Non-Governmental Actors in Ibarra, Ecuador: “Lessons Learned”
By: Melissa L. Ball
When I initially arrived to the city of my assigned research placement with a small migration office, named “the Pastoral Migratoria”, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. Standing in the middle of a crowded bus station in downtown Ibarra – with its boisterous atmosphere and bright colors from the small street vendors outside selling homemade sweets and “plantanos” (dried banana chips) – I held my handwritten directions to the migration office in one hand, and my heavy luggage in the other. I had only lived in Ecuador for 3 months at the time, and felt fatigued from my worries of starting my research project in a city I barely knew. But I stayed positive and fuelled my desire to “keep going forward”, perhaps weary from the stresses collected from my total immersion into a new culture and language.
When I arrived to the Pastoral office in the mornings before 8:30 am, there was often a long line of people waiting to receive legal aid consultations and social assistance. An appointment with the Pastoral’s lawyer and social aid worker was based on a first-come, first-serve system. In the corner of my eyes I would catch glimpses of these people staring at my long red hair and fair skin as I helped the staff assign their numbers for these meetings, calculated to stop at 2 pm. Often, some people were turned away and encouraged to return the following day – the office couldn’t provide enough of these services for the high volumes of people that arrived each morning. I felt guilty when we turned these people away as many had experienced difficulties getting to the office from outside the city. There were even regular recipients in the legal aid department that came regularly every other week during the duration of my research placement. I knew that the refugee populations in Ibarra were large, but it was a surreal experience to meet them and learn of their challenges on a personal level.
The Pastoral Migratoria worked in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (henceforth ACNUR – its Spanish acronym) and the Hebrew International Aid Society (HIAS) as a way to account the heavy demands for its services placed on all three entities. When I attended one of my first objective meetings from ACNUR, a colleague from the Pastoral explained to me that most migrants and refugees from Colombia don’t know where to go once they cross into the Ecuadorian border. They try to settle in bigger cities because they know there is a higher concentration of services available to help them. I thought this would benefit them, thinking that their immersion into a large city would give them access to services, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities without being confined to the boundaries of a designated refugee camp. However, the vast majority of these migrants experienced strong forms of discrimination and xenophobia in the bigger cities like Quito, and were most likely to experience unemployment and exclusion from affordable housing given the negative perceptions of their identities linked to crime and economic competition.
I was impressed with the level of collaboration between the Pastoral office, HIAS and ACNUR. I initially underestimated the complexity of discrimination towards Colombian refugees in Ecuador, and I learned the types of collaboration between these three non-governmental entities, in terms of financing, networking and information transfer, was essential for the Pastoral’s ability to deliver emergency and non-emergency aid. Coordination mechanisms and collaboration methods were themes from my fourth year international development seminar, yet I never really thought about how important or difficult it is to implement until I spent my time in the field with the Pastoral Migratoria.
I strongly feel that my time in Ecuador matured me. When I initially boarded the bus to Ibarra, I knew little Spanish and felt uncertain about my research topic on refugee issues in Ecuador. I was weary of all the challenges that came with the research. I made it through; I flourished, rather, under my new pressures to immerse myself within my research topic. I learned that anything is possible so long as you are creative and determined to succeed. I would recommend that anyone interested in becoming involved in non-governmental work or research abroad, seek similar opportunities during or after their undergraduate degree. I was fortunate to have a professor there who urged me to write detailed field notes everyday, which has shown me how my perspective towards international development had progressed throughout my research placement. Someone once told me, “If you want a stronger body, you can’t hire someone else to do the push-ups for you”. I would argue that the same holds true for your intellectual and personal development.
Melissa Ball has recently completed her Honours International Development degree from the University of Guelph. In 2012-13, she spent nine months on letter of permission in Ecuador, as part of Trent University’s experimental learning program known as “Trent-in-Ecuador”. For three and a half months she worked and collected qualitative research in a migration office, called “el Pastoral Migratoria” in Ibarra, that focused on delivering humanitarian assistance for internally displaced persons and Colombian migrants and refugees. The Pastoral Migratoria works in close collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (ACNUR in Spanish), and the Hebrew International Aid Society (HIAS) in the city of Ibarra, providing subsidized housing and social, legal, and psychological services for its aid recipients.