."

Sandra was typical of most graduates in that she aspires to run her own food business. She'd like to team up with her mom and go door-to-door sellling suprema reina — a chicken breast filled with sausage and cheese with sides of sauteed vegetables and eggs.

Another graduate, Alexander, who we'd spent time with earlier in the day, had a more humble aim: "to surprise my wife with good food," he said, to which both he and his wife, Merly, had a good laugh.