One dark and unforgettable night, a young Colombian boy and his mother threw their belongings into a suitcase and fled, leaving behind their home and family - forever.
“I remember us rushing around, mum was really afraid, crying; not knowing what was going to happen next.”
Daniel Gamboa Salazar was only 12 when he and his mother Carmenza were forced to leave their homeland. They left after rebels threated to kill Daniel when his mother refused to hide their weapons in her restaurant.
A decade later and a world away from the Colombian conflict, 22-year-old Daniel is now a full-time student completing his final year at Victoria University of Wellington, majoring in political science, development studies and international relations.
This former refugee is a humanitarian, a student leader and a founder and current President of the recently established New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council. In 2015 Daniel’s work for the council saw him named in Parliament as an emerging leader.
He’s also passionate about theatre as a tool for youth with refugee backgrounds to tell their stories. Daniel joined theatre company Barbarian Productions as an actor to create a devised theatre work called “Kiwi” What does it mean to be a New Zealander? The Barbarian Company were on hand to cheer him as he recently accepted a scholarship from Rotary North to fund his final year at university.
To say Daniel has achieved a lot might be an understatement. And he’s done it all despite a tough start to life.
Spared from becoming a child soldier
Daniel was only six when his father left his mother but he says the separation was a relief for all of them.
“He would hit her, hurt her. I remember her crying. I remember I was 5, running out into the street asking for help, thinking he might kill her.
“Years went by. My mother worked very hard selling street food. My Abuela (grandmother) would look after me while mum worked.”
By the time he was 10, Daniel’s mother Carmenza had saved enough to open a little restaurant called La Barra (the table of plenty). The restaurant was a success and Daniel enjoyed growing up under a loving matriarchy of hard working mother, grandmother and aunties.
But the Colombia of Daniel’s’ childhood could be a violent and dangerous place. Since the mid-1960s, the Colombian Conflict had been fought out between government forces and armed paramilitary groups and few in the country escaped its long shadow.
“I remember this group of people, the rebels, coming into the school,” says Daniel.
“They would line [students] up, girls one side, and boys the other, oldest boys to recruit. I was just 8-years-old, so I was too young, I was really lucky not to be taken.
“The children would suffer. We would hear that they would take the girls to be sexually assaulted, to become sex slaves. [Boys] would be brain washed. They would come back as rebels; they wouldn’t care about their parents anymore. They would come with guns and force everyone.”
One of those being forced to do the rebel’s bidding was Daniel’s mother Carmenza.
“I remember the rebels asking businesses for protection money. She would pay weekly. “
Eventually the rebels put pressure on Carmenza to store their weapons in her restaurant. She refused.
“They said “We are not asking you. We know where your son is; we will take him or kill him.”
Daniel and Carmenza left that night for Ecuador, leaving his beloved Abuela behind.
“I was only a child, I didn’t understand. I remember being angry with my mum, asking her why she was taking me away from my friends and family. She couldn’t say anything.”
The pair lived in Ecuador for six years and were eventually given UNHCR refugee status.
“Of course we didn’t have any passports. Colombia has [one of] the highest number of internally displaced peoples in the world. The worst thing is that they are not acknowledged as refugees. The Colombian government would never mention internally displaced people or the word refugees or the people who have escaped outside the country. To them we are nothing.”
According to a study by Colombia's National Centre for Historical Memory, 220,000 people have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians. More than five million civilians were forced from their homes, generating the world's second largest population of internally displaced persons. A peace deal signed in 2016 brought the conflict to an end - too late for Daniel and his mother.
In 2012 they were accepted for settlement in New Zealand and now live in Lower Hutt. After a decade apart, the family will finally be complete once more when their beloved Abuela moves to New Zealand later this year.
Despite neither of them speaking a word of English when they arrived, the Salazar family have found a home in their new country. Carmenza has developed a passion for gardening and in addition to his studies and advocacy work, Daniel is also one of the faces of the Action Station #Beyond Labels campaign. For him it’s about asking when you stop being a “refugee” and become accepted as a New Zealander.
“Who is “our own people”? Are we always going to be outsiders? We want to start a conversation – get to know me, get to know the person behind the label. “Refugee” is more than a label.”