About the Author: Ambassador Gaddi H. Vasquez is the 8th U.S. Representative to the United Nations Organizations in Rome.
Around the port city of Cartegena today I traveled in and out of poor neighborhoods that would make even the most optimistic person despair. Urban slums with precarious living conditions: putrid water seeping down crevice-filled dirt roads and pooling in front of makeshift houses without windows, donkeys attached to carts, young kids in their underwear standing in doorways. A place called home for the displaced of Colombia and for many of its Afro-descendants.
Families on the run who are drawn to these quarters find few if any social services. The group of Latin American reporters accompanying me on this trip and I were deeply moved by this reality and by the work of an 80-year-old Belgian nun who helps to keep women and children of Barrio Nelson Mandela from slipping through the cracks. An education in nutrition is what Sister Ines and her staff offer the young mothers, some in their early teens. With food from the United States delivered through the World Food Program, medical practitioners welcome mothers to the clinic to teach them how to provide the necessary care to their newborns to keep them alive and well.
Education comes in the form of useful training at the Minuto de Dios Corporation’s vocational center supported through a World Food Program food-for-training initiative. I was impressed by students engaged in an array of programs the center offers, from the art of hair dressing to Baking 101. The students learn skills that they can apply immediately in the local market.
Due to such excellent training programs, even in these cramped neighborhoods, entrepreneurship is taking root. Today I witnessed a community in San Basilio de Palenque, a UNESCO cultural heritage site recognized for its strong ancestral ties to Africa, working together to create a village micro-enterprise of production and marketing of traditional sweets. They compete for funds provided by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). My group also spent time learning how two young displaced men transformed their lives through small businesses. One has built a thriving sausage factory with twelve employees out of a one-man, backyard production operation. The other operates a mini-market in Barrio Olaya Herrera. These examples showed us how the displaced, through emergency humanitarian assistance, are lending a hand to their neighbors who have even greater needs.
Tomorrow we travel to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, for a stop in Soacha, the neighborhood that receives the highest number of displaced in the country. Hasta manana.