Hope in the Darién: “I Want To Make People Smile”

By Beverly Goldberg


VIDEO: The humanitarian crisis in the Darién Gap is only increasing, but HIAS is on hand to help. HIAS supports refugees and migrants in the Darién Gap with legal services, psychosocial support and GBV response and prevention. HIAS staff travel to Bajo Chiquito and different Migrant Reception Centres to approach people in transit and explain more about the services offered, August 2023. (Tarina Rodriguez for HIAS)

When María Sánchez was a child, she recalls the stories her parents would tell her about fleeing Colombia, where they escaped a violent armed conflict between paramilitary groups and guerilla forces.

Sánchez’s parents were born on the Pacific coast, in El Chocó — a Colombian province of rocky beaches, cascading waterfalls, and untouched tropical rainforest. It is also one of the places most impacted by the country’s armed conflict in which many innocent civilians fell victim to violence.

To escape the war, María’s parents decided to travel north to Panama. There, they settled in Darién province, where her father opened up an agricultural business and started to make plans for their future.

“When my parents came to Panama as refugees, they had to take a similar route to what people are taking through the jungle today — they had no other choice,” Sánchez said. “I see the reflection of my parents in the people that I’m supporting here in the Darién. It makes me think about everything they had to go through.”

Today, Sánchez works with HIAS Panamá as a protection officer in the Darién. She spends her working days traveling from the Migration Reception Centers to the village of Bajo Chiquito, where people arrive after leaving the jungle. There, she provides orientation and support to women at risk, survivors of gender-based violence, and other vulnerable people.

"The best thing about working with HIAS here is being able to make people smile and to feel better, in the midst of so much confusion and pain. That’s what keeps me going each day."

“I work with the legal team to provide people that are at risk of gender-based violence with advice about how they can be aware of and protect themselves from the dangers on the migratory route, as there are many,” Sánchez said. The advice she gives them helps them avoid dangers such as human trafficking and sexual violence.

Few people understand the local context in the Darién like Sánchez does. She was born close to the village of Metetí and has been living there ever since. She started volunteering at a young age, initially with government institutions as a first-aid responder.

HIAS Protection Officer Maria Sanchez poses at the Migration Reception Center in San Vicente, Darien province, Panama, on August 1, 2023 (Tarina Rodriguez for HIAS)

After that, she volunteered for the Red Cross, which is when she knew that she wanted to work in the humanitarian sector. “I wanted to do something that I loved while being able to support my family at the same time. That’s how I started working for HIAS,” Sánchez said.

Working in the Darién Gap to support vulnerable refugees and migrants doesn’t come without its challenges. The extreme climate conditions and the lack of essential services can be very difficult. However, Sánchez feels motivated every day to give back.

“The best thing about working with HIAS here is being able to make people smile and to feel better, in the midst of so much confusion and pain. That’s what keeps me going each day,” she said.