“The boss wants five lunches, to go,” he demanded, without offering to pay.
Amaya looked over at her sister, confused. She replied, “Who is your boss and why do we have to give him free lunch?” then turned around and continued preparing and serving plates to her customers.
When Amaya returned home that day and told her parents what had happened, they warned her to do as the man says. In Colombia, paramilitary groups can demand “taxes” on the smallest of business activities. If the demands aren’t met, you can get yourself into trouble, and there was little that local authorities could do about it.
Two months later, Amaya walked into the restaurant to find the same man pointing a gun at her little sister’s head. She gave the man all the cash they had on hand: $29.
Another day, their stereo system from inside the restaurant went missing. Then she was mugged on the street nearby.
Afraid of what else might happen, Amaya and her sister decided to close the restaurant. Her sister went to study in another city, but Amaya stayed with her mother, living in constant fear of being recognized on the street.
The threat came soon after while she was walking home one evening from her new job. From behind, she heard him say, “Where have you been hiding? You closed the restaurant for no reason, and one of you will end up dead for that.” Without looking back, she got into the first taxi she could and sped home.
In her town, she had seen others murdered for far lesser offenses. After saving up some money, Amaya left her mother, her 12 year old daughter and her homeland and came to Ecuador.
She arrived at a bus station and spent the night on the floor. The next day, she befriended a woman who insisted she stay with her and her children and got her a job selling food at the bus terminal. Amaya was earning $15 a day and the loss of leaving her family weighed heavy on her heart.
Everytime she got off the phone with her daughter, who was angry at her mother for leaving, the tears welled up in her eyes. Soon, she became known as “the girl who cries for her daughter”.
Amaya fell into depression. Feeling empty and alone, she wouldn’t leave her room, sometimes unable to eat for days at a time. “I couldn’t even drink water. I would try, and my throat would close up.” She knew she needed help, and possibly medication.
One day, a woman told her to find the place that helps refugees. She found Asylum Access and was invited to the Women’s Empowerment Group. Little by little, Amaya overcame the fear and distrust that trapped her in her room.
She began attending the women’s group and realized that the laughter, tears and arguments reminded her of being at home with her sisters. “You have empathy with the other women and start to share personal things. I like being alone, but sometimes it isn’t good for you.”
Through the women’s groups Amaya also learned about her rights. “I know I have rights, like any Ecuadorian, and even if I’m not Ecuadorian, they have to respect these rights. I have the right to health services and an education, and I want to study. I want my daughter to be proud of me.”
Two years have passed since Amaya arrived in Ecuador. Some days, she still cries when she thinks about her daughter, but with the support of her psychologist and the weekly Women’s Empowerment Group meetings, Amaya no longer feels so alone. In fact, she’s found a better paying job, is receiving a small loan and plans to invest that, along with her savings, into a small restaurant.
“Everything one does and learns is beneficial, and I know I have to get ahead for my daughter, my mother, my family…and even for myself.”
To protect the privacy of our refugee partners, photographs and names have been changed in this story.
Written by Creative Lead Sandra ten Zijthoff