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What’s our neighbour got to do with us?

One remark to start off with: I am portraying my personal impressions, it may not all be based on exact facts, but personal observations can contribute to a better understanding, too.

Perhaps for some it has already moved a bit out of view, but over here the Nicaragua crisis from April is still clearly present. It is quite hard to keep track of the flood of crises around the world. Besides, from a German perspective it seems terribly far away. While I’m sitting in front of the news with my host family on a daily basis, hearing about new protests and streams of refugees, people in Germany are searching for information in vain.

The crisis was triggered in April by a pension cut, to at least partially, free the world's second poorest country from a pile of debts. For years Venezuela had supplied Nicaragua with oil, worth about 550 million US dollars a year. But since Venezuela itself is in crisis and this money tap has been turned off, the economic growth nearly froze and the unemployment increased immeasurably. The president saw a social reform as the only option. For the people, however, this meant a catastrophe. It took many of them to the streets and soon the protests against the reduced pensions turned into demonstrations for a more democratic Nicaragua. For an improvement of the economic situation is hardly conceivable with an authoritarian head of state, who has not only accommodated his wife as vice-president, but also seven of his children in government offices.

In order to keep the protests small, the governmen used firearms and therefore the number of dead people increased step by step every day. Each evening I sat spellbound in front of the news and following the reports. My actual destination for the volunteering service was the same as for three of my fellow volunteers: Nicaragua. At first I tried to talk myself down, but when Weltwärts brought back all the current volunteers and the departure date came closer, it became more and more apparant why our organisation pulled the cord at some point. The risk of departing was simply unacceptable. For me it meant writing of applications again and further interviews. But I was very lucky. Within a week I had a new organization, an exciting project and even the contact to my host family. And all of that in the neighboring country, Costa Rica. Since it was always referred to as Switzerland of Latin America, I was not concerned about the imminent consequences of the unrest in the neighbouring country. In retrospect, this was pretty naive. But that's what I'm actually thinking more often over here now. It is just a process of learning and understanding.

We were confronted with the refugee situation in Costa Rica for the first time at the local introductory seminar. The locals made it clear to us that the security situation had become extremely aggravated. I didn’t want to believe the explanations that a Tico would never attack a tourist, because he knows how much Costa Rica lives from you, whereas a Nicaraguan does. But I understood very well that this small state is clearly overtaxed by the "many" refugees, compared to the actual number of inhabitants. We noticed this most impressively during our two visits to the Migración (immigration office) for our permanent visa. Already before the entrance, the crowds were divided into refugees and everyone else and even one hour prior to the regular opening, the queues were endlessly long. When we got it wrong in the beginning, we were quickly recognized and transported to the other queue with a grin "Oh these Gringo tourists again". (Gringo is the Tico word for US-Americans, and as a blond tourist you have to come from the USA).

Suddenly, I learned to appreciate the German bureaucracy a lot. Because the chaos was predominating and time after time there were new imprecise statements. But we were waiting voluntarily and without pressure, how bad does it have to feel for the people who had to leave their homes not only because the financial but also the humanitarian situation is no longer bearable? And then you move to a country that is not necessarily at its best either because of border disputes with neighbouring states. I was all the more relieved after those first impressions, when I discovered a Refugees Welcome-Graffiti a few weeks later during a Sunday walk with my host family.

For me, the contact with Nicaraguans and dealing with the consequences of migration is an essential part of my project. Because Transforma gives women from extremely poor backgrounds, mostly refugees from Nicaragua, a future through a variety of educational opportunities (sewing, massage, manicure, English, empreneurship) and a large portion of self-confidence. The transformation stories of those women are impressive and little by little they are starting to trust me while I am happy to listen. Transforma is a place filled with so much love and togetherness that you quickly forget what kind of circumstances the women come from. Some of them take up to four hours of traveling just to attend a course. In addition, the Nicaraguan women are very open-minded and we immediately felt connected because we share the experience of living in a foreign country. For example, a woman told me about Christmas the other night. In Nicaragua it seems to be a cheerful, loud family celebration, where you dance and celebrate on the streets. In Costa Rica you would apparently search in vain for this kind of enjoyment, the people hide in their houses and stay among themselves. Every year she is yearning for the cheerfulness of Nicaragua.

One of my tasks over the past few weeks has been, to compile somekind of statistics on how many women have experienced domestic violence, how many aren‘t eating three meals a day, how many have not even finished primary school or how many are a young mother. The numbers are frightening and I‘m always aware of what a privilege I had to have lived such a sheltered life. A visit to one of the slums was particularly stirring. In the Valle Central, where ¾ of Costa Ricas population lives, there are unfortunately plenty of those. One of the poor districts is predominantly inhabited by Nicaraguans, so that the Ticos already call it “little Managua". San José Central has special "Nica-Cafés" and shops with Nicaraguan specialities. Integration is sluggish, the various compatriots prefer to remain among themselves. Since I cannot distinguish the accents, it has happened to me more than once that I really put my foot in in. For example, I was on the road with a group of Germans as well as locals. For the farewell there was a hug from the Germans, which was extended by the others with a kiss on the cheek. I was surprised for a short moment and said: "Ah, eso es Costa-Ricense!"; immediately I was corrected, the two boys had been living here for years, but the Nicaraguan national pride had not faded yet.

In my second week I wanted to visited one of the so-called Triangulos on the occasion of Children's Day. Together with two other Transforma employees, their wives and two big bags full of presents we set off. The car was parked a few streets away to be on the safe side and the valuables were hidden. The only utensil was my camera with which we wanted to capture all the children's laughter. And how grateful the families were for this attention. Even though my stomach was quite weak to march into a slum as a privileged white man, handing out some presents and posing with those cute kids for selfies, it definitely didn't feel right. Because you change hardly anything, you are just creating dreams for a few minutes.

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