Where her dad was murdered, Daniela found joy in Jesus

November 23, 2020 by Christopher Summers in Persecution updates

The road leading to Daniela’s temporary home is long. If you’re driving, you’ll need to progress slowly because of all the dirt and potholes.

 

The floor of her simple house is elevated, because it regularly floods in Caucasia, the city in northern Colombia where Daniela and her family live. The roof has holes that allow the rain to leak in, and Daniela and her mother and brother have to avoid the puddles.

 

But it’s still better than where they came from.

It’s safer than the town La Caucana, where Daniela and her family are from—but it’s still not safe. Even here, there’s a lot of violence and hearing gunshots is not uncommon.

featured in presence magazineAnd yet, it’s still better for the family than the place where Daniela’s father was murdered because he followed Jesus.

Targeted for changing lives

When we meet Daniela, she has her hair up in a ponytail and wears a black-and-pink polka dot dress with a matching headband. “Dani,” as her friends and family call her, looks at us curiously, her big eyes examining the strangers in her home to take her picture and hear her story, and I can see a little shyness when she seeks shelter in her mother’s arms. But a welcoming smile doesn’t leave her face. Seeing her like this, she looks like any other 12-year-old girl you’ve ever met. She shouldn’t have a care in the world, but she knows better than most what it’s like to pay the price for following Jesus.

Loving Jesus and living for Him can be dangerous in parts of Colombia, where drug lords and rebels—who are often the same people—operate like lawless warlords. They recruit vulnerable young people to do their dirty and dangerous work for them. And they need customers.

They don’t need Christians who help people overcome their addictions and who try to prevent young people from being lured into a life of crime and violence. So when they killed Plinio, Daniela’s father, it was just a warning for the Christians to stop their activities.

Daniela and her brother, Sebastian, find it very difficult to talk about the day their father died. I don’t push them to talk about these traumatic events, but when they go to play outside, Alba, their mom, does want to share.

She remembers the day started normally. “I was working in the kitchen with some other women,” Alba says. “We were preparing the chickens we wanted to share later that afternoon. Plinio had gone to church to pray. When he came back, he sat in his rocking chair and watched the news. It was a very peaceful day.

“Suddenly, I heard gunshots.”

Everyone rushed into the room, including Daniela. She cannot describe what she saw. It’s a sight she will never forget.

‘It would be good if she could show more emotions’

Alba says her children are responding to their father’s death in different ways—and she is still grieving, as well

I ask how the children deal with the death of their father. Alba shows a cellphone clip of Sebastian crying uncontrollably on the bed. “My son is very expressive,” she says. “He’s very attached to me and his sister. He cries and often says things like, ‘I don’t want anything to happen to you, because I’d be left alone.’ On the other hand, [Daniela] is less expressive. She cries a little but doesn’t express her feelings. She cries and tells me how much she misses her dad.”

“Can we talk to Daniela?” I ask. “You can be with her, of course.”

“You can talk to her, but perhaps without me,” Alba says. “It would be good if she could show more emotions, and she will hold back when I’m there.”

We spend time with the family, and Daniela opens up. She says she likes to draw, that she feels inspired when looking at the sky and at the trees, and that when she grows up, she wants to work as an illustrator. She also says, despite moving to a new city, her grades at school have not changed and she is one of the best students in her class.

And then I ask: What is the hardest thing for you about being in a new place?

“When I think of …” Suddenly, her eyes brim with tears. She looks down, shields her eyes from us, then looks up to finish her sentence. “Cuando pienso en mi papa.”

When I think of my dad.

Our photographer doesn’t hesitate. She sits next to Daniela and embraces her.

“Do you want your mom?” we ask.

She nods and we bring Alba into the room, who hugs Daniela and kisses her, her own eyes wet from tears as well. Yet, she is thankful Daniela has finally expressed her emotions, even if it’s just a little, for a fleeting moment.

It’s a start.

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Daniela tells us she wants to continue, and Alba says it’s OK. I ask Daniela what she thinks her father would have liked for her to do in the future. “Well,” she says without hesitation, “to be a great person and to follow in the ways of God.”

