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Sowing Seeds of Hope

Colombia, October 27, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    First, the bad news. Colombia has more than 4 million displaced people, putting them second only to Sudan for number of people displaced by conflict. Many of them have fled violence between guerrilla groups like the FARC, paramilitary groups, and the Colombian army with only the clothes on their backs. Another disturbing statistic: Colombia has more landmines than nearly any other country, putting it in the company of Iraq and Afghanistan. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    In the community of Soacha, a slum south of Bogota, extreme poverty and crushing conflict is being countered with hope, courage and empowerment. Here, and every place we visited, we saw the seeds of lasting change taking hold. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps believes in a comprehensive approach to assistance for displaced people. My colleague Maria Christina explained, “For someone to create a business selling empanadas, they not only need seed capital and business skills, they need to have clean equipment and good hygiene practices.” Our help includes providing emergency food, household items, and hygiene products in a dignified way, as well as business training. Vosato Vallego, pictured here, told us that when he left his home he had nothing -- “Nada, nada, nada.” With our help he was able to restart his welding business and save money to send his kids to school. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps works not only to help people meet their basic needs, but to put a stop to the cycle of conflict in Colombia. This group of women is one of 11 networks that Mercy Corps helped organize in the community of Pasto in Southwest Colombia. Despite their own struggles with violence and poverty, the women have come together to teach their neighbors about their rights and help protect women and children from violence. Photo: Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    After decades and decades of conflict, violence has permeated every aspect of society – including the family. In addition to helping adults understand the implications of violence against women, we're focusing on children. Our program Vivo Jugando, which means "Live by Playing," uses sports to break down gender stereotypes and get kids to think differently about the roles and rights of women and men. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The 20 children we met with are each responsible for imparting knowledge about gender-based violence to 25-30 other kids. The teenagers are incredibly poised and articulate. It’s hard to believe that their home has been a war zone of guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and drug traffickers who are active in the area. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Gary Burniske/Mercy Corps  </span>
    We next visited the Zapatero School on Manga Island, an extremely poor area of the northern coastal city of Cartagena. We’re working with our local partner on a program to prevent the worst forms of child labor. Childhood prostitution is a tragically common occurrence in this area, but Mercy Corps is working to provide safe areas for these children to learn and play. Photo: Gary Burniske/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    I loved these girls’ self-confidence. Doesn’t it look like they can tackle anything? It’s impossible not to fall in love with these kids. I find myself momentarily forgetting their painful situations, as their smiles and laughter fill the air. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Steve Nantz/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Next we traveled to Arroyo Grande, a community on the outskirts of Cartagena. We’re working on a program to increase political participation among women. By working with the women to teach them about the responsibilities of government and their rights, and by helping them to organize, we’re helping to make their voices heard in community decision-making. Photo: Steve Nantz/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Steve Nantz/Mercy Corps  </span>
    On Saturday we visited El Pozón, a slum on the outskirts of Cartagena. The name El Pozón translates roughly into “puddle,” and as our van struggles through the deep muddy ruts left by the rains an hour ago, it’s easy to see why. Ninety thousand people live here in some of the poorest living conditions I’ve ever encountered. Photo: Steve Nantz/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    All of the children in the program were selected because they'd been forced to work or were at high risk of some form of child labor. The types of labor range from child prostitution to hawking candy on the streets – which also puts these young ones at risk of exploitation. In this program, the children play games that instill self-confidence. And our evaluations have shown that children are staying out of the worst forms of child labor even after they leave the program. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Today, we are mowing the lawn, Colombia-style: with machetes. It’s part of a community clean up organized by a youth group in Colombiatón, a community on the outskirts of Cartagena that is home to families displaced by violence. By the time we leave, the youth have transformed what was a barren, treeless square into a vibrant community space. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The young people are creating a healthy environment and teaching their community about the importance of caring for it. “It seemed like a desert here in the beginning,” one young man told us. “Through our youth group we were able to do this together. Our parents and neighbors supported us and thought it was great. Their words of support encouraged us to keep going.” Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    On our last day, we visited Soacha, a violent urban slum south of Bogotá where we’ve just finished a pilot project to create safe areas where children can play and the community can come together in peace. Behind this little boy, you can see the black netting protecting the young saplings the community has planted, and children flying kites in the background. We’re working to expand this project to plant 63,000 trees, and are currently seeking seed funding to make it a reality. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Steve Nantz/Mercy Corps  </span>
    On this trip I witnessed the incredible dedication of our staff and the strength and courage of our beneficiaries. I renewed my own commitment to this work and to working with the thousands of donors who make these daily miracles possible. Thank you for your commitment — you are truly transforming lives! Photo: Steve Nantz/Mercy Corps

During our six days in Colombia we saw extreme poverty and conflict side-by-side with hope, courage and empowerment. But most of all, we saw the seeds of lasting change taking hold.