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Starting Over

Colombia, March 1, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    La violencia forced 45-year-old Miguel from his home in Antioquia in 1998, where he worked as a self-employed trucker. Now widowed with three kids, aged 10 to 15, he rents this modest house in Bogotá with rough cement floors and a galley kitchen. "I want to try to start a business and buy my own house." Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Luis grips the legal document that proves he lost his finca, or ranch, to Colombia's armed conflict, which qualifies him for the government's 90-day emergency assistance package. "I've always worked the land," he explains, recalling his 90-acre spread with cows, goats, avocados and fruit. Now he sells bracelets and necklaces made by his nieces in Bogotá markets. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Four-year-old Rosy Lily Capera helps her mom raise chickens in two communal henhouses in Cuidad Bolivar, an impoverished neighborhood in Colombia's capital. The cultivation program gives more than 400 families — both displaced and others considered vulnerable — more food security, a greater sense of self-worth, and practical business training. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Colombia's is the longest-running civil conflict in the Americas. Last year, an average of 602 people fled their communities every day, according to CODHES, a Colombian human-rights group that tracks desplazados. A 2005 UN World Food Program report said more than half of Colombia's displaced were under the age of 15. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fleeing desplazados often squat on privately owned land in the cities. Edilso Hernandez is trying to work out a deal with Cartagena city officials to allow his neighborhood to remain. "Most of us live day-to-day," says Hernandez, who fled his home when armed assailants killed his brother and seized his land. "We don't want to be displaced again." Mercy Corps offers workshops for Hernandez and his neighbors on how to participate in the city's planning process. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Eloina Echavez hacks open some coconuts for her guests after being interviewed by Mercy Corps' local partner staff, who are tailoring upcoming vocational trainings to meet the skills and needs of project participants. Eloina, who was forced off her land six years ago, works a seasonal job at a flower shop and sells snacks wrapped in banana leaves on Sunday. "When you arrive in the city, it's duro, duro," she says. "I'm very interested in the trainings. I want to work for myself to move forward." Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    In Barranquilla, certified artisans are teaching desplazadas and other neighborhood women how to make beautifully patterned baskets, bracelets and other handicrafts from palm and arrow cane fibers. Mercy Corps has partnered with a handicrafts exporter that will purchase some of what the women produce. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside the Middle East, receiving $587.1 million in 2006, according to the Center for International Politics. Since the controversial aid program "Plan Colombia" began in 2000, the U.S. has given the Colombian government over $5.4 billion in aid, of which more than 80 percent has gone directly to Colombia's military and police, according to Washington's Latin America Working Group. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Furnishing school cafeterias is a small but integral part of Mercy Corps' work in Barranquilla, a Caribbean port city that is Colombia's fourth-largest. Recently, the city's 2,000-student Metropolitan School received a refrigerator, a stove, water cooler, chairs, dishware and various kitchenware like pots and colanders. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Hydroponic gardeners cultivate vegetables and herbs not in soil, but in a substrate of rice hulls and coarse sand. Plants grow faster, attract fewer pests, and use less water. In Barranquilla, dozens of families receive training, material for ten beds and seeds for lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro, and other crops. The project provides food to eat and to sell at local markets, and an esteem boost for campesinos accustomed to working the land. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps' programs target all vulnerable families in neighborhoods heavily populated with desplazados. That means people like Sandra Lances, 26, who runs a small store to support herself and her 8-year-old daughter, get the same benefits as her neighbors who've been displaced. Hydroponic gardening beds supplied by Mercy Corps supplement her diet and her income. "For me, this program is spectacular," she says. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    For these indigenous women, members of the Arwaco tribe displaced to Barranquilla, Mercy Corps is giving them a chance to turn their traditional bag weaving into a livelihood. The agency's program provides the raw material — in this case sheep's wool — and connects artisans to markets for their finished projects. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Uprooted from their lands, displaced families are trying to reestablish their lives in Colombia's cities.