About Refugees, By Refugees
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“My dream is to graduate from college as a computer scientist and continue with my beer company,” says Aldair Zambrano (25), an asylum seeker from Colombia. Being politically active in his home country, he says he received threats from a guerrilla group linked to the army and police, causing him fear and anxiety. “The danger was always there, that something would happen to me, that something would happen to my family.” After a physical assault, he left for France. He felt lost when he first arrived. “I didn’t know what life was going to be like, I didn’t know… What I was going to do,” he says. “I think that I don’t have all the strength yet. I think there are days when I feel sad.” But Aldair followed his interests and became a self-taught brewer, taking after his family whose breweries in Colombia support farmers and artisans. He too hopes he can help others by providing “support, a first opportunity… What many people need to be able to go out and explore and make a new life.”
Trigger Warning: police brutality, political persecution, violence
Good morning Aldair.
Can you introduce yourself?
Yeah, my name is Aldair, Zambrano or Cerrato. I am Colombian, born in Colombia, and currently a seeker of asylum in France.
And what… where do you live in France? Do you live in an apartment, in a house?
Well, I’m currently… I live in a big house and come from moving in because at first, I lived in a small apartment that was a little expensive for my income… I have met some Colombian people who have given me the opportunity to live a little cheaper in a big house, really with a very good garden, a very nice house and with good people.
Ok, so are you are happy with your living condition?
Yes, currently yes.
And you live with Colombians then?
And how do you feel in that atmosphere, with Colombians?
It’s a bit like being in a small Colombia. We have our cultures that are shared amongst everyone. There is not a big difference, for example, in food or things in the language, but it is also something that, like… That you need to learn, like, to mix with other cultures. It’s also like… Wow! We can say it’s a pity, in this case, but it’s a nice experience.
And what do you do on a daily basis ?
Well, usually… This week I’m on vacation, but I usually work in the mornings… After my work, I start at 8, finish by one in the afternoon, from there I have classes at Sorbonne University for the… For the “reprise” of my studies to “reprender”? How do you say that?
Well, for… For that my studies in France, and I usually finish 8 at night. Some days are online, other days in person, it is unknown because of the situation. So every week it changes and then I get to my house. There are jobs to do with the beer. I always have some little things to do during the day. So if I have any time, I finish them or there are days when I have to deliver beers to my customers and… And that’s it.
And you just told me a little bit about the beer you make…
Well, beer is a project that… That wasn’t really my idea. It was started by my older brother in Colombia, alongside a close family friend, and they started brewing beer one day and had the idea of making beer at home and after that came, well, a great project. They started the first brewery in Medellin, Colombia, and… When I lived in the United States I returned to Colombia. So at that time, I learned how to make beer. I only looked at it once in my life, how the whole process was done, it was only one day and after that, I came to France because my girlfriend lived here.
When I arrived, I always wanted to make beer, because I found it very interesting. I lived in the city of Le Havre, Normandy, but we lived with a French roommate that didn’t quite agree with the idea, so I postponed it for a bit until I got my own apartment in Paris and at the beginning of the first quarantine… There wasn’t much to do, so I decided to buy some tools to make beer and started making my first beer without any experience, just one day in a brewery seeing how it was made. That was it. Then I bought a small book to get a more general idea, and that’s where it all started. That’s where it all started. I made my first beer, came out… My first beer was for a craft brewer competition in Paris. It was very interesting because it was a contest, about 200 brewers or 180 and I finished in the middle, a place in the middle. For my first beer, I felt very happy and, well, we have to continue. Then every day, as I was doing, doing or trying, buying equipment, buying, every time I had a little of my leftover salary, I used it to buy something for the beer. And that’s how I’ve been doing it, always… Every time I have an extra euro I use it to buy something, to improve my product, the beer, to do better… and well, that’s how it was born. I started brewing beer alone in my house and… The truth is, well… The people I have given it to try have always had a… Good image, a good comment about it.
