Written by Program Associate Laura Parker
Published February 2014.
Asylum Access empowers refugee communities by training key individuals so they can provide basic legal advice and facilitate civic engagement within their communities. This is the story of Elena, a Colombian refugee and community legal advisor for Asylum Access Ecuador.
Elena first arrived to Ecuador from Colombia over ten years ago. Her unremitting investigation of fraud at her workplace had angered powerful drugs traffickers in Colombia: threatening phone calls and messages soon followed, forcing her to escape to relative safety across the border. Facing negligible employment opportunities and discrimination in Quito, she moved to a smaller city up north to work hawking sweets at a swimming pool.
Soon after arriving in Ecuador, Elena got involved with the Jesuit Refugee Service, which led to work as a human rights monitor, and a social worker. Through this work, she earned a scholarship for a diploma in social development and family change, followed by another grant to study gender, human rights and human mobility. Alongside her studies, Elena began working voluntarily, and later on staff, as a legal advisor for Asylum Access Ecuador.
Elena employs a rigorous understanding of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and its implications with the women’s groups she formed among the refugee population. Many of the women she assists find themselves trapped by abusive partners who threaten to turn them into the migration authorities if they report the SGBV inflicted on them. The few SGBV cases Elena attends to come from tip-offs. “This continues to be a normal aspect of their daily lives,” Elena laments. “They don’t realize that they are being subjected to violence, so this is one of the most important aspects of my empowerment work.” Her objective is to continue to teach the women what their rights are, and how to go about demanding these rights in practice.
Meanwhile, Elena is waiting on her own migration status to be resolved once and for all: she has applied for naturalization as an Ecuadorian citizen, after 18 years of residence in the country. “My personal and professional experiences in exile inform and drive my advocacy for improved refugee rights protection in Ecuador. I want to bring Ecuadorians and Colombians together to end the lack of awareness and communication that ultimately prohibits me from helping refugees. People come to me too late, past the 15-day limit for seeking refugee status. There is often nothing I can do for them.”
A vivacious refugee leader known to many in the town where she works, Elena’s determined legal and integration work, and advocacy for women in particular, belies the many difficulties she lived through since fleeing Colombia. Indeed, it is her personal story and achievements that most inspires other refugees who are facing similar struggles. “I am 55, and age is no barrier to my ambitions,” Elena notes. “I went through the whole process of demanding my work rights, and I won. This motivates others: they may come feeling weak, but they gain strength from my presence and support. I never treat any of my clients as pobrecitos (poor little things), I treat them as capable individuals who need to stand up for, and train themselves in order to realize their full potential.”