Programme Visit YMCA Colombia

Without knowing exactly what to expect, our new programme manager for Colombia left for her first project visit. In the travel report Isabelle tells us about her impressions and gives us insights into the activities of the young people in the programme.

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A trip report by Isabelle Aebersold

At the beginning of July, when got on the plane to Bogotá, I was still working in my previous job at the Swiss Red Cross in emergency and disaster relief. As a junior programme officer I was able to gain experience in humanitarian aid during two years in a training programme. During this time I worked in a refugee project in Greece and rebuilt houses in Ghana which had been destroyed after floods. But secretly my heart was beating especially for Latin America, where in the past I had always been heading; be it for an internship in Panama, my master thesis in the Bolivian Chaco or as a project assistant at Swisscontact in La Paz. The fact that after my junior program I found a direct connection with Horyzon as program manager for Colombia is a great opportunity for me and at the same time a lucky striker, since I will continue to be connected with Latin America.

Full of anticipation, shared with a good portion of nervousness, I travelled to Colombia at the beginning of July to get to know our Colombian partners and our program Paza la Paz. Paza la Paz is a Spanish word game and can be translated as "A Step to Peace". Peace promotion is therefore a main objective of the program, which is carried out with young people in 7 cities of Colombia: Armero-Guayabal, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Medellín, Pereira and Quindío. I would get to know 3 of these locations during the project trip, the other 4 I will hopefully visit next year. My predecessor, Bruno Essig, accompanied me on the trip to ensure a seamless handover of the project portfolio. Bruno has worked for Horyzon for the past 9 years as a program manager and has built up a wealth of experience and knowledge. My mission during our 2-week project trip was to collect as much of this knowledge as possible.

Bruno Montagsmaler

In Bogotá we first visited Ciudad Bolivar - one of the poorest and most dangerous districts of the city. The murder rate here, for example, is 7 times higher than in the centre of Bogotá. Until recently, the neighbourhood was very poorly developed for half a million inhabitants and it took several hours to travel by bus to the centre of the city, where there are job opportunities. The cable car, which has connected Ciudad Bolivar, situated at 3,100 metres above sea level, with the rest of the city since the end of 2018, has led to a significant upgrading of the quarter. Now even tourists dare to venture into the region, especially attracted by the colourful painting of the houses. But those who think that the houses are only painted in such colour for decoration purposes will find it hard to be mistaken: the colour coding indicates how dangerous it is in the vicinity of these houses: from green (harmless) to red (life-threatening) tourists and residents are shown which streets should be avoided.

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At the summit station of the cable car we meet Jonathan, a youth coordinator from Paza la Paz, with a group of young people who present their life realities to us through a theatre. These are anything but gratifying: due to poverty, the families lack the money to pay their children to study. In Colombia, the youth unemployment rate is on average 20%, in the slums this rate is even higher. Out of this feeling of hopelessness, many young people join criminal gangs. They promise fast money through illegal jobs in drug trafficking and other criminal activities and thus offer an opportunity to escape poverty. Violence is omnipresent, be it gang violence, sexual violence or domestic violence. This is the sad legacy of over 50 years of conflict that has left deep marks on Colombian society. Many of the young people suffer from depression or consume drugs, which is also a consequence of a lack of perspective and everyday violence.

The Paza la Paz programme offers young people from poor social classes an alternative way of life and strengthens their social skills through targeted training in the areas of peaceful coexistence, participation, organisation and entrepreneurship. In an 80-hour course, the young people are trained within one year to become active members of civil society. Quite a few of these young people later take on important roles in their social environment by standing up for the rights of the disadvantaged and defending themselves against everyday violence. In order to escape the lack of prospects, the programme offers courses where young people can strengthen their entrepreneurial skills. Courses include lessons in planning and management, finance, creative thinking, business plan development, and providing young people with access to start-up finance for their business ideas.

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Anyul founded their own company "Smile Galaxy" thanks to Paza la Paz and offers entertainment programs for children's birthday parties.

Because Colombia's public schools lack classrooms and teachers, the children and young people only go to school half-day. Half of the students therefore attend school in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. Paza la Paz offers various activities in the areas of sport, dance, art, etc. to prevent the young people from being on the street during the free half-day periods. These activities are a door opener so that the young people can participate in the Paza La Paz programme. We were allowed to visit several of these groups, but it became clear to me that these groups are about much more than just having some fun together. The groups offer the youth a place of security where they feel accepted and cared for and can forget their daily worries for a moment. Many of the young people find a stable and positive environment in these groups, and the psychologists and social workers of Paza la Paz also play an important educational and exemplary role. So called “problem children" are also specifically included in these youth groups with the aim of showing them alternative, healthy and legal prospects for the future. Quite a few young people were able to overcome their drug addiction in this way or left the criminal gang to which they belonged before.


