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“The war harms us in a different way”
Jenny Manrique
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Colombian women refugees and those seeking asylum in the United States face marginalization and abuse.

As the 34th International Women´s Day is celebrated on March 8, thousands of women continue to cross borders to save themselves from violence and discrimination. The story of Colombian refugees in the United States is just one of many stories of women´s struggles.

Sandra, 38, is not a drug-trafficker. She is neither a guerrilla or a paramilitary member. Her life was in danger from the crossfire of Colombia´s internal conflicto, and she has spent a decade seeking political asylum in the United States. Her fears are founded and it is too dangerous for her to return to her native Colombia. According to the Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1951, this should be enough for her to receive the protection she has sought for years. But according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Sandra´s story doesn´t qualify her.

Sandra says the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began extort her when she managed the oil well concessions for an oil company in Saldaña, in the southeastern department of Tolima.

“They sent me threatening letters. They called me. They even up a bomb in the house of a friend where we hid with my family in Neiva,” she said, referring to the city in the neighboring Huila department. “Even though I said all of this in the case, a [US] judge said that they didn´t pursue me because my political opinions.”

After fleeing from city to city in Colombia, her husband was nearly beaten to death. Afterward, the couple flew to Miami and hired a lawyer, who cheated them for years.

“I didn´t know anything about asylum. I only wanted to become legal. But after the persecution there, I only found persecution here. In immigration they look at you as if you´ve killed someone,” she said. “As if you´re the guilty one.

Sandra said after her first asylum request was rejected, she and her husband just waited for a deportation notice.

“The paper never arrived, but immigration did knock on the door of my house. They beat me and took my husband to the Krome,” she said, referring to a immigrant detention center in Miami. She said afterward, he was transferred to a prison in Alburquerue, New Mexico, until he was deported to Colombia.

Sandra gave birth to her son in 2004, five years after her arrival in the United States. Her son attends to a bilingual school and communicates with his father through a web cam.

Sandra moved to Boston, where she recently filed an appeal for her case. She rarely drives, rarely goes out, and is trying to bring her husband back to the United States.

“In school my son made a drawing that said I was the best mother. He’s the only reason I keep getting up every day,” she said.

Inner battle
Amneris, unlike Sandra, has already been granted asylum. But her inner struggle to forget her violent past continues. This 43-year-old woman looks calm, but chilling memories continue haunt her.

After she divorced, she used to sell candles in Itagui, in the northwestern Antioquia department to support her father and her son.

“The FARC began to ask me for money,” recalled Amneris, who came to the United States in 1998, was granted asylum in 2004, and now lives in the Boston suburb of Waltham. “I resisted but I later give in because of fear.”

The rebels said that her brother, a foreman in a neighboring village, was really the owner of a acres of coca crops. Amneris paid US$50 twice to a FARC militaman in the village park. When she was unable to make the third payment, her brother was killed.

“I left my village and I returned a few years later,” she said. “They kept calling me. They made me pay them again and said if I didn´t they would slit my son´s throat. I worked so I wouldn´t die and I lived in paranoia. They were the worst years of my life,” she said.

Amneris requested a US visa, but only eight months after working 12-hour days — in addition to the candles, she sold clothing or anything else she could — she had enough money to escape. Her father wanted to stay. She hasn´t heard from him since.

She said she forbade her son, then 12, from answering the phone or going out alone. “When we left, I told him that we would leave for vacation while they fixed some things in the house. He didn´t want to have to make new friends. I wanted the protect him the most I could,” she said.

In her asylum request, Amneris included her diagnosis for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She suffered from the disorder´s common symptoms of nightmares, flashbacks, memory loss and paranoia.

Along with depression, the disorder is one of the most common among those who have escaped wars, torture or other traume in their countries of origin. According to Linda Piwowarczyk, co-director of the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights, women tend to have a higher rate of the disorder, possibly for being exposed to sexual violence or because they are responsible for their families´ survival.

For immigration lawyer Jeff Ross, who has spent nearly a decade working with the Colombian population in the United States, people who have been exposed to tragedy or threats of the degree seen in Colombia, need months or sometimes years to get to court and be able to give a believable testimony about their experiences.

He added that many women feel intimidated by the judges.

High asylum rejection rate
US immigration law states that applicants for asylum have one year to present their petition after arriving in the United States. Many do not know the rule or the time limits are not enough for them to gather their evidence. According to the Justice Department, 65 percent of asylum requests are rejected. Many of the applicants simply prefer to stay illegally.

“The peak of Colombian immigration was in 2001,” said Carlos Soler, an activist in the Washington-based organization Todos por Colombia. “More than half of the asylum applicants were professional women persecuted for various reasons. At that time, the immigration laws were not so difficult nor were the processes so long and costly. But today, to request asylum is to enter into a deportation process.”

According to figures from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, 6,000 asylum requests were granted in 2001, a figure that dropped to 2,000 in 2007. In 2003, Colombians began to fight for temporary protection status — granted to citizens from countries affected by civil wars or natural disasters — but it was rejected by the State Department. Lawyer such as Desmond Fitzgerald argued that the US tours around the South American country under Plan Colombia, the sweeping anti-drug and insurgent plan that has cost the $6 billion since 2000, but does not give any other type of benefit to Colombian migrants here, saying that to admit that Colombians are fleeing the violence is to say that Plan Colombia is not working.

“It´s not easy to be Colombian in this country, just as it´s not easy to be a woman,” says Patricia, 35, who studied hotel administration in Colombia and fled the country when the FARC threatened to rape her if her father failed to hand over the farm he owned in Pando, Tolima. “If you don´t have the stigma of drugs, you have the stigma of asylum. In work, I suffered sexual harassment, as if I had to thank everyone for being protected.”

After cleaning floors and washing dishes, asylum allowed her to get a higher-ranking job, but she was asked for more than her c.v.

“A Colombian lawyer contracted me and in her office I met women who were abused and there is no policy to protect them,” she said. “We still don´t understand that the war harms us in a different way.”
—Latinamerica Press.

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