Thursday, December 19, 2019

Peter Wigginton, mission and refugee worker in Ecuador speaks to JPOG in eastern Iowa

By:  Holly Blosser Yoder, reprinted with permission; first published for JPOG email list

Over thirty persons enjoyed listening to Peter Wigginton describe church mission and refugee work in Ecuador at a JPOG meeting on November 24, 2019 at East Union Mennonite Church.
  These notes were written by Holly Blosser Yoder and lightly edited by Roger Farmer.   
    For twenty years, the Mennonite mission partnership in Ecuador has focused on welcoming refugees, teaching peace, and supporting indigenous churches.  Peter Wigginton brought greetings from Quito (Ecuador) Mennonite Church and Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, where he and his family have been attending while in the US.  Peter is married to Delicia Bravo Aguilar and they have two young daughters.  The Wigginton Bravos serve as Ecuador Partnership Coordinators in Quito and have been on home leave raising support to return in January, 2020. 
    Peter described his coordinator role as an administrative position, which includes organizing for and hosting visitors. Because of these learning tours he has been able to travel and get to know the country. Ecuador is the size of Colorado or about twice the size of Iowa. It is said to be the most biodiverse country in the world per square mile. “You can have breakfast in the Amazon, lunch in the Andes, and dinner on the beach” is a saying that conveys this.
    The city of Quito stretches up a valley 40 miles long and about 4 miles wide. In population, Quito surpassed the coastal city of Guayaquil as Ecuador’s largest due to the influx of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees into Ecuador.
    Some of the Quito church members live in the neighborhood of Jardines del Inca, where the church has an after school ministry, helping children with homework, teaching skills and English. They also get a snack.
    The biggest project of the church is the refugee project. Ecuador receives more refugees than all other South American nations combined. It started with mainly Colombian refugees fleeing violence in that country’s civil conflict. In recent years, there has been a large influx of Venezuelan refugees. The refugee project provides food, blankets, handmade diaper covers and diapers. The church has also donated diaper covers and diapers to the Cofan community in the Amazon region of Ecuador, after learning that some families had started using disposable diapers, which end up in the Amazon River. Two refugee women sew the diapers as well as t-shirt bags and cloth menstrual pads. The income helps them to provide for their families.
    Refugees continue to flee violence in Colombia although nowadays it is mainly due to organized crime (extortion or drug trafficking).  Church leaders, community organizers and other social leaders are sometimes targeted when they become a threat to powerful people in those communities, whether former guerillas, organized crime, or government forces.
    Venezuelans by contrast are viewed by the United Nations as economic refugees. They come because there is no food or medicine in Venezuela.  Some also come because of political persecution. Peter related the story of a government worker who had been spotted near a protest, and whose home and family were then threatened by the Maduro government or government supporters. Refugees have also arrived from Africa and the Middle East in recent years.
    People in Ecuador began protesting on October 1 after the government, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, had cut subsidies for gas and diesel, raising prices more than 100% and affecting the prices of food and other goods. The government reinstated the subsidies after weeks of protests. More importantly, the protests ignited conversations about the realities that indigenous people in Ecuador have to live with.
    Ecuadorians pride themselves on being a hospitable people. UNHCR has an office there to facilitate refugee relief and resettlement.  However, Ecuadorians have felt overwhelmed in the wake of the influx of Venezuelans, especially after Peru closed its borders to Venezuelan immigration. This has brought xenophobia (fear of foreigners) to the fore. Responding to rising fears, the government has tried to limit refugees coming into Ecuador without much success. USAID recently put four million dollars into refugee management in Ecuador but without doing anything to improve the situation in Venezuela. There have been hostilities between the US government and the Venezuelan government for decades, so the US scores political points by highlighting the refugee crisis just as the Venezuelan government has reason to deny it. Refugees who are able to claim refugee status can apply to be resettled in a third country; however, Venezuelans rarely are granted official refugee status. It is estimated that 15% of the Venezuelan population has emigrated.  While walking around in Quito nowadays, Peter noted that there are Venezuelan refugees, and even families, on every street corner, pleading for help. Outside of Quito on the highways, refugees can be seen walking along the road. About half of the worshipers at Quito Mennonite Church are refugees.
    In response to an audience question, Peter gave a brief extemporaneous summary of the current political leanings of the Andean nations relative to one another. He observed that “the biggest problems come from the pendulum effect,” where the right and left trade power and undo the work of the previous government.

Holly Blosser Yoder volunteers with Central Plains Mennonite Conference as task force coordinator for Ecuador & Venezuela Partners in Mission. Holly and her husband, John, have served with Mennonite Central Committee in Africa and currently farm in rural Wellman. Since 2009, Holly has worked as Advising Director for the University of Iowa Honors Program.

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