So, since my family already had a brewery in Colombia, I decided to start that same brewery, but in France. Because I would like to do something, like leaving a family heritage, like my family has a passion for something, that it is a family business, that through my children or grandchildren, if they are passionate about it, of course, can continue with it.
It’s like… Yes, a heritage. Well, that’s like a little… Story of why beer and how it came. But it has also come as very interesting flavors. In… The name of my beer is “La Patria”, which means the land where we come from. In English “the fatherland”, in French “la patrie”, which… Which is where you’re born, or maybe not where you are born, but where you go and feel like it’s your home. So what I want maybe with this name is that people who try it can feel or can… Bring you a memory of your origin, your family, your country, your city, or where they were born. That’s really my beer. That’s what I want to give.
It’s interesting… This beer, it represents much more than just a simple beer.
No, yes… It’s not just a beer, it’s… It is an identity that we can give people, that those people can identify with a beer. Maybe for Colombians, that we can identify with a coffee beer, which is what I do right now, and that people can say “Wow, tastes like the countryside, tastes like the coffee my grandfather made on his, on his land, in his home.” It’s something like that that I want to show and that those beers… Being faithful people [to the brand], who feel represented, but also with that beer, not always in a commercial way, but also about helping other people, of, of contributing something to our society, of changing, of doing our bit, which is also what my brother is doing in Colombia.
For example, there are currently two breweries in Colombia and one of them focuses heavily on the social side of helping the peasant, of promoting the products of the region where they are because they are in a region of central Colombia, which is the only desert in Colombia. It is one of the few deserts in Latin America. So, in that region, there is a lot of poverty and there are many artisans who do a lot of things, but they don’t know how to… How to go out and sell their products. So, what my brother did is… A showcase, it’s like advertising in his place, in his brewery, where a lot of tourists come because it is a very touristic area and there the farmers, the artisans can sell their products without any cost, like at the price they really want to sell it at. They will sell it without [the brewery] earning any commission but simply giving them the space and the opportunity to those people who do not have the opportunity like others. So it’s also the idea in Paris… To try to help each other, perhaps among entrepreneurs, to promote our products. Also one of my ideas with the beer, with La Patria, is to help exiles, refugees, and foreigners who when they arrive in a foreign country are looking for perhaps a better opportunity or have gone out of war, to, to, to find, perhaps support, a first opportunity, which is what many people need to be able to go out and explore and make a new life. That is perhaps what we want to do in the future.
This interests you because of the social issue… because it’s being social. Do you… Are these things you already had in Colombia?
Yes, clearly. I never felt that way, I never felt that way until I went to college. It’s a story that began when I started studying economics. I graduated from the uni-, from high school and also graduated as a technical technologist in systems, in computer science. My passion has always been computer science, but at one point there was something that told me “No, you have to study economics,” but why economics? I’ve always liked business, business, I’ve always thought about… Being a businessman, being independent, having my own company, not working for someone else. At a certain age, when I studied, I started studying business, I got into my first semester in college. At that time… Like, to motivate students, there were like chairs, lectures with big politicians or businessmen and so on. In one of those conferences, a well-known, at that time, Colombian politician named Jorge Robledo, well, currently still senator, inspired us a lot because of his life story. He was born in the same city where I was born. Well, I wasn’t born in that one, I registered in that city. I, I was born in a city, in a small town called Planadas Tolima, in that town, for those of us who know the history, or the people who know about history, is where it was born, where it is said that the FARC guerrillas were born, that same guerrillas with which peace was signed in 2016, at the end of 2016, but I was registered there.
Well, then that character motivated me a lot, for, to go to the social side of helping people, but also at that time there was a huge movement for a min… For a mining company that was exploiting one of our water sources in Ibague, it is the largest water source that supplies the capital of that department and many other cities, which affected the field, which affected our entire river, our affluent. So, a prote- a very peaceful protest, super interesting and that we as first semester students should also contribute something, not just those who were at the end of their career or, or whatever, but we also wanted to contribute like something to… Stop, to help stop that mining that was, that was like this, that was doing us so much harm.
