"We are displaced country people who have fallen victim to armed conflict"

 Foto: UOC

Foto: UOC

ngels Doate
Elsa Rengifo, victim of the FARC and student on the Bachelor's Degree in Psychology


Elsa Rengifo Ledesma was born in El Bordo, the administrative centre of Pata, a municipality of Cauca, Colombia. Historically, the region has been brutally ravaged by Colombia's internal conflict, which has lasted for over 50 years to date. Elsa's parents had 11 children, four of whom passed away at an early age due to a lack of proper vaccination and nourishment, a symptom of extreme poverty. These dark years were only to become darker, however: two of Elsa's siblings were later killed and her nephew will have to live with a bullet in his leg for life. Elsa first set foot in Aguilar de Campoo in Palencia, Spain, in the year 2000, after fleeing the armed conflict in Colombia. Leaving everything behind, she was able to begin anew alongside a few of her siblings, her parents and her husband, whom she wed in 2009. The couple later moved to Rub, Catalonia, where they live with Elsa's eighty-something-year-old parents. Although she currently looks after them full time, her dream is to become a psychologist. Today she is taking her first steps towards realizing that dream by kicking off her studies at the UOC.

"The toughest part of this journey was having to leave some of our family members, friends and customs behind. I miss Colombia's tropical climate, the countryside, the fruit and the cultural diversity that characterizes my country. My sister was the first to come to Spain, bringing her seven-year-old son with her. Then came my younger brother, followed by me and, two months later, my parents. A year went by and another of my brothers came with his family. His eldest son lost his left leg in a terrorist attack and is still receiving medical treatment in Santander. He's got a bullet lodged in his body. Then came my nephew, the son of my brother who was murdered by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla. He has since started a family here in Spain. The two eldest children of my eldest brother, who was also killed, fled to Spain as well. At one time there were 22 family members living here! Five of them returned to Colombia three years ago, but the rest of us are still here. A lot of us came to Spain, but a big part of the family remained there, including the widows of my late brothers. My parents have been married for 67 years and had 11 children. Four of them died at a young age as a result of malnutrition and poor vaccination. They lived in the mountains and had very, very little."



How did you come to be afflicted by the armed conflict?

We are victims of the armed conflict, displaced for being country dwellers. There was a time in Colombia when the outlawed groups removed people from their homes in the countryside in order to use their land to grow illegal crops or lay down drug trafficking routes. It was a get-out-or-die type of situation. That is how my brothers' lives were taken. We had to leave our property, along with everything there: our animals, our crops, our home. We are still waiting on the government to make reparations and give us new land. Our claim was filed back in 1999. That's how it went for my family; it had nothing to do with the economy or politics. We lost everything, we moved to the city and made the ultimate decision to flee Colombia in search of a better future in Spain.

Was there anything you found especially easy or hard about living here?

Speaking the same language was a help. The worst part was having to adjust to the freezing cold weather!

Do you combine work with your studies at the UOC?

When I arrived in Spain in 2000, I began working in the hotel business and took advantage of the little free time I had to take some technical training courses. I've not had a paying job since moving to Rub, though. I did register for the Spanish Public Employment Service, but they've never called me for anything. I've also been studying commercial management and marketing online through an institution based in Valladolid. I've only got two courses left before graduating. Otherwise, I am a full-time homemaker in a house of six, two of whom are my parents, who moved in with us a few years back. Their health is fragile so I look after them and take them on their frequent hospital visits. Thank God they are getting better though. I don't have any children. We have wanted and tried to get pregnant, but to no avail. I've undergone some treatments, which have been rough because you get your hopes up and let yourself dream and then, 13 days later when the results are in, you end up in tears. That's life; my mother had 11 children and I have not been able to have any. The satisfaction of seeing my parents and the rest of my family happy and dedicating my time to studying and dreaming about the glorious day when I can proudly say "I am a psychologist!" is what keeps me going.

For years, many Colombians like yourself emigrated because of the country's political and economic climate. What influence do you think this will have on the future of your country?

A positive one. Colombian emigrants have been afforded political asylum in countries around the world and they have been able to send money back to Colombia. These earnings, in foreign currencies, have helped to pull many families out of poverty.

How do you feel about what's going on in Colombia today from abroad? 

I have hope that signing the peace treaty will bring about prosperity in our country.

Do you think our society is aware of and understands the situation in Colombia? Do you feel Colombia has our society's support?

No. Due to our past, the vast majority of people continue to peg our country for one of violence and drug trafficking.

How would you describe education in Colombia?

In my opinion, the bar is set pretty low for primary and secondary schools, despite having passably qualified teachers. Access to higher education is restricted, as most institutions are privately owned. While there, I was able to complete some on-site technical and vocational training courses.

What made you decide to give online education a try?

For ease's sake, given my personal circumstances and the fact that I look after my parents, who are 88 and 85 years old. Beyond that, students at the UOC, like myself, are defined by our responsibility and commitment.

What has the UOC afforded you as a student and how do you think it will help your professional career?

Becoming a UOC student has given me the satisfaction of beginning to fulfil my desire to study psychology and understand human behaviour, which has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. In my professional life, the UOC will empower me to work with pride. I would ultimately like to specialize in clinical psychology.

When you are a psychologist, do you think you will be drawn to working with people that have gone through situations like yours?

Yes, it would surely be a unique experience, and even more so since I have lived through the conflict myself. Over the years, I have advised other Colombians on immigration matters, which is something I have become quite familiar with given our situation.

Do you see yourself returning to Colombia or is it not a dream of yours?

Returning for holiday, sure, but not to live. I'm happy in this beautiful country. I'm thankful for how lucky we have been in coming to Spain, somewhere we have always felt right at home. Given my roots in the countryside, I enjoy my vegetable and flower gardens, the eggs laid by my happy little hens, the Mediterranean sun and my tropical music.