Laura Mendoza, Juan Miguel Cruz and their two children were doing well in Colombia, except for persistent threats due to Cruz’s peace work.
He was willing to die in Colombia for the cause of peace. “No one wants to leave their country,” he said, but his family’s safety was most important.
They began a journey from Colombia to Ecuador to Raleigh, N.C., guided by Mennonite connections that led them to a faith community that has embraced them and helped them to get married.
Through Mencoldes (Colombian Mennonite Foundation for Development), Cruz worked with Colombian churches that had been victims of armed conflict. Sometimes he helped arrange meetings for former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group seeking reconciliation with their communities. Mendoza worked with a Cali neighborhood community center.
The couple fell in love with the social and community work Mennonites were doing in Cali and decided to attend services at the Mennonite congregation there.
When Cruz received threats for his peace work, the couple tried to settle in another area in Colombia. This did not work, so they decided to flee to Ecuador with their children, Miguel and Lauren.
Colombia has had a longstanding conflict between the government and guerrilla groups. In 2016, the Colombian government and FARC signed a peace agreement. Unfortunately, peace has not come quickly. Many are still fleeing violence; 6.7 million people are internally displaced in Colombia, according to a recent United Nations Refugee Agency report. Mendoza and Cruz are only two of 94,900 people from Colombia who are refugees or asylum seekers.
When the couple left Colombia, members of the Mennonite church in Cali gave them contact information for the Mennonite church leaders in Quito, Ecuador. Iglesia Menonita de Quito welcomed them, as Cruz put it, “with open arms.”
The Mennonite church in Quito operates a refugee program, supported by Mennonite Central Committee. The congregation distributes food and supplies to refugees from Colombia, and many refugees decide to attend church services.
“In spite of not having much in terms of material wealth or creature comforts, [the Mennonite church in Quito] always served or ministered to us and sought out ways of supporting us and our well-being,” Cruz said. “They lifted us up with their support at a time of crisis.”
The couple were also able to help other fellow refugees.
They did not get involved with peace work in Ecuador because of their refugee status, but they did get an opportunity to work at a school in the rural town of Tena. Cruz taught social science, and Mendoza worked as a teaching assistant with the younger children. The couple found it meaningful to help the students.
After an episode in which someone fired shots at them, the couple knew they had to find another place of safety. With the support of the U.N. Refugee Agency, they and their children were able to leave the country.
They decided to go to Raleigh, N.C., at the recommendation of a musician friend. Mennonites helped, too. Peter Wigginton and Delicia Bravo, Ecuador Partnership Co-coordinators for Mennonite Mission Network, accompanied Mendoza and Cruz in many ways during their time in Ecuador. When the couple realized they would go to Raleigh, Wigginton referred the couple to Mauricio Chenlo, who also works for Mennonite Mission Network and attends Raleigh Mennonite Church.
Mendoza and Cruz came to Raleigh in March and began to worship at Raleigh Mennonite Church. The congregation, which is committed to peacemaking and reconciliation, helped the couple and their two children find a place to live and navigate life in the United States.
Going to Raleigh Mennonite “has been the best decision that we have made in coming to the USA,” Cruz said. “RMC is a beautiful community that opened its doors to us.”
The couple are settling in and looking for jobs. Although they have papers to work legally, their employment options are limited to construction and cleaning work because they are still learning English. Unfortunately, their academic studies in Colombia carry little weight in the U.S.
Even with all the hardships, Mendoza and Cruz now have something to celebrate in Raleigh. They finally accomplished a goal they had for a long time: to be legally married.
The couple had plans to be married in Colombia, but they needed to leave. In Ecuador, getting married as refugees required a lot of paperwork. In Raleigh, they wanted to get married as soon as possible and hoped to have a civil wedding ceremony in a park with five of their friends.
“Do you want a real wedding?” asked Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church. “We can make that happen.”
In only 10 days, members of the congregation cooked food, cut flowers from their yards and decorated the church building. Florer-Bixler delivered a homily and a blessing. About 40 people attended and celebrated with the couple and their children.