Creating Safe, Healthy Spaces in Colombia
Home means something different to us all. For many, the term may invite feelings of warmth and memories of joy. But for others who have experienced instability and pain, home can be a symbol of hurt or loss. A reminder of what they never had.
Elsa, an Opportunity client in Colombia, shared, “When I was 9 years old, armed bandits arrived in my town. I was so afraid. Everyone had to leave immediately otherwise we would be killed.” But where would an entire town go?
“We ran with whatever we could carry in our hands. Every time I thought we were safe, the police would arrive and push us out. We made little houses out of plastic and wood, but they would cut them down and burn them. We would come back the next day and try again to build a place to stay.”
In Colombia, the decades-long civil war has displaced nearly 7.7 million people. And many families like Elsa’s that lost their homes are starting the long process of rediscovering and redefining home for themselves.
They are actively changing their stories—and Opportunity International is there to help. By providing access to loans and training to support and grow local businesses, and offering access to high-quality education for children, Opportunity is helping people like Elsa build sustainable livelihoods and create homes for themselves and their families.
“I started my own business to survive,” Elsa shared. “I had practically nothing, but I did have experience: I knew how to make fried food, so I decided to start a small business. Thanks to the support of kind people like you, I joined a Trust Group with Opportunity International, and we each received a small loan. We needed each other for support and encouragement…we belonged in community together.”
“Over time, I expanded my shop, repaid my loan, and took out an even bigger loan. I learned to save, and eventually, with this profit, I was able to build my very own home—a little concrete house for me and my children.”
Elsa’s experiences indicate a repeated realization: in the communities we serve, there are rarely singular problems. Instead, clients face a series of significant needs that compound upon one another.
Parents struggle to earn sustainable incomes, so they don't have enough money to send their children to school. Local infrastructure is lacking so farmers can’t get their products to market, forcing them to sell their goods at a reduced cost to whatever buyer they can find, lowering their revenue. Families that were already struggling to put food on the table also lack access to clean water and healthcare.
As it turns out, a home is much more than a building. It’s the central touchpoint for an entire life. A physical home is only half the picture; sustaining and developing the lives and dreams within one requires much more.
And that's why Opportunity introduced Opportunity Zones, which allow us to do what we do best: provide comprehensive services for the families we serve. In an Opportunity Zone like the one we are launching in Colombia, we bring together high-impact programs like Agriculture Finance, Education Finance, and microbusiness services to accelerate and scale Opportunity’s impact.
But while “home” is much more than a building, the building does matter. And for so many of our clients, their physical spaces are unsafe and unhealthy.
In Colombia, Opportunity client Rosa runs a small business selling beauty products and clothes from catalogs. She is a proud member of her local Trust Group, a supportive and collaborative group led by another local woman and business-owner, Denis.
The town these women live in, Barranquilla, was built on a landfill without drainage. So, when the heavy rains come, the water rises and causes significant, frequent damage to local houses.
In Colombia, like much of the world, water and sanitation present significant challenges: 1.4 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, 4.9 million people don’t have access to a toilet, and 14 million people don’t have access to adequate hygiene facilities.
The World Health Organization estimates that “poor water, sanitation, and hygiene is the main cause of 28 percent of child deaths worldwide.”
UNICEF adds, “Growing up in a clean and safe environment is every child’s right. Access to clean water, basic toilets, and good hygiene practices not only keeps children thriving, but also gives them a healthier start in life.”
In response to these important truths and the experiences of people like Rosa and Denis, Opportunity International introduced roof and floor loans. These loans empower Opportunity clients in Colombia to take additional loans specifically for home improvements. Clients meet with local university architecture students to plan out the construction—always prioritizing changes that will improve the health and safety of the home. Typical projects include kitchens, bathrooms, floors, roofs, and walls—structural improvements that make a house more stable and sanitary. Rosa and Denis used their first roof and floor loans to tackle their respective kitchens, but they have many more projects on the horizon!
For Rosa and Denis, the roof and floor loans mean more than just an improved home; the loans represent the growing success of their businesses and the connections they have created and nurtured within their Trust Group.
For too many others who are displaced in Colombia and around the world, home is still a long way off. Having a safe place to learn, work, grow, and play is still a dream that often feels impossibly out of reach. But Opportunity is committed to helping families create safe, healthy spaces to live; safe, healthy spaces where they can build their futures.
A home is always more than four walls and a roof. It is a reminder of the journey required to create it, the peace found within it, and the hope for those who reside there.