Surviving displacement from their homes and drug-smugglers’ violence, residents of a Colombian town are thankful for a family that flew 3,700 miles to help bring them joy.
Sequim’s Tom and Jacque Schaafsma and their daughter Leanne recently traveled to Cartagena, on the northern coast of Colombia, to visit their son Torin. They helped Torin and the townspeople build a playground for local families in Mampuján, a two-hour drive south of Cartagena.
Torin, a 25-year old Sequim High School graduate, lives in Mampuján as one of nine representatives in Colombia of the Mennonite Central Committee, a worldwide Christian peace and reconciliation group.
He works on peace and reconciliation projects depending on a community’s needs.
One recent project was construction of a playground structure, or “parque” as the locals call it.
Building from the ground up The Schaafsma family arrived on New Year’s Eve.
“We didn’t just want to be tourists,” Jacque said.
Before leaving, Tom put together some basic playground plans from an image on the Internet and coordinated with Sequim Sunrise Rotary Club for donations to cover the cost of materials and to convert a tree to lumber.
Raul, Torin’s roommate, donated the tree from his former home.
Tom sent the schematics to Torin with hopes that the available materials would work. “It managed to be enough,” Tom said.
“Not one more stick than I ordered.”
Sweaty setbacks Working in nearly triple-digit temperatures and high humidity, the Schaafsmas and town volunteers worked four days straight to finish.
The project was laborious because only one hammer was available and Tom’s two drills needed constant recharging. Only one extra battery was available after another broke and a replacement couldn’t be bought.
“In smaller communities, there are no resources for something like (a playground),” Tom said. “When we buy something here, it’s for convenience. That’s something that doesn’t happen (in Mampuján).”
Many usual playground items were not available, such as chain links for the swing set, so Tom said they improvised. The finished playground has: • Three swings • Monkey bars • A cargo net • Tire swing • Fire pole • Tetherball pole
The minor setbacks didn’t stop construction.
“Kids started gathering around and getting excited,” Tom said.
“Their eyes lit up looking at the pictures of the playground.”
Building community fun When Torin got to Colombia, he wasn’t quite sure what his role would be, Jacque said.
His parents said it took some time for people to warm to him and, since they speak a different dialect of Spanish, it was an adjustment for him. Torin now teaches English to teens and works on projects with the local pastor, such as the playground.
“Torin wanted to teach younger people about the sense of community — to come together,” Jacque said.
When the Schaafsmas still were in Colombia, the playground became such an attraction that people brought out extension cords and light bulbs to celebrate at night.
“You could hear chatter and laughter blocks away,” Jacque said.
“They take ownership in it,” Tom said.
Before leaving after their two-week stay, the Schaafsmas left money that will be used for park lighting and benches.
After coming home, the Schaafsmas were told that adult men were using the playground and rules were made to maintain order. The pastor takes down the swings and tetherball at night to prevent theft.
People of Mampuján Mampuján residents, mostly poor Afro-Colombian farmers, were relocated 10 years ago and moved six kilometers away to create the new Mampuján.
They were displaced from their homes for several reasons, Tom said. The local paramilitary supposedly needed their land for palm oil production and wanted to protect the residents from drug cartels in the jungle. It is rumored that these officials work in conjunction with the cartel, Jacque said.
Stolen livestock from the farmers was another reason given for the relocation.
Violence led to homes being ravaged and most people could not afford repairs so they scrapped the doors, windows and roofs from their houses in the older Mampuján and used them to rebuild in the new Mampuján.
Torin interviews and helps families interested in returning to old Mampuján as the Colombian government now has plans to subsidize relocation and rebuilding costs.
Despite corruption of some military and local officials, the Schaafsmas say their son feels safe. “The new president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, has done massive work to make it safer,” Tom said. “A lot more military checkpoints have made Colombia dramatically safer.”
Torin plans to return to the U.S. in December to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in grief counseling and peace and reconciliation.