I land in a country I barely speak its language. All I know is one person: Paola Pollmeier. I had been able to leverage a contact from Germany working in the gastronomical sector to connect me with her. We worked in Moravia, Medellin, which is a comuna (neighborhood) that has had a violent history. Its houses had been built with Pablo Escobar’s money in an effort to buy these persons’ votes, and long after his death it continued to be treated as the garbage-place of the city. There is even a mountain of flowers in one part of the comuna today that flourishes on top of pile of garbage. There, Paola and I held cooking workshops that empowered the women through certification programs. Equipped with skills and now a certificate, these women could break into the gastronomical sector to become independent vendors or cocineros (cooks).
I find myself the next day I land in an Uber with Paola to the first workshop at Parque Explora, which is a city-dedicated space for innovation and relaxation. Medellin is one of Colombia’s cities that has transformed the most – from being the birth ground of the country’s most demolishing character to becoming a beacon of progress. The women are learning to make paella, which is a Spanish dish. As the certified chef, William, describes the recipe and best-cooking practices, the women voraciously take notes whilst gazing at the ingredients about to be freshly cut. He delegates tasks and the women happily follow. I start moving around asking questions in broken Spanish. Most of these women have always lived in Moravia and never left for another part of the city; the community there is so strongly intertwined that losing that support can make them homeless in the sense of losing family. I ask about some of the aspirations in the room after the certification program. Cleyda remarks that she aims to gain more experience before trying to become a chef. She is one of the people who seriously followed the program’s advice, including changing her diet, losing in the process about 15 kgs (33 lbs). I feel welcome by the Platos Sin Fronteras family and ready to support its operations for my last three months before the Watson conference.
As I had remarked in earlier reflections, language acts as a bridge to culture, and learning to deploy it becomes an art form that not only creates rapport but also demonstrates enormous respect. I enroll in language classes with the Colombian Immersion School, balancing my volunteering schedule with 2 hours of every day instruction. Self-pledging to only speak Spanish accelerates my learning, and I become amazed by how this changes the dynamics between myself and the program’s participants. I am invited after the ceremony to one of the participant’s house to see Moravia for the first time. (I have always criticized people who work for underserved populations without ever visiting their living spaces.) I become stunned by the shift from Medellin’s beautifully organized neighborhoods with chirping birds to the red-bricked buildings of Moravia with flying motorcycles that bear no caution to pedestrians. It is a little city within Medellin, with all there is to offer – from barbers to mechanics, from a church to small park, from perfectly paved roads to dirt-ridden paths. I go up to Sandra’s apartment and am greeted warmly by her mother, who offers empanadas packed with potatoes and chicken. I ask Sandra more about the comuna’s history and learn that killings there used to be daily, especially because Pablo had heavily supported the building of the settlement so there were close allies of the operations there. She speaks more about the transformation of the neighborhood and how foreign investment directed by locals had revived the comuna’s spirit of innovation and grit. There was now a space called “Taller Tropical” where, for example, women held workshops around braiding hair. And Platos Sin Fronteras was part of that change with its cocina movil (moving kitchen) which is used to cook for the community of Moravia during local events. It became apparent that, for Sandra and many others, Moravia was more than a home or neighborhood – it was a living entity that represented its individuals and the transformative power of grit. Nothing had happened overnight.
I hold dear our conversation and suggest the following day to Paola to create a mentorship program that brings chefs with the certified women and culminates with the designing and selling of an edible product, emphasizing that I had experience with human-centered design around people who have been displaced. She agrees and I start to churn ideas in my mind before settling on a five-phased program that focuses on community engagement, marketing skills, delegation and team work, and product design. I personally communicate with a network of chefs called MULA. We recruit 6 chefs to create 6 teams but delay operations given their busy schedules. But the women become ecstatic upon hearing the news since that could mean additional income for them.
Watson has taught me to how to rapidly build community wherever I go and to always be seeking opportunity. And I have learned what allows me to relax from the pressures of working with migrant communities. Therefore, I headed to a hike one morning to explore the mountainous regions of Colombia. Jake was an American leading us around, and I started taking to him about his journey to the land of magical realism. I learn during our conversation about an organization called Fundacion Huellas that focuses on Venezuelan children and Colombian women near Bello, which is neighboring municipality to Medellin that continues to suffer from violent acts. I see this as an opportunity to understand better the crisis and Colombia’s efforts in mitigating the pain of these people who have been displaced. I receive the contact details of Lenis, who is the organization’s director, and attend the group meeting of the week to become a more regular member.
