By Juliana Tafur, Contributing Reporter

Monica, photo by Miguel Sento Sé.
Monica, photo by Miguel Sento Sé.

RIO DE JANEIRO – The year was 2005. The starting point was Pereira, Colombia and the final destination, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was the journey of a lifetime, of twelve hours of land travel from the country she loved into a vast unknown.

“It was like an exodus,” recalls the brave Colombian woman named Monica who risked it all to reach a safe and stable country four years ago.

In the first of a series of three interviews with international refugees living in Rio, Monica spoke to The Gringo Times about making a new life in Brazil.

She had never considered leaving her hometown of Pereira until an uncle was threatened by one of the country’s rebel groups. The demands were clear. “Give up your land or your entire family will face the consequences.” Terrified, and with little economic prospects in a country affected by a fifty-year civil war, Monica and some of her siblings decided to leave the country.

Each of them chose where to go on the basis of how far their savings could take them. Some could only make it to Ecuador or Venezuela, but Monica and her husband had enough to pay for a trip further south to Brazil. They weren’t alone, though. They had the added responsibility of their four-year-old daughter to think about.

“We crossed through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil,” she says. “The scenery was beautiful, but I was concerned about our food supplies. In fact, three hours away from La Paz, Bolivia, we ran out completely. We were traveling through a desolate section of the Pan American Highway, and there wasn’t a single convenience store where the bus could stop.”

When the family finally arrived in La Paz, Monica had a nervous breakdown.

“I thought I was going to die. I think the altitude in La Paz triggered it, because when we went down to Santa Cruz the trembling went away,” she says.

After many grueling hours, Monica and her family entered Brazil through Corumbá and made it all the way to Rio de Janeiro. Having neither friends nor relatives, they chose their new neighborhood over the internet.

“At the beginning it was a real shock to the system. We didn’t know a single word of Portuguese. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I felt like I was on another planet.”

But like in a giant puzzle, the pieces of their life in Rio de Janeiro started coming together. Brazilians they met donated household goods for their apartment and clothes for their daughter.

“The hardest for all three of us was the separation from our families… and we miss our Colombian food. But that part of our lives stayed there. Here we’ve gotten used to the taste of Brazilian steak and beans, and we have become Colombo-Brazilian.”

Now, Monica works as a massage therapist, her husband is studying to become a lawyer and their eight-year-old daughter is debating whether she wants to study medicine or dentistry when she grows up.

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