Maria Lucia Osorio: working with Colombia's displaced

WFP staff often face challenges that call for quiet and persistent acts of bravery. Maria Lucia Osorio is one of those people. She tells WFP's Heather Hill what it's like helping Colombia's displaced rebuild their shattered lives.

WFP staff often face challenges that call for quiet and persistent acts of bravery. Maria Lucia Osorio is one of those people. She tells WFP's Heather Hill what it's like helping Colombia's displaced rebuild their shattered lives.

Colombia has one of the highest rates of displaced people in the world. It is estimated that more than three million people have been forced to abandon their farms and villages and everything they own to

When I started working for WFP, it was really hard. Talking to the displaced women always made me cry
Maria Lucia Osorio

escape ruthless attacks by illegal armed groups locked in a fierce, decades-old power struggle.

Most have fled to the cities, where they scratch out their survival in the mushrooming urban slums, their former lives and identities fading away and their family structures falling apart.

Every year, WFP gives assistance to some 500,000 displaced Colombians -- women heads of household, children, Afro-Colombians and indigenous populations.

Ambush

As the head of the WFP Sub-Office for Bogotá and four provinces in eastern Colombia, Maria Lucia works with small NGOs and social organisations to find, assess and assist the displaced, whether they are huddled on the urban peripheries, or in clusters throughout the countryside.

A mother of two children with a home in Bogotá, she spends 80 percent of her time on the road, risking assault, ambush or abduction on every trip she takes.

When Maria Lucia visits a WFP project in Bogotá, she enters a world of shattered lives and dying hope. The water supply often comes from a filthy drainage ditch and raw sewage is everywhere. Social services like health care and education are almost non-existent.

"Vortex of crime and drugs"

Already trapped by Colombia’s culture of violence, many people, especially the young, fall into a vortex of crime and drugs out of which they are unlikely ever to return.

Because part of her job is to meet the WFP beneficiaries face to face, Maria Lucia hears all too often the heartbreaking stories of ruined lives.

“When I started working for WFP, it was really hard. Talking to the displaced women always made me cry. But I learned that what they really wanted was a friendly face, someone to listen to them,” she says.

Psychological fallout

At one point, Maria Lucia stopped going to the projects because of the fallout from the psychological trauma of los desplacados, but eventually learned how to work with them without becoming affected by their despair.

One day, when Maria Lucia was working in a suburb of Bogotá called Nueva Esperanza, a man from an illegal armed group threatened her with a gun, accusing her of giving food to the opposing side.

On another occasion, a faction wanted to kill an eight-year-old boy because he had been witness to the killing of his uncle. In what could be a scene from a movie, staff from a range of UN agencies worked together and managed to get the boy out of harm’s way.

Self-confidence and determination

When Maria Lucia travels to the eastern provinces, her only shield against paramilitary or rebel factions is her WFP vest.

“Sometimes the people we meet have no idea about WFP. We have to explain many times who we are, what we are doing, where we are going. You have to show self-confidence and determination when you are in the field. You are the leader.

It’s all about attitude. You have to show confidence even if you are scared.”

Teamwork crucial

Maria Lucia says that in circumstances like these, teamwork is crucial. “My team is my right hand. I found that each of us has faced the same situations, the same frustrations and challenges.

Talking together reminds us that our job is special because we have a unique opportunity to help. We will never solve the whole problem on our own but in the meantime we are providing some relief to thousands of people who desperately need it.”