Daniela’s Christmas will never be the same again.
This Christmas, there will be an empty seat at the table of the Salcedo family. Like so many other children around the world, Daniela (12) is persecuted for the faith of her parents: because her father dared to share Jesus’ love in Colombia, he was executed by the drug lords. Now, Daniela and her brother will grow up without a father.
The road that led us to Daniela’s temporary home was long and the driving slow because of all the dirt and potholes. Daniela, her mother Alba and her little brother Sebastián (5) temporarily live in the city of Caucasia- a safer area than the town of La Caucana, where Plinio was murdered in cold blood. Safer, but not safe. Even here, there’s a lot of violence and hearing gun shots is not uncommon.
When we meet Daniela, she has her hair up in a ponytail, wears a black and pink polka dot dress and a matching headband. ‘Dani’ looks at us curiously, her big eyes examining all those strangers, and we 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. 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 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 work for them. And they need customers. They don’t need Christians who help people get rid of their addictions and who try to prevent young people from being lured into the ranks of the rebels. In their eyes, the killing of Daniela’s father was just a warning for the Christians to stop their activities.
The children find it very difficult to talk about the day their father died. We don’t push them to talk about these traumatic events, but when they go to play outside, Alba does want to share. “I was working in the kitchen with some other women,” Alba says. “We were preparing the chickens that 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’
We 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. 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, the girl 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?” we ask. “You can be with her of course.”
“You can talk to her, but perhaps without me. It would be good if she could show more emotions and she will hold back when I’m there.”
We were able to spend time talking with Daniela. She told us how she likes to draw and wants to be an illustrator when she grows up. She also works hard at school and is one of the best students in her class.
But it’s incredibly hard that her dad is not there with her.
“When I think of…” The tears begin to come to her eyes. 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.
Her mom comes back and hugs Daniela, her own eyes wet from tears as well. Daniela wants to continue and we ask her what she think 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.”
We don’t want to take this any further and change the subject. As Christmas is near, we ask how she’ll celebrate and what this season means to her. “I believe that celebrating the birth of Jesus is a moment of joy. Usually we celebrate together as a family; we’ll cook and eat together. Christmas for me is being with my family.”
This year will be heartbreakingly different, with an empty seat where Daniela’s father used to be.
We invited Daniela and her family to spend some time in 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.
Open Doors also arranged a new house for them, a better one in a much safer area. “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 that they are moving on with their lives, despite the painful loss they suffered.”
Daniela adds, “It is very important to know that this Christmas there are people around the world praying for me and my family. 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.
-Pray for basic things like food, drink, and security for them. It's difficult for a lone mother to keep providing for her family.
-Pray for Sebastian and Dani’s education.
-Pray for the spiritual well-being of the children.
-Pray for their safety.