Bishops, spouses hold prayer service at the Colombia-Ecuador border

September 18, 2011

Vehicle and foot traffic flows uninterrupted on the bridge separating Colombia and Ecuador at Tulcán, a border town where annually thousands of Colombians cross over, seeking refuge from violence and persecution. The national police are present on both sides, but no one is stopped, no questions asked, no identification is required to enter.

Some of the bishops and spouses who made the long trip through the Andes made a similar trip to the Arizona/Mexico border in advance of the House of Bishops fall meeting in Phoenix in September 2010, just after the Arizona legislature passed what was then the strictest immigration law passed in the United States (Alabama has since passed an even stricter law aimed at curbing undocumented immigration).

On Sept. 17, a group of Episcopal Church bishops and spouses rode in a bus for four and a half hours one way from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, to Tulcán, one of its most popular border towns, to hold a noonday prayer service on the bridge in honor of the thousands of Colombians who each year cross over in search of refuge and a new life.

The Episcopal Church's House of Bishops is holding its fall meeting Sept. 15-20 at the Hilton Colón Hotel in downtown Quito, in the Diocese of Central Ecuador. One hundred sixteen bishops and some 40 spouses/partners are in attendance. In addition to the border trip, other day trips to churches and missions active in the diocese, including a day care center operating in one of Quito's poorest neighborhoods, were offered.

Roughly half of the 40 or so bishops and spouses stood on the Colombia side, the others in Ecuador. They began with a song and then followed with the noonday office.

"On this bridge in this place where so many people pass through, I want to give thanks to God [for Colombia,] a country that suffers very much," said Central Ecuador Bishop Luis Fernando Ruiz, in Spanish through an interpreter.

"I also want to give thanks for Ecuador because really there is no border, borders are the creations of human beings," continued Ruiz, who is a Colombian national.

Colombia's half-century-long armed conflict – characterized by displacement, violence and human and drug trafficking – has forced more than 116,000 refugees across the border into Ecuador.

"Colombia shares a boarder with Venezuela, Panama, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil," said Colombia Bishop Francisco Duque, in Spanish through an interpreter. "But most people come to Ecuador because you don't need a visa or a passport to enter, it has an open border."

Despite its own economic problems – a third of the country's 13.7 million people live in poverty – Ecuador keeps an open border and hasn't restricted the number of asylum seekers it allows to enter the country. Besides the more than 116,000 refugees, an estimated 250,000 more Colombians – people who have been denied legal status or who haven't applied for protection – live in Ecuador, according to a report by Refugee Council USA.

Colombians holding a "Tarjeta Andina" – a travel document shared by Colombians, Peruvians and Ecuadorians – are permitted a three-month stay in Ecuador. Still some choose not to register their arrival, and others are forced to flee with nothing but the clothes they're wearing.

"A lot of times people who don't have documents won't cross the bridge where at least you are supposed to legalize your entry. Instead they'll go up the river and cross in canoes," said Duque, adding that one of the ways the Diocese of Colombia assists asylum seekers is through the retrieval of documents.

Bogota, Colombia's capital, is a 26-hour drive from Quito, making it near impossible for refugees and asylum seekers to make the trip.

In addition to the retrieval of documents, the Central Ecuador and Colombia dioceses have begun to work together on other issues and needs confronting asylum seekers and refugees, the most immediate being shelter and help navigating "refugee status determination process" run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Currently, there is no shelter for asylum seekers on either side of the border, and both the Central Ecuador and Colombia dioceses are working to change that. They plan to build a safe house in Ipiales, on the Colombia side, where asylum seekers can find refuge and initial guidance in navigating the paperwork, and a second safe house in Tulcán, on the Ecuador side, where they will continue the process, said Patricia Morck, a Quito-based Episcopal Church-appointed missionary who directs the Colombian Refugee Project, a shared ministry of the Diocese of Central Ecuador and the Quito Mennonite Church that addresses refugees' long-term needs.

