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CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICA: “New Beginnings” Program Expands to Assist Colombian Refugees in Four Countries

(MissionNewswire) More than 5,000 Colombian refugees in four countries in Central and South America will receive vocational and human development training as well as job placement services through a Salesian Missions “New Beginnings” program, thanks to external grant funding.

The three-year program will focus on Colombian refugees living Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Panama due to ongoing internal conflict in Colombia, which has resulted in the displacement of more than four million Colombians in the last two decades.

According to 2011 data from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) more than 90% of the 454,088 known Colombian refugees and asylum seekers now live in the neighboring countries of Ecuador (167,189), Venezuela (215,685), Panama (17,714), and Costa Rica (19,703).

“Many of the Colombian refugees have no marketable skills. They can’t find jobs and the lack of training makes it difficult to start their own business or join with others to form cooperatives. Without jobs, it is hard to find stability for their families and build new lives. For example, younger children may not attend school and the cycle of poverty continues,” says Father Mark Hyde, executive director of Salesian Missions, the U.S. arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco.

Through the “New Beginnings” program, Colombian refugees will receive training and technical skills that will enable them to find gainful employment. In addition, the recipients will receive human development workshops developed through a grant with the WK Kellogg Foundation, as well as job placement services.

According to Fr. Hyde, job placement specialists in each target country will consult with local employers and existing ministry of labor contacts to ensure the job training programs meet the needs of the marketplace.

In addition to the estimated 5,100 students who will receive job training, Salesian Missions expects the program to indirectly benefit 26,520 family members. The program will reach refugees in 18 different regions throughout Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama, and Costa Rica.

“Many of these refugees live in rural villages where access to technical training is often difficult to attain,” explains Edson Timana, a program officer with the Salesian Missions Office for International Programs. Timana is currently traveling to all program sites throughout the four countries to prepare them to implement the programs prior to the arrival of the refugees.

The program will also ensure that the Colombian refugees are formalizing their status as registered refugees. It is estimated that only around 22% of Colombian refugees are registered and accounted for.

“If a refugee is not counted – or is considered ‘vanished’ – it makes it that much more difficult to provide long-term solutions for them,” says Fr. Hyde. “For example, in the four countries we’ve targeted, only registered refugees can legally work, making the registration component critically important. Our goal is to have one hundred percent of students enrolled in the program formalizing their status as registered refugees and then they can begin to build a new life in their new country.”

Fr. Hyde adds that cultural understanding is another aspect of ensuring refugees long-term achievement in their new country.

“We’ve seen that Colombian refugees face high levels of discrimination because of harmful stereotypes. Discrimination affects the refugees’ ability to find jobs, housing and even basic services. The stereotypes also affect the refugees’ sense of self. That’s why we’re including spaces for positive exchanges, as well as conflict mitigation, between Colombian refugees and members of the local host community in the program,” says Fr. Hyde. This includes integrating refugee students with host country students in courses and workshops, vocational training fairs and sports and cultural activities to promote social interaction.

The “New Beginnings” program is designed to meet the goals of the UNHCR/International Organization for Migration/Ministers Foreign Affairs; Colombia, Ecuador Assistance Plan for Colombian Refugees (December 2010), which seeks to support priorities and pilot programs which will advance the sustainable reintegration of Colombians who decide to return home while improving the living conditions of those Colombians who continue to stay abroad by, “promoting their socio-economic inclusion in society with proper access to employment, basic health services, education and housing.”

The most recent Salesian Missions’ “New Beginnings” commenced at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. The first program was launched in 2005 in Colombia, with a focus on providing vocational training, job placement, and healthcare assistance to persons displaced by the country’s ongoing civil conflict. Last year an additional New Beginnings project commenced in Tamil Nadu, India, providing vocational skills, human development, and job placement assistance to Sri Lankan refugees. In both India and Colombia, students received and continue to receive training in skill areas ranging from video production to carpentry to wind turbine repair and maintenance.

The Salesians are widely considered the world’s largest provider of technical and vocational training. Salesians around the world operate an extensive network of schools: more than 1,316 elementary; 1,400 intermediary and secondary; 32 colleges and universities; 300 industrial skills trade/vocational; 90 agricultural; 860 nurseries; 220 clinics and hospitals; and 1,670 social assistance centers and programs for orphans and street children.

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