So with a small group, with a friend, at that time he had his business company in Huila and Felipe, I forget the name, but he is councilman of a town also there where he was born, we created a small group to, to make banners, to go and invite people to go out to the, through the city of Ibague and… And well, that was my first contribution, where I felt really good… We went, it’s a great march, “Carnival” it is called, “The Great Carnival March” against mining, was the first and that brought me like all these things. Um, from there, well, there were a lot of marches for many years until we finally won. We won the battle against that mining, I was no longer unfortunately in college or in the country, but… I was happy that, that we were one of the first marches to go out, to do so and that later that continued as a tradition every year to protest against that mining company.
Um… And well… There it comes. I think that was my start. That was my start to come in this social part. Then I signed up for a political party called the Democratic Pole. I attended some meetings as a young student, some chairs at the university, small meetings there and then did a diploma in… Environment, Environmental Advocate, diploma, small schools, but it was something interesting.
That’s when life took me to the United States, I wanted to learn English. In my fifth semester and fourth semester of Economics, I decided to stop, to think a little about what I wanted with my life and all that… I’ve always wanted to learn another language, so that took me to the United States, where I learned a language. I spent a season there, and where I met a very interesting girl, which is thanks to her, that I am here, that I think has awakened my passion for the whole social part.
She is, she is a girl who worked as a secretary of senators, she was always on the political side, had a very hard childhood and who came to study to Science Po in Paris, bon [unintelligible] And she has always been, a lot, to help people, to do something, to work on the social side. And I think it was also her who, who brought me to all this part and woke up what I had inside, but that had never been awaken… It’s like a beast, we can say, but in a good way, and that… That’s where everything came. I think it was with her that everything came after I arrived in France. Well, a little earlier, like in the United States, what I did, then she went to Colombia to work in an NGO, where we worked together on some projects to contribute a little more, well, on what she wanted. This is how this interest in the social part began.
So you returned to Colombia from the United States?
Yes, I came back in 2017, at the end of 2017 to Colombia, I spent a while there and did some things like… I wanted to go back to my old life, wanted to go back to my studies, to go back to the political party that I had been part of for a while and we had done some things. I wanted to like… To continue my life, because I had paused it for a while. So that’s where we started, at that time there was the political races for the presidency of 2018, the 2018 elections, and… And I started working. There I met some people, some… Well, the director of the Democratic Pole in the department of Huila, some students from the Universidad Colombiana who were also studying Law, Economics… And well, we went out to… to put it like that, to promote our candidate and… From there I came back, my brother, because he had the brewery, I helped him a little, but with other things, like the part of business, sales and stuff like that. And that’s when I came back. Also in that same season, in the summer of 2018, my girlfriend went to Colombia to do a “stage” (internship), a… How do you say “stage”?
Hahaha, it’s okay, I think that-.
Oh, well, in Colombia, with an NGO called Casa de “Casa Memoria de la Mujer” and we started some very interesting projects because it was an association that worked for the defense of women’s rights, which worked, to help women who had been violated by the war, by guerrillas, or have been women raped, so to speak, in their rights, especially indigenous women.
So it’s a… A, a very interesting part. That’s what I did, then, well, we had some drawbacks in the exercise and in the end, in September I had to come to Paris to take refuge, to feel a little calmer.
Can you tell me why you left your country?
