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Speed-walking school helps Colombian refugee children fit in with their Ecuadorian peers

The children train at Ecuador's famous Escuela de Marcha, a race-walking school that produced the country's only Olympic medalist, Jefferson Perez.

By Vanessa JohnstonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2009

Cuenca, Ecuador

With the mountains of Cuenca – Ecuador's third-largest city and a United Nations World Heritage site – serving as a backdrop, children run energetically up and down a long concrete staircase, around the cones, and back again. They are part of a children's athletic program at Ecuador's famous Escuela de Marcha, a race-walking school that produced the country's only Olympic medalist, Jefferson Perez.

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Three of the children have come to the school under very different circumstances from the others. They are Colombian, and their families have recently arrived in the tranquil Andean city as refugees.

Up to half a million Colombians have fled to neighboring countries to escape a violent, 40-year civil war. Ecuador hosts more refugees than any other Latin American country – an estimated 180,000 – with five to 10 new arrivals every day, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UHNCR).

Mr. Guzman, whose 6-year-old son José attends the race-walking school, was a businessman in Colombia just four months ago. He and his wife – who spoke to the Monitor on the condition that their real names not be used – fled to Ecuador after receiving death threats from guerrillas. Although they are now safer, life in Ecuador has not been easy for them.

"[Our son] was rejected a lot for being Colombian. Here, Colombians are seen as bad, as thieves, as drug traffickers. We really pay for our sinners," says Guzman.

"It's difficult for us to adapt to a new way of life since in Colombia we had a certain standard of living that we were used to," adds his wife, a former schoolteacher. Although they had to leave almost all of their belongings behind, she looks every part the urban professional with her smart clothes and carefully applied make-up. "We had our jobs, our home. It was a peaceful, comfortable, and pleasant place for us and the kids. Now we're in a city with a culture that is similar to Colombia's, but very different, too."

Stigma against Colombian refugees

In a country with high unemployment, many Ecuadorians express resentment toward the steady influx of Colombian refugees. Only 20 percent of Colombians in Ecuador have applied for a refugee visa. The vast majority have not, because they are afraid of being deported or because they don't know how – leaving them unable to legally work and without aid.

Joakim Daun, a former intern with the UNHCR from Sweden, came up with the idea of a scholarship program for refugee children to attend the Escuela de Marcha. "Sports can be important for any kid, but it's even more important for refugee kids, because [they] are fleeing from their countries because their lives are threatened," he explains. "So when they come to a new country maybe what they get is some kind of peace ... but then the second phase is integration. The Escuela de Marcha can really help these kids integrate into Ecuadorian society."