Tico Students Help Refugees Adapt

August 13, 2004

“THEY threatened me with death fornine months, sent me body parts – a finger,part of an ear, hair. A group of womenentered my home and beat me,” EmmaHilario told a room of students at theUniversity of Costa Rica.She was describing the events that ledto her flight from Peru 12 years ago andher struggle against the Sendero Luminosorebels in Lima.They targeted her for her arms-controlactivism, she said. She was shot in herhome, saved by an instinctual attempt tocover her head. The bullet entered her forearmand spared her life, she said.Shortly after, she flew to Costa Rica toseek refugee status, with the wound in herarm festering because doctors in her homecountry were unwilling to treat an uninsuredwoman.THOUGH a gruesome one, hers wasnot the first story the Costa Rican studentshad heard from refugees in the country.Through a program linked to the Office ofthe United Nations High Commissioner forRefugees (UNHCR), they work closelywith the refugee population and the governmentdepartments and private organizationsthat support their stays here.The students, from disciplines asdiverse as law, psychology, economy andanthropology, among others, are in theirlast years of study and lend their specializedknowledge to refugees in Costa Rica.The project began in 2001 as aresponse to the influx of Colombians thatbegan in the second half of 2000, increasedthroughout 2001 and has since ebbed, butnot before overflowing the capacity of thetraditional institutions to assist them.NOW more than 100 students work inthe program to complete their graduationrequirement of 300 hours of communityservice. In the past three years, studentshave helped refugees with their unique setsof problems – a lack of documents, forexample, such as proof of college education,doctors’ reports, children’s reportcards, etc. They also give them advice forstarting small businesses and help themspend loans from the UNHCR wisely.The students produced two reports on thedegree of the refugees’ integration, and havenearly finished a manual, two years in themaking, that will explain refugees’ rights andhow they can flex their legal muscles.The benefit is not one-sided.SOMETIMES you hear aboutrefugees, but it’s difficult to put a face tothe situation,” Kuok Pein Li said. He is alaw student who has been in the programfor four months working on the manual.He says he realized that refugees hereregularly deal with discrimination and aresometimes lumped with illegal immigrantsin the minds of peers and would-beemployers. His experience will affect hisattitude in his future career, he said.“I know there are needy people withoutresources who had to leave their countriesfor other reasons,” he said. “ They aren’t toblame, they left looking for safety.”

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