The Colombian Refugee Project provides refugees and asylum seekers with six months of food aid and bi-monthly workshops aimed at educating people about their rights, navigating health care and access to education, the banking system, trauma recovery and other necessary services.

Beginning in March, the project began seeing an increase in the number of people seeking help; a monthly average of 10 new cases has increased to 20, said Morck, adding that in September, the number has already reached 20 and there are two more weeks to go.

If it continues this way, Morck said, the project, which has a food budget of about $1,200 a month, may be forced to suspend services to new cases in October.

Colombian refugee "Luisa" (not her real name), and her daughter, beneficiaries of the Colombian Refugee Project, joined the border trip. At the bridge, Luisa, in tears, shared how she left everything behind when she came to Ecuador. After struggling to make a living, Luisa has since started her own print-shop business and is discerning a call to ministry in the Episcopal Church.

UNHCR resettled Luisa's entire family in Canada, including her mother, who she fears she'll never see again. Luisa's application for third country resettlement was denied, despite the fact that her circumstances were identical to those of the rest of her family.

Following the prayer service, bishops and spouses who'd made the trip to the Arizona border in 2010, shared their thoughts.

The Colombia-Ecuador border, they said, was strikingly different: for one a gigantic double-iron fence separates Arizona from Mexico, where U.S. Border Patrol Agents patrol the red dirt road on the United State's side. And rather than a lush, green, damp, agriculturally rich environment, Mexico and Arizona share the harsh Sonoran Desert, where migrants attempting to cross the border illegally frequently die of hunger and thirst. Through the Andes, large flower and sugar cane plantations share the land with farms, large and small, and concrete homes in various stages of construction, many being built with remittance money sent by family members living and working abroad, dot the landscape.

"Last year's focus was on illegal immigration. Today we could just walk back and forth [across the border]. In Mexico, illegals are hunted down as they [attempt] to cross the border and die of starvation; we went with a humanitarian cause," said Retired Bishop of Kentucky David Reed, adding it was also a protest act against U.S. government policies.

In Douglas, Arizona, bishops and spouses/partners took part in a prayer vigil, holding white crosses bearing the names of those who'd died, and setting them along the road toward the border station.

Reed kept Oscar Chavez's white cross; it's in his study and he looks at it all the time, he said.

Reed, who in the 1960s was sent to Colombia to build up the Episcopal Church's presence in both Colombia and Ecuador by overseeing the establishment of dioceses in both countries, had never driven across the border, given the distance from Bogota to Quito and Guayaquil, the two largest cities in Ecuador.

(Duque was in one of Reed's youth groups; and Reed confirmed Ruiz, who he'd met when he was just a boy, Reed said.)

Immigrants crossing the Colombia/Ecuador border don't risk their lives in the crossing, but their troubles don't stop there, he said.

"They can get in, but they don't have the protection they need," Reed said.

One of the things Catherine Luckett, Reed's wife, won't forget, is seeing the items on display at an Arizona border detention center that some of the bishops and spouses/partners visited.

There was an oxygen tank used for underwater dives that had been found after someone had tried to navigate the sewer system to cross the border, she said, adding that the border between the United States and Mexico is a "foreboding" place, whether it be double fences, railroad ties and barbed wire, or concrete moat.

Retired Western New York Bishop Michael Garrison, now an assisting bishop in the Diocese of Southwest Florida, and his wife, Carol, also made both border trips.

Garrison began working with refugees in the late 1970s when he worked in Las Vegas for the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada at a time when refugees were coming from Bosnia, many of them interfaith and inter-ethnic couples – Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Serbs, Croats – seeking a life free of persecution. As bishop, he continued to advocate for refugees.

To witness the Colombia and Central Ecuador dioceses' efforts at working together to address the concerns of refugees is "wonderful," he said.

"There's such a spark and I'm thrilled to see it. … The embers are starting to glow," Garrison added. "One of the things we Episcopalians need is to be challenged to get beyond ourselves."

For an in-depth report on Colombian refugees click here.

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