I left Colombia at that time… We were doing fieldwork in a community in Cauca, a place that’s a little dangerous because of guerrillas. At one point, the guerrillas had already signed the peace agreement in 2016. But there is always a transition from after a peace signing there are people within those groups who disagree and who form groups or small groups, or who remain what we call FARC dissidents or guerrillas that are always there. When we were on our way to a… To pay a visit to an indigenous council, a very small indigenous community in Cauca, on the border with Huila, in a city where I had grown up all my life after having fled the war when I was little, my parents took refuge in that town. So it was a town I knew because it was an area I knew more or less well because it had grown up there. When we arrived to a town called Guadalejo, guerrillas came up to me. We could call it a guerrilla control, and we, then, did a check, like a police control we can say, and they asked us “What are you doing here?” and things like that. From there they held us for a moment, for a few hours, and in the end they told us that we couldn’t continue the road and that we couldn’t, we couldn’t continue exercising what we were going to do. I mean, make the visits, because sometimes, that NGO used to help in the part of… Of education, health, doctors came to examine some pregnant women, orientation to people who wanted to have an opportunity to study, work or come to the city to seek a new opportunity, since indigenous peoples in Colombia are very poor and are not helped by the government. So… that. When we came back we began to receive certain threats. At that time the political tension of the people of the races, for the race, the race to the presidency was a little tense. There were… They began to see many threats to different political parties that did not agree with the current president or did not have similar ideas to that presidency or with the presi- with the presidential candidate. Then they began to threaten many parties, many people, murder, and many things. Among those, then, were us… And through that like those, the threats did not continue… At that time I lived in the Huila, I moved to different cities, in the Huila and like, they were always there, like the danger was always there, that something would happen to me, that something would happen to my family.
In the end, there was like an attack. One night before I had decided to come to France, to spend a little season. I had not decided to come for asylum, just a short season, while the attention passed and I could return to my country to continue my projects. A person who came up to me while we were at a birthday party for the mother of one of my friends, with whom we grew up all our lives and with whom we have like a family bond like, we come… Our grandparents were family and, well, we have a family bond. And that night a man showed up, identifying himself as a cop who tried to assault me and tried to… I don’t know what his purpose was, but he attacked my physique, so to speak. And nothing, I just ran away from the moment, the occasion, the place, and all I thought were to take refuge at the police station. At that time I had already asked for a… I had made my complaints about the threats I had been receiving days before phone calls, messages, emails, and so on.
When the police arrive at the police station in Colombia, the police didn’t offer me any help, as it was a holiday night, he was a little drunk. They didn’t want to help me at any time. So, as all they did, the police did was threaten me that if I didn’t leave, they would put me in the police station, like in prison, so to speak. So, like those things you’re going to ask for help, and instead of getting help you get threatened more, like it’s tough. So to… So, because of that, well I said well, there’s no more reason not to spend a season out and start, like pause everything to see what, what happens next.
And so it was. That’s when I later went to Bogotá, to my sister’s house. While there, I had to present myself to the police for protection I had from the government. Every time I moved I had to present myself at the police station so that they could, so to say, protect me or take into account that I was there, but… Nothing, the threats continued to be there, wherever I was. There they were. Then, I came and that’s how I got to France. So it was, perhaps for helping other people, maybe because it’s destiny, but here we are.
And when you received the threats, were you afraid, were you stressed, how did you feel?
Well, it wasn’t fear, but anxiety, because I didn’t know where they came from. We knew they came from a group called Las Águilas Negras in Colombia. It is unknown who the Águilas Negras are. They say it’s a guerrilla group that has great power because it’s almost all over the country. But also, we can say there are compilations or there are some theories, which say that these FARC guerrillas are part of paramilitaries, or maybe they are even part of the same Colombian armed force, police, army… Why do I dare say this? Because there are people who have done investigations and have come up with police officers who have identified themselves as Águilas Negras, who are members, who have been active members of the police and who have been, let’s say it like this, arrested or, or “pillados” (caught) as we say in Colombia, “pillados”, I don’t know if you understand that word, but it’s like someone realized that he was, because, like he tried to hide it from you, but someone discovered him.
Well, then… That’s like, like, there are already investigations that say that there are active members of the police or army forces who are part of or who have identified themselves as Águilas Negras. So, yes, there was a little fear, anxiety, but always managing it with calmness, not stressing out, but taking the necessary precautions. The moment I felt scared was when that one person really tried to assault me. That was really what I said “No, this isn’t… This can’t go on like this,” because this time ok, he failed, or maybe this time it wasn’t serious, maybe it was like another threat, but the next time it can happen… Next time it can be me, or it may be my family, it can be my younger sisters, my parents… And no one wants to jeopardize the life of their family or their own life. Well, sometimes we do it. There are people who stay, perhaps because they have better resources, better political positions, or whatever. Yes, they can do that, but people like us can’t.
