Commemorating 20 Years of Humanitarian Assistance in Ecuador

By Sabrina Lustgarten

Executive Vice President, HIAS

Commemorating 20 Years of Humanitarian Assistance in Ecuador

HIAS Executive Vice President Sabrina Lustgarten (L) chats with HIAS staff and a refugee client in Quito, Ecuador, October 2019. Lustgarten was HIAS Ecuador Country director from 2003 to 2021. (Isadora Romero for HIAS)

In 2003, HIAS opened a new office in Ecuador to address the large numbers of refugees fleeing from the armed conflict in Colombia. At the time, Ecuador began hosting one of the largest refugee population in the region, and there was an increased need for humanitarian assistance.

The office wasn’t the first time HIAS had worked in Latin America and the Caribbean: We had been working there previously, but mostly as a resettlement agency during the Second World War for Jewish refugees. However, the establishment of our Ecuador office in 2003 was nonetheless a milestone for HIAS. It meant the beginning of our evolution into a truly global humanitarian organization that provides displaced people with vital services and advocates for their rights.

The 20th anniversary of HIAS Ecuador isn’t just a significant occasion for the organization — it’s also one for me. Before joining HIAS, I had been working with the Jewish community in Ecuador, sometime after my own family moved from Colombia to Quito 40 years ago. In 2003, HIAS named me the inaugural country director for HIAS Ecuador, an appointment that honored my family’s enduring history with the region.

The establishment of our Ecuador office in 2003 meant the beginning of our evolution into a truly global humanitarian organization.

My grandparents, Jewish refugees from Germany and Poland, made the long journey to Latin America by boat before the beginning of the Second World War, fleeing from persecution and violence. My grandmother initially settled and got married in Brazil, but after that, she moved to Colombia where she became a widow at a young age. She decided to open a shoe store in Barranquilla, Colombia, where she worked day and night to give us a better future. The strength and resilience of my family, who arrived in very difficult circumstances in Colombia, inspired me to join HIAS — and has motivated me to continue to work here ever since.

A lot has changed in 20 years. In the beginning, there were only three of us in HIAS Ecuador — two psychologists and myself — and we didn’t even have an office space. We worked long hours in complicated conditions but with the determination to fulfill HIAS’ mission with people impacted by displacement across the country.

We launched programs such as the Graduation Model, an economic inclusion program that helps lift refugee families out of poverty by providing them with training in saving money, creating support networks, learning new skills, and improving their nutrition. This program now reaches thousands of HIAS program participants across five different continents. The successes we began to achieve while implementing this and other humanitarian programs in Ecuador ultimately led to our expansion within the country and the region.

Ecuador was the seed that allowed HIAS to later flourish across Latin America, which I’ll never forget.

Twenty years later, HIAS Ecuador has a team of 430 people, and there are around 1,000 staff across HIAS’ operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. We now have a presence in 11 different countries in the region and are looking to expand further in the coming years.

Two years ago, I left Ecuador to take on a new role within the organization as executive vice president. It’s very important to me to bring the knowledge and lived experience from working in the field to our headquarters so that our programs can better serve the people we support. I look back on all that we’ve achieved and feel humbled to have worked with so many incredible people who made that possible. Ecuador was the seed that allowed HIAS to later flourish across Latin America, which I’ll never forget.

Gracias, HIAS Ecuador! Thanks to the refugees I met who inspired me every day to face life’s challenges with strength and resilience, thanks to the donors who trusted in our work and made our expansion possible, and thanks to our team who have been serving displaced people across the country with passion and commitment every day. I can’t wait to see what we achieve together in the future.

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