Merys María Mejía Velasquez is always one of my favorite clients to see in the offices of Fundación Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD); I am always greeted with a huge and a warm welcome spewing with energy. Merys is a long time client of FMSD and has recently taken her first loan through Kiva to buy products to continue to expand her bakery. She enthusiastically attends the free workshops offered by FMSD and is constantly doing all she can to continue to grow her business. Unless you really got the chance to ask Merys about her history it is unlikely you would ever guess that she was displaced to Barranquilla by the violence of illegal, armed, far-right groups less than a decade ago, forced to restart her life from scratch.
Merys’ story is very similar to a large number of clients I have spoke with during my time at FMSD. According to a 2010 report by the UN Refugee Agency, at the end of 2009 there were 27.1 million Conflict Generated IDPs, or internally displaced persons, in the world. Colombia has the largest number of IDPs of any country with 3.3 million, or 12.17% of the world’s total number. To put that in perspective, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia were 2-5 on the list, ranging from 1.55 to 2.1 million IDPs (view full report here as a PDF). In 2010 the Colombian Consulate for Human Rights and Displacement reported 280,041 people were expelled from their homes, showing that despite the huge gains Colombia has made to end the paramilitary and guerrilla violence, it still has a huge impact on this country of 45,925,397 people.
The cities of the northern coast, particularly Barranquilla and Cartagena, have received a large number of the displaced over the past few decades, as they avoided much of the conflict that has greatly affected the south. Cities such like Bogotá and Medellín are much safer than in the past as well; much of the violence today is concentrated along the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela, specifically in the south of the country. While groups such as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army) have lost many of their fighters and high profile hostages in the past few years, the violence is still a very real part of life for many Colombians today.
In 2002 Merys was living with her family in San Pablo, located in the Santander Department. Merys describes her husband, Manuel, as having a strong disposition, which caught the attention of the rebels/guerrillas operating in the area. They attempted to recruit him to join their cause, but when he said sternly said no, he was given 24 hours to leave the town with his family or they would be severely harmed. They fled, leaving behind their entire life in a matter of hours, eventually making their way to Barranquilla, where Merys had a brother. Merys luckily ran into someone on the street in Barranquilla she knew from San Pablo and he offered her a job working in his restaurant; Manuel sold gum, candies, and cigarettes at a small stand in a park.
In 2003 Merys was given the opportunity to participate in a program specifically designed to help the displaced. FMSD and the Pan American Development Foundation (FUPAD) partnered together to develop a program to teach the displaced new skills and begin their own business. Merys attended 401 hours of class over a 6 month period in a course that taught her to become a baker; after she completed the course they assisted her in securing a loan for the basic equipment needed to open a bakery in her home.
Through hard work and 16 loans from FMSD Merys has not only grown her business enough to hire an employee to help make deliveries to the 10 stores she sells her products in around the city, but was also able to purchase her own home with the assistance of a government subsidy. Merys is very ambitious about her future; she would like to open a larger bakery outside of her home and hire more employees. Another key item in the future for expansion would be the purchase of a car/motorcycle so she can make more deliveries and expand her delivery area. Combined with hard work, she sees the value in more loans with FMSD in the future, as they have been essential in the growth of her business so far. Merys also stated that her economic position has greatly improved with her business; she is able to help pay for her daughter’s school in Bogotá.
Microfinance and strong socially oriented programming that like offered at FMSD give people who have been handed a difficult situation in life the opportunity to change their lives through opening a running a small business. When people have the desire to succeed and are offered the tools to do so, great things can happen, despite something as bad as being forced from your home because of violence. As Merys’ Kiva profile reads “she says that so far she has managed to achieve everything that she has set out to achieve in life because, in her opinion, people don’t lack strength, just willpower.” (view her profile here)
John Gwillim is part of KF14 and currently serving in Barranquilla, Colombia. He will continue on as a member of KF15 in Santiago, Chile with Fondo Esperanza beginning in May.
Interested in learning more about Fundación Mario Santo Domingo? Visit their page on Kiva here!