The in-between Place

I stand on the dock in San Lorenzo, a port town in the north coast of Ecuador, overlooking the intricate network of channels through which the river makes its way into green forest.  I am close to the border with Colombia. It is here, in this in-between place, that small boats arrive carrying refugees from Colombia, who are escaping the violence that despite the much touted peace negotiations shows no signs of abating. Over 5 million people have been internally displaced by violence in Colombia, while over 1,000 refugees a month continue to arrive in Ecuador seeking asylum. It is a war fuelled by power and greed, rooted in inequality and injustice. Source: Jenny Cafiso

As they cross the water between these two countries, I image the hearts of the asylum seekers inhabiting the in-between place between gratitude and sorrow, between hope and fear.  Perhaps their hearts are filled with gratitude for escaping the violence, but they also carry the pain for what they have left behind, for their burned houses, for the dead they buried, for the loved ones who have disappeared,  for their unfulfilled dreams.  Their hearts hold hope and relief as they see the shores of Ecuador, a country which in the last few years has been a beacon of welcome for the refugees, but they also carry the fear of being sent back, the anxiety of starting their lives in a place they do not know, with nothing on their back.

We go to a mangrove swamp occupied by thousands of Colombian refugees.  We meet Wilfreda, a grandmother who looks about 70 years old who has also made a home here, except, it is not a home. This is no place to live. It is also an in-between place.  The refugees have built some wooden shacks on poles dug in the wet, soft mud below. We smell the stench of sewer mixed with the mud just below us as we nervously walk over the planks that have been precariously erected over the mud to go to the houses. I shudder at the thought of falling down. Children make their way down to the mud to play with sticks and find anything they can call a toy. I hear laughter, even here, in the midst of a poverty that suffocates.

Source: Jenny Cafiso.                People stare at us, but they welcome us. That is because I am with Blanca, Virginia and Ángel, who work with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and who obviously have a heart for the refugees.  The people know them, there is deep trust, they hug, they smile.

Wilfreda  does not speak much, but after a while tells me that two of her grandchildren have been killed in Colombia, the last one only 6 months ago, he was 27. Her granddaughter had been taken by armed groups. Now she returned. There is silence. We don’t ask questions. Her pain is palpable.  Soft tears roll down her cheek. Silence falls in the space between us. I hold her arm. How can you console such pain? Blanca who is herself a refugee, tells me that the pain of the refugees is a pain that has no end.

 Wilfreda is alone here with her partner.  Her children who also left their home because of the violence,  are spread across Colombia. I ask if she plans to go back, “yes maybe…sometime…but they burned my shack, there is nothing to go back to. But then…there is nothing here either”, she says with a tone of resignation and despair.  Here they have no jobs. They try to survive from fishing. 

We had heard similar stories earlier at the JRS office, where our meeting was interrupted repeatedly by knocks on the door, by sounds of tears, by stories of pain. A steady stream of refugees comes to say that they need to register, or that their application for asylum was rejected, or that they have nowhere to go, or that they don’t have to eat or anywhere to sleep. Wilfeda and Blanca. Source: Jenny Cafiso.

Wilfreda and the other refugees living in the swamp will not be able to stay here, because this land is a protected area JRS is lobbying so that they be relocated and given housing somewhere else. In the meantime the refugees wait in this in-between place, in the mud and the sewage.

My parting words to Wilfreda are that I will pray for her. They seem useless words, it is too easy to say them, just a way out of my feelings of inadequacy and uselessness.  But she responds, “Yes, please do. That, we need: prayers.”

And so I pray that we may all find a shore. I pray that God may show us the way to a place that the heart can call home.

Jenny Cafiso is Executive Director of Canadian Jesuits International (CJI).and is the assistant to the Provincial for international apostolates. To find out more about the work of CJI visit

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