And how did you feel on the plane, when you arrived in France? Do you remember your feelings?
Yes, I was actually very lost, I felt lost. I didn’t know what, what was going to happen to my life… I knew I was coming to my girlfriend. I didn’t know what life was going to be like, I didn’t know… What I was going to do, I didn’t know what was going to happen in the next few months or years and it was hard, never… Well I didn’t immediately meet myself again, it was a process of knowing what I wanted to do, of knowing what was going to happen to me. The asylum claim process is really very difficult for foreigners. I don’t know why, it’s always very complicated, maybe the high demand, maybe we’re not well organized to welcome those people fleeing war or whatever, and who have to take refuge in another country. But there are many obstacles to getting there like say “Help me, I’m in danger” or “I need help…” There are people who are on the street, without a roof, without food, without a dollar. And they don’t know what to do, then it’s really hard, I think… We could improve that, that people, well, that they really get help and don’t feel so lost. Firstly, many of the people who arrive here don’t speak the language. So in a country where you don’t speak the language, you’re more than lost! So, yes, that was like an uncertainty that I felt, that I didn’t know where I was.
How have you been able to tackle these obstacles? What have you found strengthens you? Both within you and external to you.
Well, I think that I don’t have all the strength yet. I think there are days when I feel sad. There are days when, well, I say “Ugh, I want to be finished with this.”
Thinking of your country…
I return to my country, I have had days when I said “I’m going to Colombia, this is not my life, this is not my country, I have nothing here… In Colombia, I have my family…” But that’s when you say “Well, and if I come back what? What is going to happen? Will I be safe? Is it over or is the risk still there?
Well… It was a help among many things, between my girlfriend, I started studying a little French… Making friends has always been difficult in France. Always, I think not just for me, but for many people, making friends in France is always really complicated. When I lived in Le Havre, Normandy… It was always difficult. I had a friend, just one friend, with whom, I still have contact and everything, but I think, that coming to Paris was… The best thing, it was, it was like, at the moment where I began to gain confidence in myself, to increase that strength, the strength to do certain things. When I started brewing, maybe I found a place where I said, “Oh, I’m from here. Maybe I’m here. I can make friends through beer, I can make friends through this.” I’m still in college and there are some things, but I have friends in college, so it’s like wow, I don’t know if studying is my thing, I don’t know if continuing is my thing, but it’s one of my projects I want to do and that I want to finish and fulfill before I die. So yes, it was like a process of little by little. Like, when I arrived in Paris I think it was the best stage for, to gain confidence and go out a little, meet friends and even if they are Colombians or French or whatever. That helps a lot. And that’s what it did, like meet myself again, knowing what I wanted to study or get a little more active in the academic part. That guided me a little, it made me no longer feel so lost in France, but…
Have you evolved as a person?… have you discovered your qualities? Have you discovered…
Yes, of course… There is that social part that I didn’t know much, yes, that developed quite a lot, that whenever I’m doing something I always think “What can I do to contribute to my community?” Or, for example, with my beer, “What can I do, what can beer do to help?”
But, you have already participated in demonstrations, and so on…
Yes, but it was something that was born, but that hadn’t been developed. It’s like something that developed here. Also… Other qualities like… like, well what can I tell you?
It’s hard to talk about yourself…
Yes, yes, it’s usually difficult, but it’s like… It’s being more open, like a culture. I used to be very closed minded. I thought, let’s say, I was the best, I did everything right, but I didn’t. Or that my culture was perfect or things like that. And it wasn’t very open to other cultures or other races or other skin colors. It sounds a little racist, but it was like that, it was like that. So here I’ve learned, how to open up to people no matter who they are. Always help others, discover a new thing. There were days when I was afraid to eat that dish because I didn’t know if I was going to like it or because maybe it was an African dish, or because maybe it was a Chinese dish or it wasn’t a dish from my country. So I was scared, like discovering that kind of thing, but not now, now I’m always like “Oh, I want to try this! Oh, how does this taste? Oh, how is that culture? Oh, I would like to have a black, white, yellow, pink friend, it doesn’t matter, of any nationality!” Because all those people bring something into your life, you learn something from those people and through them you learn more things, you get richer as a person and you can give more to people. I think that was the best thing that happened to me when I was in France. That way of opening up to everyone.
