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Mother's Day Reflection

Most of the world's displaced people now live in urban areas. Although not confined to a camp, urban refugees face a myriad of obstacles ranging from xenophobia to detention, simply for seeking asylum. Isolation, restrictive and inadequate government policies and resource constraints all take on increased significance in urban settings. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Sunday, May 12, 2013

(Washington, D.C. May 12, 2013 — Amarylis*, a refugee mother from Colombia, has two daughters and a son and now lives in Colon, Panama. She spoke with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA on our recent visit to Panama. Like many refugees, Amarylis shies away from talking in detail about the circumstances that forced her to flee Colombia. When we ask her why she left, she tells us that it was the result of the same circumstances that cause many people to leave and that she was seeking a better future for her children. 

Later, Amarylis tells us about the threat of forced recruitment her sons faced and the intense violence in her home community as guerillas and paramilitaries struggled for control. But this dreadful remembering isn’t how Amarylis chooses to tell her story. Throughout our short interview, she talks of the need to seguir adelante, to press forward, a dozen times. She talks of her children more.

She tells us stories of difficult things her children have had to endure since they arrived in Panama.

Shortly after arriving in Colon, she was in a supermarket with two of her children. Her son, five years old at the time, accidentally broke a piece of glass in a door. The family was held at the supermarket for hours, until the police finally arrived at 11 p.m. 

When they arrived, they separated her from her children and took them all to jail. Her voice breaks as she recounts this story. She reminds us, and maybe herself, that she must seguir adelante and skips over the rest of the story, ending instead with the long-term consequence of taking a five year old to jail for accidentally breaking something: her children have been afraid of the police ever since.

She tells us that for the last two years, her 10-year-old daughter has been experiencing terrible discrimination at school. She tells us that the other children, and especially the boys, say "very strong" things to her. Given the rampant stereotype in Panama that Colombian men are narco-traffickers or guerillas and Colombian women are prostitutes, it’s not hard to imagine what is being said as children repeat what they hear all around them. 

Amarylis tells us that her daughter doesn't want to go to school anymore and that as a mother her greatest challenge is to teach her children to love and value their studies so that they can become professionals. 

”This hasn't been easy; it’s been hard. But every day you have to redouble your efforts in order to move forward and overcome it,” she says.

The final challenge she recounts is that of being undocumented. Panama's refugee recognition system is deeply flawed, and there are thousands of families just like Amarylis’ that have either been wrongly denied asylum or have never even applied because acceptance rates are so despairingly low. She says that her family is treated as if they are criminals, as if they don’t have any rights.

Then her voice turns fierce as she says that her children do have rights, for example, to attend school—and it is clear that she is prepared to defend that right with everything she has. She says that she is grateful to JRS for helping to enroll her children in school, for providing a new mattress to replace one damaged in a flood, and for teaching her and other refugee mothers about their own rights and the rights of their children. Brighter now, she says, "if we don’t know about our rights, how can we make use of them?"

"My challenge is to overcome these circumstances and to continue moving forward for my children. The future is going to be better; I know it is. I always tell my children, you have to prepare yourself, you have to study. There are opportunities here for you."

And then she softly adds, "JRS opened the door for my family, when so many others within Panama shut it. I am so grateful."

On this Mother's Day, JRS/USA turns that gratitude around. We are so thankful for the millions of refugee mothers who have the courage to flee to protect their families, who fight for their families as they seek refuge in sometimes-hostile countries, and who never, ever give up. 

We are thankful for mothers like Amarylis who remain steadfast in their commitment to seguir adelante, to push forward, and who have strength and determination to dream of a better future for their families.

And we are thankful for your support.

To read more about our recent work in Panama, please read

• Panama: refugees look to a more hospitable future

• Seeking asylum, refugee finds hopeless detention in Panama

• JRS program helps urban refugees in Panama

*Amarylis name has been changed for her protection.