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Colombian woman devotes life to helping sexually exploited children heal

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UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award Laureate 2020 hugs a young survivor of sexual exploitation. © UNHCR/Nicolo Filippo Rosso

For decades, Mayerlín Vergara Pérez has strived to help hundreds of young survivors of sexual violence, many of them refugees, rebuild their lives.

By Jenny Barchfield

Mayerlín Vergara Pérez sleeps with her phone on the pillow.

As the director of a home for dozens of children and teens who have survived sexual violence and exploitation in Riohacha, on Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela, she never knows when she might get called in to resolve a crisis.

Rescued from the street corners, brothels and bars where they are forced into sexual exploitation – sometimes by human trafficking networks – or removed from families distorted by abuse, the children under Mayerlín’s care have gone through almost unimaginable trauma. Their recovery process is a long and tumultuous one.

“Sexual violence has all but destroyed their ability to dream. It’s stolen their smiles and filled them with pain, anguish and anxiety,” said Mayerlín, a vibrant 45-year-old who goes by the nickname Maye. “The pain is so profound, and the emotional void they feel is so deep that they simply don’t want to live.”

For the past 21 years, Maye has made it her life’s mission to help children work through that pain and free themselves from the yoke of sexual violence.

Throughout a career that she regards as a calling, Maye has assisted hundreds of the roughly 22,000 children and teens that the organization she works for, a Colombian NGO called Fundación Renacer, has served since its founding 32 years ago.

A devout Christian, Maye has answered countless middle-of-the night calls, listened to thousands of tales of abject misery, defused myriad crises, and taken on dozens of high-risk reconnaissance missions in hotspots of sexual exploitation and prostitution. She has given of herself tirelessly, skipping holidays and other important milestones with her family and even renouncing the certainty of a full night’s sleep for years on end.

Recently, she volunteered to spearhead the opening of a new residential home in La Guajira, a north-eastern border region of Colombia which has seen a spike in child sexual exploitation among refugees and migrants fleeing the ongoing political and economic crisis in neighbouring Venezuela. Over the course of its first year, this new home provided a safe, therapeutic space to 75 children and teens – some as young as age seven.

In recognition of her work on behalf of that highly vulnerable population, Maye has been named the laureate of the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award, a prestigious annual prize that honours those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support forcibly displaced and stateless people.

“She’s their north star,” said Tashana Ntuli, an Associate Protection Officer for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Riohacha. “Maye defends those children and their rights, tooth and nail.”

Maye fell into her work with child sexual violence survivors almost by accident after answering a classified ad for the position of “night educator” at a residential home in Barranquilla run by Fundación Renacer, which translates as “Foundation Rebirth” – a nonprofit founded in Bogotá in 1988 by psychologist Luz Stella Cárdenas. On paper, the then-23-year-old Maye was not qualified for the position. The youngest of four children of a farming family from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, she had finished high school with a teacher’s certificate but had not yet gone to college.

Still, the interview went well, and Maye was told to report the following evening for her first overnight shift supervising dozens of children and teens living in the organization’s Barranquilla home. She did not realize it at the time, but she had been hired to replace a much-beloved staff member, and the children were none too pleased with the change.

“One of them told me, ‘you won’t be able to handle this,’ and another one said, ‘I’m never going to speak to you,’ or something like that – basically, harsh reactions aimed at making me run out and never come back,” Maye said. But the kids’ icy reception had the opposite effect. “Seeing beyond the aggressivity to the pain in their expressions, seeing their souls, all that hurt, I think that was what made me connect with them and want to be a part of their rehabilitation process.”

Maye spent the next seven years – essentially all of her twenties – working the overnight shift at the home. She quickly became a fixture of Fundación Renacer, one of the organization’s most sought-after staff members, someone whose empathy, patience and gift for listening have allowed her to forge unique bonds with the children and teens.

“I saw her as an adoptive mother ... because she was always there when you needed her,” said Jessica,* a 30-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two who lived from age 13 to 16 in the Barranquilla home after her estranged mother forced her into sexual exploitation. “She really listened to us, and the way she treated us was very special.”

Fundación Renacer’s home in Riohacha was born in the wake of a two-month-long reconnaissance mission to the border region with Venezuela in 2018 during which the team identified hundreds of children who were being sexually exploited. At least half were refugees and migrants from Venezuela – some of whom had made the journey to Colombia with their families, others alone, and still others who had been trafficked by criminal networks.

“It was an absolutely agonizing situation,” Maye recalled. “Many of the girls told us that their circumstances, having to live on the streets in extreme poverty, had forced them into sexual exploitation.”

The only solution, the team concluded, was to open a new home in the region.

“I remember my boss saying that opening a home required ‘a 200 per cent effort. It’s draining in every sense – physically, emotionally and economically,’” Maye recalled. “Then she asked, ‘who wants to lead the project?’ and I raised my hand.”

Some five million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, fleeing food and medicine shortages, galloping inflation and widespread insecurity. An estimated 1.8 million of them have sought protection in neighbouring Colombia.

Currently, around 40 children live in the sprawling, two-story home, which includes four dormitory-style bedrooms and is built around an interior courtyard with two towering mango trees. Some 80 per cent of those in the home are girls, many of them indigenous Wayúu and Yukpa, whose communities straddle the Colombo-Venezuelan border.

A rigorous daily schedule packed with individual therapy, group sessions and educational activities provides the children order and structure while also giving them the space and time they need to process their trauma. A team of more than a dozen professionals, including teachers, a psychologist, a social worker, a nutritionist and a lawyer, are on hand to help them rebuild their lives, a process that generally takes about a year and a half. Once they are able, the children resume their studies, and over the years many have gone on to lead fruitful careers.

“We have so many success stories,” said Maye, beaming. “We have chefs, designers, nurses, doctors, and accountants.”

José de los Santos, a Welfare Officer for the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare in La Guajira who places children from sexually abusive homes with the Fundación Renacer, said they emerge transformed.

“When they come out, they’re not the same kids as when they entered,” he said. “They leave with a new purpose to their lives, full of ambition and hope and love. It’s a real change.”

The Nansen Refugee Award Prize will be presented by the UN Refugee Agency in a virtual ceremony on 5 October.

“For me, the prize represents an opportunity for the girls and boys,” said Maye, adding she hoped it would show that “it is possible for survivors of sexual violence to change their lives and undertake life projects that are positive for them, for their families and for society. It is possible.”

“I feel very honoured to have played a part in their lives,” she said. “They are the real heroes of their own stories. They teach us so much and inspire us to continue doing this work.”

The Nansen Refugee Award is named in honour of Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees and Nobel Prize winner, who was appointed by the League of Nations in 1921. It aims to showcase his values of perseverance and commitment in the face of adversity.

The prize will be presented in an online ceremony on 5 October.

*Name has been changed for protection reasons.