Hope is in Listening

by Alina Shaw '07

Alina Shaw

As the taxi winds up through the labyrinth of brick homes that fit together like puzzle pieces perched on the hillsides surrounding Medellin, Colombia, I am startled by the dramatic impoverished living conditions. Although the city has carried out incredible social and economic programs to overcome stereotypes of drug lords and kidnappings, a drive through the barrios populares confirms that the money funneled into public programs like a new Metro and public libraries has not improved the dire conditions in which a large segment of the local population barely subsists.

Eventually, the paved road ends, and I get out at a compacted dirt soccer field. Continuing into the Caña Negra settlement on foot, I pass houses standing precariously on tree trunk stilettos and young boys throwing rocks at each other. The yoke of poverty confronts me at every turn. Uniformed schoolchildren greet me at a school, and they lead me to a small room overlooking the muddy river where I will participate in a health brigade. A doctor, nurse, and two community health planners from Profamilia, the local counterpart of Planned Parenthood, are organizing a portable hospital bed, boxes of medication, and processing stations to attend to the patients already lined up against the wall. I am ready to work.

Urban settlements like Caña Negra contain floods of displaced people forced from their homes in response to violence targeted against them by armed groups. Colombia has the second largest population of internally displaced peoples in the world after Sudan — an estimated 3.5 million people, or 7.8% of the overall population. They are staggering figures. As a Rotary Ambassadorial research scholar studying public health at the Universidad de Antioquia, my main academic focus and volunteer initiative is to improve access to maternal healthcare for pregnant, displaced women. But I’m also here to listen.

Today, I walk down the line of women waiting to be attended and hear their stories. One mother tells me how she has been displaced for two years and is pregnant with her fourth child. She wears threadbare clothes, and a tired expression belies her optimism as she explains her hopeful search for a job. Another woman tells me she has not been able to attend any prenatal visits because she cannot afford the bus fare to the clinic and is worried that something might be wrong with her unborn baby. These women do not have access to healthcare or family planning methods, so Profamilia distributes cards that will enable them to see an obstetrician in a nearby clinic, hands out condoms or birth control pills, and leads informational sessions on reproductive health.

While conducting my research in Caña Negra and shelters for displaced Colombians, I am consistently dismayed by the expansive trickle-down effect that the armed conflict has on Colombia’s poor. These women, my informants, share their accounts of fathers and husbands who are kidnapped and taken to fight in the paramilitary or guerrilla, leaving families torn apart by wartime violence. They tell me that they feel like they are drowning in their sorrows. The psychological impact of surviving such traumatic experiences has created alarming public health problems among women and children, in addition to the increasing maternal mortality rates.

As I listen to these women unburden themselves of their agonizing stories, I hope what I accomplish can be just as productive as the promised cure of a doctor’s antibiotics. I believe my listening pulls them up out of the oppressive pain so they can breathe again.

I feel that the root of the Colombian problem lies in a collective history of suffering, causing an angry cultural undertow that is a potent catalyst for perpetual violence. After understanding the needs of these displaced women, I can dedicate my time, resources, and fruits of a Scripps education to improve their access to basic healthcare and ensure that their children will have a better future. I hope that by diminishing structural inequalities, Colombia’s young generations will be less likely to propagate the violence ravaging their country.

From the schoolroom window, I have an excellent view of the city nestled into the Andean valley below, and the startling natural beauty inspires in me the hopefulness for peace. Medellin is ready for change.

Alina returned to the United States this summer to work in international health and give Rotary presentations across the country for a year; she then hopes to pursue a doctorate in medical anthropology.