Okay, that’s super interesting… Do you want to talk about certain difficulties you have encountered in particular or… in, I don’t know, in your relationships. Or well, you’ve already said it wasn’t easy for you to make friends, maybe. Are there other things? , well, it can be racism, discrimination… Maybe not or maybe… Is there anything you want to express in particular?
Well, I think like all people we have difficulties, but I can’t, well, say that I’ve had great difficulties, no. I mean, yes, like all people, difficulty in, I don’t know, there are times in Parisian life to find an apartment, which is not just for me, it’s for everyone. Um, maybe going out, making some friends, maybe… Not speaking French well limited me a little to not making friends because I didn’t speak well. People maybe didn’t understand me, didn’t feel like taking time to try to understand someone who didn’t speak well, then maybe that. But no, I have not had special difficulties like strong, to tell me “Ah, this has been very difficult for me.”
And what do you miss the most from your country?
My family, my family… Culture, being in my country, really eh, I don’t know, I miss like… I don’t know, going out with my old friends and going, I don’t know, to a river nearby, to spend the quiet moment without thinking a lot of things, like… I think I miss my childhood very much, I miss a lot when I was young and I had no worries. So that… The food, my mom, being in, at home, having mother make you food I think it’s the best.
Those, those things.
The lifestyle with Colombians has been a bit… I mean a little about seeing… refinding that family spirit again?
Yes, yes, I think I’ve almost never lived in a placement in an apartment or a house shared with other people, but I think that has filled me a little. And yesterday I dis- precisely yesterday I discovered that it’s a a place where I feel good, where I am happy, where the people I am with tell you “Oh, I’ll help you with this!” Or “Oh, you don’t have this thing. There’s a lot of cloth, I have it, take it, use it!” So those things make me feel a little like home, so calmer and everything. Perhaps the situation makes it a little harder. It’s COVID, but… One tries to deal with the situation.
Ok, super! Thank you very much Aldair. We have one last question for the project, where I just ask you to say what your dream was before you had to leave your country before you knew you had to leave your country. If you can make a quotation, like this: “Before I had to leave my country, my dream was…”.
Before… Leaving my country, I think my dream was to have studied economics, to have finished my career and help people, to have depended on a social side, that, that I didn’t know it, that I had it, but that was there, I found out with time, that was what I wanted to do and it was maybe do some politics, good politics, politics that helps people.
And… And my dream always, I think that since I was very young, from an experience I had with my mother, my father, who let’s say forced me to go to work because I did something wrong in school. From there I’ve always wanted to, like, have my own company, like, to do that, have my own company and know that it would do well, that it’s going to be fine. And I think that’s what I found in France. I found that in France. Um, yes, I hope as one of my dreams… is… Doing something in Colombia, which I haven’t found yet, like doing something there.
Can you tell me as a quote: “Today my dream is…”.
Okay, well, today my dream is to graduate from college as a computer scientist and continue with my beer company, with my brewery. That’s my dream.
That’s good. Thank you very much, Aldair.
Many thanks to you.
Thank you very much. Is there something else you want to add…?
No? Ok, super, thanks. And, Aldair, I just wanted to… I wanted to ask you something that you told me about… Do you want to talk about your other dream too?
Yeah… My personal, really personal dream is to adopt a child. Why adopt a child, if I could have my own children too? But adopting a child is to give a chance to a child, who, who does not have opportunities, or may not a good opportunity. Why? Because those people you raise are going to change lives, too. They’re going to give opportunities to other people who need these opportunities when they’re with him.
That’s what I really want to do, change a life, because that life can change another life and that other life can change more lives. It’s like a chain. That, that is my dream, a bigger, personal dream of my life, adopting a child.
Ok, thank you very much Aldair.
You are welcome.
Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.