DukeEngage Medellín
La Violencia is Not the Whole Story

Comfama: Like all the non-profits in the US combined

At times it is very difficult to explain to a US audience what is Comfama, the private, non-profit company we are working with. Comfama's role in the city is massive. Founded by the joint efforts of labor unions and other companies, it provides social, health, recreational, educational services, and more. After weeks of tours of its facilities, headquarters, day care centers, Parques Bibliotecas and its subway system, here are some of the impressions we received, including what we thought about the Jardin Social in the heart of Comuna 13.

"What I remember most about the CONFAMA projects is their inclusivity, providing services for the young and old, men and women, the physically able and the physically handicapped, the mentally fit and mentally handicapped, and those who live in the neighborhood and those who do not. They do not discriminate against socioeconomic status, and for them, the inability to pay for a service should not deny the availability of it. As Gloria had mentioned today, Confama’s system of compensation provides for those who cannot provide for themselves. Like health care in European nations, for example, the healthy subsidize the sick, a concept mostly alien to the United States. Unlike the stigma attached to the welfare system in the US, in Medellin, Confama aids members of the community who are not “too lazy to work” or unable to “pull themselves up from the ground” but often times, those that work too hard, and those, through no fault of their own, need a helping hand. These include children, single mothers, displaced families, victims of violence, widows, and more. 45% of the population earns incomes below the poverty level, no more than $500 a month.

It seems appropriate that this system of the “caja de compensacion” that Colombians use reflects their generous and warm culture. Colombians take care of each other, a concept of solididarity that appears foreign to the United States.

For single mothers, especially, Confama’s services can make the world of difference. Vocational training, such as sewing workshops, teaches single mothers skills that they can use to work to earn extra income. Free and low cost day cares, too, allow single mothers to work during the day while they otherwise would have had no choice but to stay at home and care for their children.
A US audience should know that Medellin or Colombia is not just synonymous with cocaine, FARC, Pablo Escobar, and violence, but that the people of Medellin are actively trying to erase the infamy of the past and replace it with a brighter future. There is a strong effort to educate the population and revitalize the city with culture and art. Loans for education, small businesses, and housing give the community social and economic opportunities once too far out of reach.

I was especially impressed by the daycare in the heart of Comuna 13 because it was the first time in a long time I had seen so many young children in one place, their innocence radiating through the dark, violent conditions which may have surrounded them. It was then that I was reminded that children not just cute little people but fundamentally different from us. The opposite of old is not young, but new, for they see the world through fresh, unadulterated eyes, before they learn the ideas of society that we take for granted every day. Despite warring families, the threat of stray bullets, and whatever socioeconomic condition hand they have been dealt, they explore new spaces without fear of getting hurt, cry without hiding their tears, and greet and smile at complete strangers. It is through them that we learn that the world we live in is at times more artificial than real."

"The COMFAMA project that made the most prominent impression on me was the Vivienda Saludable Pajarito. Although all of the other services COMFAMA provides are impressive and make a huge difference in the lives of the people they touch, the people we met in these apartments were receiving something particularly special from COMFAMA- a home that they otherwise might not be able to provide for their families.

Additionally, the people that we met with in Pajarito showed an enthusiasm for our visit that was unrivaled by that at any of the facilities we saw. Some of the people were guards who had stayed hours after their work had ended to meet with us, others opened their homes up so we were able to see what COMFAMA has done for them. Their curiosity about what we thought about Medellín and what we had heard before we came revealed how excited they are about our work and the potential it has for changing the future image of Colombia and Medellín.

When I imagine where these families would be living if COMFAMA had not built these apartment buildings, the difference is incredible. It was also encouraging to hear about the programs for children that have come out of the new community in the apartments- the day care, the cultural events, etc., because these are other elements that would not exist without the apartment buildings."

"From the first few minutes of our visit, the Jardin Social looks like any other day care. There are children running around on the playground giggling, playing games, doing creative art projects, taking naps, and eating snacks. However, after hearing about the routine for hiding under a table in case of gunfire, it is inevitable to feel the large weight that rests on the shoulders of these caregivers.

I was struck by the contrast of the tranquility that pervaded the area inside the Jardin Social and the violence that existed in the threat of the words of the tour guide. I also began thinking about how the day care began: with various mothers in the neighborhood taking in children for the day, some of whom could have been the children of their husband’s political enemies. I will never understand how these women felt, but I do understand that they did something wonderful for the other mothers in the community and for the children by creating a safe haven in a day care.
The potential this daycare has amazed me. If it is maintained well, it could change the political divisions in the neighborhood. If two children of opposing sides in the neighborhood remain friends, when they are old enough to understand the gang violence, will they choose sides against their schoolmates? Or will they choose to be friendly and break the cycle of violence that has plagued Comuna 13?
I’m not sure if that potential for peace really exists. I also know that having those children together in one place could create an even more charged atmosphere for violence. However, it seems that COMFAMA is opening doors for that community in the future with the Jardin Social that have remained closed for many years."

"I think what got me the most was the attitudes of both the COMFAMA people and the residents of El Pajarito. Both were so welcoming and excited to have us over, and there seemed to be this atmosphere of hope, peace and future opportunity. The residents were so glad to have us come see their homes and it’s really very humbling to see how hard they work to furnish their houses and finish the floors and walls.

I think that it’s important for Americans to see how far Medellín has come with very visual images like El Pajarito and the daycare center of Comuna Trece. In general, when people have an image of somewhere planted in their heads, it’s so hard to get them to think something different. But in the past week, we’ve seen so many astounding achievements and so much investment in future opportunities that the image of Medellín that is in most people’s heads really does not exist anymore. The violence and past history is necessary. It’s important to recall that image. But the most significant aspect of Medellín is no longer violence. It is transformation for a better future."

"COMFAMA’s well-financed, structured childcare facilities have been the most impressive part of our touring over the last week. As I mentioned last week, I think that one of the most important tasks in reestablishing ties between the state and the community and cutting off future violence at the source is to cater extensively to children in impoverished areas. Not only are COMFAMA’s daycares staffed with qualified professionals, each one contains a computer lab and playground equipment. Some of the facilities (Arranjuez, Itagui) even have swimming pools and full gymnasiums. Personally, I have been very surprised and impressed by the attention and care given to such a small but important population demographic. Just as importantly, COMFAMA has done an excellent job in making their facilities accessible to the community, not only by hosting plenty of cultural programming but by heavily subsidizing the costs of education. As we learned at the Sede in Caldas, 45% of Colombians live beneath the poverty line; a family of four, receiving funds from SISBÉN has only $25 a month to spend on education. COMFAMA has made it a central priority to ensure that these families in the poorest neighborhoods have access to educational resources. Finally, I love the integration between the daycare facilities and the libraries: fostering an early love of knowledge and literacy is crucial to all later aspects of education."

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Funded by generous grants from Duke University and donations from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DukeEngage has made it possible for us, a group of six Duke students, to embark on a 7-week civic engagement project, The Historical Memory/Community Literacy Project, in Medellin, Colombia. Our team also includes 57 students from Emerson College in Boston who created a multi-media catalog & a short film "108 things you might not know about medellín".

In collaboration with our directors, Dr. Tamera Marko of Emerson College and Jota Samper of MIT, we are producing 7 short documentaries about various communities in Medellin. We want you know to know that in Medellin, a city in the process of peace, la violencia is not the whole story.

Emerson College Medellin
DukeEngage Colombia 08
Parques Bibliotecas
Universidad Nacional de Colombia
Carlos E. Restrepo
Pajarito Vivienda


Tamera Marko, Ph.D.

Jota Samper