Our next stop was in Cali, the capital of Salsas, where we were immediately involved in the organization of an upcoming event called "Arte Jóven", which means "young art". With Arte Jóven, the young people in Cali use art as a means of social and political participation. Since young people hardly have a say in Colombian politics and society and are regarded as a problem factor rather than a resource, one of Paza la Paz's main goals is to turn this stigmatization upside down. With socially and politically valuable actions, the young people of Paza la Paz create a place for themselves in society and bring their needs and desires into the public political discourse.

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Brainstorming about possible activities in the next "Arte Jóven" event.

In a past event, for example, in the poor quarter of Mojica, a large graffiti was painted in collaboration with the entire neighbourhood population. The wall where the graffiti was created is located on a road where there was a so-called invisible barrier, i.e. a territorial boundary between two enemy gangs. Those who cross such an invisible barrier risk their own lives, because it is not uncommon for shooting and assaults to take place in such places. The collective painting of graffiti transformed this place into a meeting and reconciliation zone. In addition, traditional children's games such as heaven and hell were painted on the streets and where violence used to prevail daily, children now play peacefully together on the streets.

In Siloé, another poor quarter in Cali, we met Jhoan, a former participant of Paza la Paz. Jhoan went through the training in entrepreneurship and realized his own business idea, a barber shop. Through Paza la Paz, Jhoan received a small start-up loan to buy the most important utensils such as a hairdresser's chair, mirror and shaver. In the meantime, Jhoan has a number of regular customers and is even considering expanding. In order to understand why this business is so important for Jhoan, I have to provide some background information about the Siloé quarter: Siloé is located on a steep hill and we had a good breather as we climbed the hill through the narrow alleys. During the 80's Siloé was controlled by the guerrilla group M - 19, today you can see graffiti on the walls, on which the emblem of the FARC can be seen. Territorial fights between hostile gangs are part of the daily routine in Siloé, as are shootings, assaults and drug trafficking. Not to get involved in this spiral of violence as a teenager requires a lot of courage, will and perseverance. That is why Jhoans Barberia is much more than just a small barber's salon, because it is a place of peaceful resistance against the dominance of violence and crime in the neighbourhood. It is also a beacon project that shows how young people in Siloé can earn their living legally and realize their own dreams.


Next we travelled to Pereira in the beautiful coffee triangle of Colombia. Also here we were allowed to visit different youth groups and take part in activities which playfully convey values like cohesion, consideration, tolerance, respect and reconciliation. These activities also promote various social skills in the areas of emotion management, decision making, leadership, communication and conflict resolution. In order to understand the importance of teaching these values and social competences, it is important to remember that these young people often come from broken family backgrounds. In almost every family there are victims of conflict and many of the young people have had to flee violence and leave their homes behind.


The annual working meeting of the programme managers from the 7 cities of Paza la Paz took place on a finca in the middle of coffee and banana plantations. The main objective of the workshop was to plan the new phase of the programme from 2021 to 2024, which will be more aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of Agenda 2030. In particular, the focus of the new programme phase will be on SDG 16, which stands for peaceful, just and inclusive societies. A lot of discussion took place, posters were drawn, handicrafts were done and new ideas and inspirations were gained. In the end, the framework for the new phase was in place: Through training in the areas of violence prevention, peacebuilding and conflict resolution, the young people of the project are prepared to actively work for peace in their context. Through political education and training in the areas of human rights and social participation, the young people are trained to become active participants in civil society. On the basis of independently defined social and political initiatives, the young people make themselves heard in their communities and work for more social justice and inclusion. In order to free themselves from their own economic marginalization, the young people receive support in setting up their own micro-enterprises. In this way they can take a first step towards financial independence or invest the money they earn in further education.

Various other activities took place within the workshop, such as further training on the topic of gender equality. The aim of the training was to determine to what extent the Paza la Paz programme can contribute to transforming unequal gender relations, strengthening women's rights, integrating the LGBT community and revising gender-typical stereotypes.

On the last evening of the annual workshop, Bruno was bid farewell as programme officer for Colombia with a touching ceremony. As a symbol of moving on, he was presented with an airplane, painted with a Swiss cross and Colombian flag, to which our partners attached colored ribbons with good wishes for his future. Carried by these good wishes, the plane was sent on its way. It was obvious that the farewell was not easy, because Bruno had created a lot of trust and esteem between Horyzon and our Colombian partners during his time as program manager for Colombia. As his successor, it is very important to me to maintain and deepen this valuable relationship. For me, a strong partnership relationship with mutual trust and appreciation is the foundation of a good program. This is one of the reasons why the success of Paza la Paz can be attributed in large part to the good relationship between Horyzon and our local partners.

Flugzeug mit Baendern