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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.

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Training side by side

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Every weekday, Colombian children train together with their Ecuadorian schoolmates and Olympic athletes. Since Mr. Perez's gold medal win at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (he won silver at the 2008 Beijing Games), race-walking has become a national sensation. José says he wants to be just like the beloved Ecuadorian athlete when he grows up.

After the training session, the children receive a free meal in the school cafeteria – a big help to refugee parents who struggle to put food on the table.

The first Colombian scholarship recipients – three teenage siblings – came to the Escuela de Marcha in April 2008, but they have since resettled in Canada. The latest recipients include José and siblings Juan and Isabel Cruz, who live together in one house with their parents.

The families' rooftop terrace overlooks a sea of colonial-era church steeples and Spanish-tiled houses. Residents of Cuenca describe the city as quiet and safe, though it is a less common destination for refugees. There are roughly 2,000 registered in the city – a number so small that most residents aren't aware they are there. Many refugees either settle along the border in towns culturally similar to Colombia, or as far from the Colombian border as possible in the south.

Fleeing home after death threats

Mr. Cruz, recalls his peaceful life in the countryside. They decided to leave, however, after several visits from guerillas who threatened to kill them and recruit their oldest son if they did not provide information.

"We are applying for refugee status but it worries me because it's hard to not have things resolved here, to be so adrift and not know what to do," says Cruz. "I'm also worried because the guerrillas have presence here. You never know."

As the couples await their fate, the Escuela de Marcha provides them with some comfort.

"With the Jefferson Perez activities, [José] is very happy; he wants to go every day," says Guzman with tears in his eyes. "But it also worries me, because as you can see, the apartment is very small, and the kids sleep on cushions, and I don't have a visa so it's hard to work."

"Right now, the future is very uncertain," says Mrs. Guzman, "so we just dream, since we don't know what will happen tomorrow."

Names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of the Colombian refugees.