Day 26: Meet a Nicaraguan refugee who’s changing lives in Costa Rica

Can you imagine fleeing through the night at age 25 with your two children, over mountains and through dark, unfamiliar landscapes, knowing death awaits you in the place you have called home for your entire life? Can you imagine starting from scratch in a country you have never seen before, where your university studies are worth only the resourcefulness and confidence they instilled in you?

In some abstract way, we can picture it. Sort of. The headlines and statistics surrounding the world’s refugee crises have been inviting us to put ourselves in these shoes for some time now. We sigh, shudder and, in most cases, move on, because – what can we do, exactly? You and I?

Well, try to picture this next part, because the most shocking element of this woman’s story is yet to come. Imagine just starting to get your feet under you, with this traumatic flight just barely in your rearview mirror, with your refugee application still under review, with a new job for which you commute for hours around a crowded city while you also juggle your two kids’ needs. Imagine now saying to yourself, “Well, now that I’ve got some income, it’s about time I did some social responsibility work. Why don’t I put in some serious volunteer hours helping other women to navigate their public aid institutions?”

Can you imagine that? I sure can’t. I don’t do anything like that in my spare time, and that’s without a single one of the disadvantages that this woman could use as an excuse. But for Elizabeth, those disadvantages aren’t excuses. They’re divine clues that are leading her toward her life’s purpose as an advocate for people during the worst moments of their lives. Within five minutes of meeting her last week, my jaw had dropped, and her story is still ringing through my head days later. I knew I had to share it here.

Elizabeth is part of a community of women who have come together to support each other at TRANSFORMA, in San Rafael de Montes de Oca. Photo courtesy of TRANSFORMA.

This law student from Bluefields, Nicaragua, fled her home one day before it erupted in violence last year, part of the ongoing violence and oppression inflicted on Nicaraguans by the government of President Daniel Ortega that has sent so many Nicaraguans across their southern border to seek safety in Costa Rica in recent months and years. (While the crisis has produced one horrific headline after another, the day following Elizabeth’s flight stands out even against that backdrop, because it included the murder of a journalist while making a Facebook Live broadcast on the street in Elizabeth’s hometown.)

She landed in Alajuelita, a canton just south of San José, and eventually found work in a small restaurant all the way across town in Curridabat. In between, she found TRANSFORMA, a nonprofit organization that trains and supports women to become social impact leaders in their low-income communities. The women receive technical training in fields such as sewing and beauty services, but also holistic leadership training and peer support, as well as onsite childcare during their classes. They come together each week in a peaceful building in San Rafael de Montes de Oca, on the east side of the city, to learn but also lean on each other.

Visiting the center last week, I could see why women travel from all the way across town or even hours away – one woman, for example, comes from the Central Pacific coastal town of Jacó – to soak in this positive atmosphere. TRANFORMA motivates the women to develop economic activities that benefit their families, but also empowers them as community leaders, reminding them that no matter how small their microenterprise, they have the potential to give back. Many of the women donate hours of volunteer work or other services to their communities.

“TRANSFORMA has been a blessing, a source of hope. I was in a state of terrible depression. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I had never visited Costa Rica before… it was a huge change. I had never experienced such vulnerability,” Elizabeth told me. “When I came into TRANSFORMA it raised my spirits. I began to belief in myself and I’ve found my vocation, my meaning in life.”

TRANSFORMA director Vanessa Valenzuela had been working with Elizabeth for only a few months when she noticed that Elizabeth had gotten bureaucratic ducks in a row with astonishing speed – something anyone who’s lived in Costa Rica can appreciate. She’d not only completed all the components of her refugee application under difficult circumstances, but also successfully obtained all the forms of support from the Institute for Social Aid, or IMAS, that she was entitled to as a refugee applicant. Some of the Costa Rican women Valenzuela has worked with have been in their situations for decades without achieving those same paperwork milestones that can really make a difference in a family’s life.

Recognizing talent, Vanessa invited Elizabeth to join her in researching the reasons why some women are unable to navigate Costa Rica’s public aid bureaucracies. Their conclusion? A major make-or-break factor was a woman’s ability to concisely summarize her situation and know enough about the institution she was addressing to ask for the right aid channels. Often, after a long wait, with only two minutes to make her case to a rushed government official at a tiny window, a woman asked to boil down her life story to a few sentences would stammer and ramble, leading to “Come back in three months once you’ve filled out Form 3B.”

With Vanessa, Elizabeth started guiding Costa Rican and fellow immigrant women who needed public support through an appreciative inquiry to get to the heart of their needs, and coaching them to be able to make their case confidently and in line with the services each public institution provides. The results were clear: Vanessa and Elizabeth saw an uptick in successful applications by the women who were coached.

Elizabeth wants to continue doing this coaching, find a way to finish her law degree and create a law firm that serves immigrants.

“It’s very natural for me: I want in the bottom of my heart to help others,” she says.

Elizabeth asked that her surname be withheld to protect her family’s privacy. To learn more about TRANSFORMA and how to support Elizabeth or social impact leaders like her, visit https://www.transformacr.org/.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

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