Meanwhile, Paola from Platos Sin Fronteras entrusts me with a community event that will be attended by about 120 people and tasks me with the lunch recipe. I retrieve my mother’s koshari recipe believing that it’d be an opportunity for cultural exchange in addition to a relatively simple dish – rice, lentils, macaroni, chick peas, creamy tomato sauce, and caramelized onions. This results in an overnight effort of cooking more than 12 bags of lentils for me, and a morning of preparing the cocina movil for the event. I became an ambassador of my culture and delegate tasks to not only the foreign volunteers but also the locals. It was strange – having this confidence to move between worlds without hesitation. We fed over 100 people and had leftover food for people who needed it; Colombians and Venezuelans who have been forced to accept gifts from strangers. I spoke to some of them only to learn that sifting through garbage has become common practice but that without the community of Moravia life would be unbearable. “We have a duty to each other. We should always be working in a team – as a group.”
My mind races to the sign in the small office of Fundacion Huellas, which writes “siempre trabajo en equipo” (always work in a group). We are preparing a workshop for refugee children in Bello on designing a first aid kit for healing of the heart. The workshop is run at “Casa de los derechos” (house of human rights). We design different medicines that are offered for them – alegrazan (happiness), buen geniecin (good hygine), amoridol (love), pacienciazol (calmness), and more. But implementing it becomes very different when the children start to compete for the first aid kit boxes and medicine; however, it is important to note that their culture is one of scarcity, one where a person is taught to viciously compete for resources. One child’s brother steals his box, and a fight erupts. Yennifer reaffirms the purpose of the workshop – to find what will help heal the heart and body – and mitigates the dispute between the brothers. It’s a moment of realization for the children that they share a common goal, which is to live in harmony and are taught that sharing resources is for the common good. The harsh surroundings sometimes blur this fact for them, ensuring that divides aren’t resolved. But for that exact reason Fundacion Huellas exists. And I am grateful enough to have volunteered to promote that mission of compassion.
During my last month, I have to head to Bogota to apply for my Chinese visa. The embassy works for about 2 hours every other day, so I end up needing to stay there for about a week. Without much connections, I decide to start interviewing Venezuelan performers in the street lights and buses. People await the red lights to perform the most incredible of feats – juggling three fire sticks, jumping on a tight rope stretched between two trees, dancing traditional Venezuelan dances, and more – in the hopes of obtaining a couple of thousands of pesos. The sheer grit to not succumb to despair is remarkable. “My family is depending on me in Venezuela. If you ask, we [Venezuelans] are alone here – each family sent at least one person outside to be providing the necessary income to live a kind life in Venezuela. I am not here for myself.”
But this attitude is not just in Bogota, where the lucky few have been able to purchase tickets to head to the city from Cucuta or other bordering municipalities to Venezuela. It’s about a 16-hour drive and 5-day hike. I tell myself I want to hike from Bogota to Cucuta. I want to experience the walk, to understand the road treaded to earn just a little more for the family. A friend calls me crazy and additionally warns me about the dangers of the road. Although adamant, I am not stupidly stubborn. I listen to her advice and instead head by bus after receiving my Chinese visa to Cucuta. I decide another week out of Medellin wouldn’t hurt my relationships with Platos Sin Fronteras or Fundacion Huellas.
The first sight at Cucuta are people sleeping on the floors of parking lots, camps of people set up in order to survive the nights without much trouble. People who were alone have been looted in the middle of the night. I stay with a grandma of a friend from Medellin. She’s a kind soul with not much to contribute other than reaffirming that Colombians and Venezuelans are brothers and sisters. She exemplifies this by allowing Elsa, a Venezuelan woman working at a chorizo (gourmet sausage) stand to live with her. Elsa is trying to raise funds in order to move to Bogota, where more economic opportunities exist. I talk to Elsa for hours after the 16-hour ride but retreat to bed early enough to walk around the city the next morning. It becomes too apparent that the number of Venezuelans are nearly as many as the Colombians. I visit this elderly home where Venezuelans have been afforded the opportunity to take care of them. It moves me to see this – the young aspiring Venezuelans fleeing war taking care of the generation that witnessed the largest displacement in the history of Colombia. It becomes a daily ritual to see how the simple act of talking, brushing hair, or clipping nails becomes a gesture of kindness and support. “I miss Venezuela. Of course I do. But if it wasn’t for the shared history of these lands, I wouldn’t have felt any comfort in Colombia.”
I do not know how to end this reflection. I feel like I have barely even processed most of my experiences despite thinking about these experiences day and night. My love for life has been expanded; my fear of a treacherous world instills in me a sense of purpose to foster more equitable societies; my understanding of home crumbles before me to an intangible concept. But I find that home is not where the heart is. Home is where my people are, and the definition of those people morph depending on the stage of life and place. A refugee is a human coerced to flee from home and community. But equally a refugee is a person with dreams, hopes, and aspirations. Kindness can be the fabric that holds together diverse societies; and humanness, in its simplest form, can breed a culture of tolerance. Expanding our vision of healing can become the most powerful tool to heal the scars of the mind, ones that can continue to pervade and affect decisions throughout a lifetime. I can only hope that I can spark that revolution in my future – to give light to the world and expand vision.