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Colombian connection hits home

After living away from Colombia for almost 20 years, Federal Way resident Carolyn Acosta decided it was time to help the needs of her native country — even if that meant working from afar.

Acosta said it was impossible not be touched by the daily atrocities that continue to take place in many parts of Colombia due to the country’s civil war, which has lasted four decades. She simply couldn’t keep her arms crossed for much longer.

“Watching television, I realized that I had to contribute, and I thought that the best way for me to do it was working with the internally displaced people that live outside of Bogotá,” Acosta said.

For more than 40 years, Colombia has suffered from an internal armed conflict. According to a 2006 United Nations report on the state of the world’s refugees, with 2 million to 3 million displaced persons, the country now presents the highest number of internally displaced people in the Western Hemisphere, and the second in the world after Sudan.

The report said that most of those who are forced to flee are civilians who find themselves displaced in their own country. Although many of them seek asylum abroad, more than 1.5 million are registered as internally displaced.

“There are revolutionary groups, who at the beginning were in fact revolutionary but now don’t have any political ideology. They’ve made violent acts their only resource to be in force,” Acosta said.

“This conflict between the army, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries has caused many people to become internally displaced from their homes. Unfortunately this conflict is due to the commercialization of drugs and from people consuming them in countries like the United States,” she said. “As more drugs are being consumed, more people are dying.”

This never-ending conflict led Acosta into creating Cigarra six years ago.

Cigarra is a non-profit organization that is managed in Federal Way, but whose headquarters are in Ciudad Bolivar, which is one of the working class suburbs of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.

Cigarra provides a vast number of services to children who have been internally displaced. Most of these children and their families originally lived in many of the country’s rural sectors, but at some point were forced to leave their lands, either by guerrillas or paramilitaries who, according to the U.N. State of the War Report, take over the land for political, economic and strategic gain.

By these acts, families are constantly being separated. In some areas, young men are also being forced to join armed groups.

Andrea Garces, Cigarra’s local program coordinator, said that the majority of the people who are displaced only know how to work in agriculture. As they find themselves without identity, they move to the bigger cities like Bogotá without any survival skills.

“The only places where internally displaced families are able to live are in inhabitable terrains outside the city that these people turn them into their homes. They build houses made of cardboard, cans, sticks and metal plates,” Garces said. “It’s not unusual to see families where the mother is the only one left to provide for her usually numerous children, since many men are either killed or disappeared.”

At the moment, Cigarra has 140 children under its care. The non-profit organization provides services for displaced children who are between 8 months and 14 years of age.

“Our fundamental job is to provide them with nutrition and early development,” Garces said.

Garces, who is also an anthropology professor, said that it was her personal necessity of giving back to the community that made her get involved with Cigarra. She tries to emphasize among her college students the importance of contributing to their country’s essential needs.

“I tell them, ‘You guys are the country’s privileged because you get to study and attend college, but there are so many people that don’t have the same opportunity and need our support,’” Garces said.

Cigarra’s founder, Carolyn Acosta, said that their main focus is to serve as a full-time daycare where children are able to have access to nutritional meals, education, play-time activities, health care, housing and community development. Cigarra also provides before- and after-school programs for children up to 12 years old.

Additionally, the organization collaborates with Ciudad Bolivar’s community of 1,000 by building suitable housing.

“I would love to expand our services and create more programs, but money is always an issue,” Acosta said.

Although Cigarra is based in Federal Way, most of the organization’s donations come from Colombia, and only in some cases do they come from local or national supporters.

In the past, Cigarra has also benefited from child sponsors inside and outside of Federal Way who provide a monthly $30 stipend, which helps pay for food, utilities, field trips and school supplies, among other things.

“Anybody who wants to help in any way or visit the headquarters in Colombia is always welcome,” Acosta said.

Acosta manages the organization from her home in Federal Way and returns to Colombia three to four times a year. At the moment, she has 11 employees working on site five times a week who keep her informed of the everyday happenings by telephone and e-mail.

“We have six teachers, one therapist, one nutritionist, a program coordinator, a nurse and an administrator, all who have a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “It’s a great group.”

Program coordinator Andrea Graces who has been working for Cigarra for more than four years, said that the majority of children who have suffered from displacement suffer from many psychological difficulties. Most were at some point exposed to life and death situations, and in some cases even saw their loved ones get killed in front of their eyes.

Garces stated that it’s in these marginalized zones where the lack of opportunities bring a series of problems for children, where incidents of domestic violence and sexual assaults are not uncommon.

“What we try to do is give these children the opportunity to see another facet of life and let them experience things like words of love, the magic of a hug, lectures, a warm meal, field trips to museums, parks and botanical gardens,” Garces said.

“We want them to see that the world has other possibilities and that they too have access to them. Cigarra’s philosophy is to provide them with these means so they can continue their lives in a positive way,” she said.

Garces said that the biggest satisfaction is to see children who come to their care when they are still sleeping in a cradle, and be able to witness them grow in a healthy manner.

Carolyn Acosta said that Cigarra is the Spanish word for “cicada,” which is an insect that lives most of its life underground, and eventually emerges into the sunlight to complete its life cycle.

“The name is symbolic for our work with these children. Most of them are abandoned and forgotten in many ways, and we help through love by providing them with opportunities to positively complete their development,” Acosta said.

She also added that Colombia’s present government, led by President Alvaro Uribe, has done a lot for the security of the country and for the internally displaced population. She stated that many of the places impossible to go before are extremely safe today.

Acosta said that the situation in Colombia is divided by geographical sectors. While some areas are very insecure, others are tranquil places where people lead normal lives like they do here in the United States.

In sectors like Ciudad Bolivar, however, people like Acosta and Garces continue to work very hard to ameliorate the quality of life of its residents.

“Carolyn is a very special person,” Garces said. “Any person who thinks about the needs of his or her country while living in a different place has to be special.”

“I know there are many of our fellow countrymen and women who are living abroad, and I would love for them to also worry about the people in their country who are living under very bad circumstances,” Garces said.

“We don’t need to be millionaires to help. The only requirement is to have the will, and strive to make a difference.”

Contact Aileen Charleston: acharleston@fedwaymirror.com

For more information go to www.cigarra.org or call (253) 927-7329.

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