Since Christmas is near, we ask how she’ll celebrate and what this season means to her. “I believe celebrating the birth of Jesus is a moment of joy,” she says. “Usually we celebrate together as a family; we’ll cook and eat together. Christmas for me is being with my family. I also remember a Christmas we spent with the church brothers and our family, simply enjoying and talking.”

Daniela has heard we have invited her and her family to spend some time at the Open Doors Children’s Center in Colombia. We want to give them a break and help them get away from the sadness and isolation, to receive trauma care and … to celebrate Christmas. She is excited.

Armed policemen at the corner

It’s about time for all of us to leave. The neighborhood is curious to know the identities of these strangers visiting the Salcedo family. We suddenly notice armed policemen, dressed in green camouflage uniforms, at the corner of the street. They are here to protect us—which means the risks of staying here have increased.

The family packs their bags, and we drive to the airport. For the first time in their lives, Daniela and Sebastian will see their country from the sky. Daniela seems a bit nervous. “I’m anxious,” she says. Yet, when they run to the waiting area at the gate, we see big smiles on Daniela and Sebastian’s faces. “I was wondering if the plane would crash,” Daniela said after the flight, “but in the end, it felt good and safe to fly. The land looked small; everything looks beautiful from above.”

Two plane rides and a long journey over land later, we arrive at the Children’s Center, a project that gives permanent shelter to many children of persecuted Colombian Christians. The Center is also sometimes used for short stays for families like the Salcedos. It’s 11 p.m. and already very dark when we pull into the Center’s parking area.

All the staff and all the children are waiting at the entrance. They clap and sing. A big banner reads “Bienvenidos, familia Salcedo.” Immediately, some of the Center’s staff members walk toward Daniela, her mother and brother. The Salcedos receive flowers and hugs.

Daniela’s face shows her thoughts. You can see her thinking: They don’t know us. Why did all of them come for us?

A place to heal

The Children’s Center in Colombia welcomed the grieving family to a place where they could rest—and heal

“I didn’t expect so many people [to greet us],” Daniela told us later. “I was so surprised to see all of them, singing a welcome to us. It made me feel so good. I was really happy to be surrounded by so many loving people.”

Over the next few days, it seems the heavy fog Daniela was walking through was lifted. She and her family spent four weeks at the Center—four weeks in which she could be a kid. Four weeks where she didn’t have to bear the burden of grieving her father on her own. “I felt good for the first time in a long time and I was able to explore new places, new cities and new people,” she says. “I managed to do many things,
I had a lot of free time. I met many children, I went hiking, I put my feet in the river … I also learned that, although there are difficult times in life, there are also times when Jesus helps us to overcome through people and prayer.”

It was also a great experience for her mother and brother. “[My mom] saw that she doesn’t have to walk through this time of grief alone,” Daniela says. “She felt surrounded by other people. It was very important. For Sebastian, it was the best experience he ever had! He visited the cockpit on the plane, ran through the fields and had a lot of outdoor fun. He likes to run and play soccer, so he invited the boys to play with him at the Children’s Center.”

After seeing how dangerous the area was where Daniela, Sebastian and Alba were living, Open Doors also arranged a new house for them, a better one in a much safer area. They’ve also been provided with ongoing trauma support, to help them deal with and heal from the violent death of Plinio. “This was only possible through the gracious prayers and gifts of our supporters,” an Open Doors field worker says. “Thanks to you, Alba and Dani and Sebastian have moved and are in a safer place. Alba wants to open a sewing workshop in her home. Dani and Sebastian are studying and are happy. Through the trauma support, we can see they are moving on with their lives, despite the painful loss they suffered.”

“It is very important to know that this Christmas there are people around the world praying for me and my family,” Daniela adds. “I am very grateful for that, because I see that God works through these prayers.”

When we ask her if she has a final message for those who care about her and other persecuted children, she smiles and replies confidently. Her words echo the life of her martyred father:

“Sé valiente y fuerte, sigue confiando en el Señor.”

“Be brave and strong, keep trusting in the Lord.”

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Presence magazine.

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