Record Unemployment Fails to Dampen Ecuador’s Hospitality

By: Kathleen M. Carroll
This story was first featured in Comboni Missions Magazine Fall 2020 edition.

Nearly 85 percent of Ecuadorans are in “precarious” jobs or without employment altogether, according to Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman. An economy based on tourism and oil exports was especially hard hit by the pandemic. Newman quotes restaurateur Ronny Coronel, “I know loads of people who are unemployed and who were forced to updated their contracts and work for half or 80 percent less — if they’re paid at all.”

The figure is shocking, yet thousands of Venezuelan refugees, fleeing the economic crisis at home, are flocking to Ecuador in search of a better life.

Venezuelan auto mechanic Osmar and his wife, Valeria, a hairdresser, did not leave home willingly. They returned from an overnight visit with family to find that squatters had taken over their home. Their efforts to reclaim their home and property were futile and their resources limited. They spent all their remaining money on bus tickets to Ecuador. Along with their children, they spent the next week at the bus station in Quito, out of money and with nowhere to turn.

Ecuador has taken in nearly 400,000 refugees from Venezuela, nearly 10 percent of the estimated 4.8 million migrants and refugees of its South American neighbor. With its own staggering employment crisis, Ecuador is poorly positioned to extend such generosity, but a small legend is growing up around those who are going the extra mile to help their neighbors in need.

Carmen Cercelén opened a tourist hostel in El Juncal, just over the Colombian border. Since early 2018, though, her guests aren’t travelling by choice, and they aren’t paying. She noticed that each day there were more people walking past her hostel, carrying children, dragging suitcases, and pushing strollers. Once she opened her doors to the refugees, the flood did not abate. El Juncal has a population of about 2,500 people; about 8,000 people have stayed at Carmen’s hostel.

The poverty of her own childhood has helped Carmen reach out to others. “I grew up in the streets,” she says. The people fleeing Venezuela are “good people, mothers and fathers. They are engineers, workers, carpenters. They are people like us,” she says.

The generosity of the people of Ecuador is helped along by assistance from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. It has established a refugee integration and poverty prevention program called the Graduation Model. Osmar and Valeria were rescued from the bus station in Quito by UNHCR and given slots in the program.

The program strives to help the most vulnerable refugees — large families, single mothers, and those with no local support network. It provides vocational training, small business grants, and mentoring to help refugees get established in their new country. It also offers psychological support services to those suffering from the trauma of forced relocation.

“Graduation” from the program means that a family’s income is above the poverty line, that they have three meals a day, that they can save 5 percent or more of their income, and that they have established a local support network. Osmar and Valeria graduated after 18 months in the program and are excited to begin their new business as the local economy recovers.

Another program success story, a woman named Deilys was able to purchase an oven, refrigerator, and commercial mixer to establish a food business. “This process has given us the tools for us to subsist, survive, and make headway,” she says. “We don’t have everything, but we are living well. We have no debts and we’re never behind on the rent, and when birthdays roll around, we have enough to buy gifts for our kids.”

Story elements courtesy of UNHCR and Al Jazeera.

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