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'Beyond is Home'

 

 

 


"This painting shows the view from the Honduran refugee camp into El Salvador.

Before the end of the war, the refugees elected to go back home under extremely harsh conditions."

 

Trudy Myrrh

 

image:©MYRRH 2004  trudymyrrh@earthlink.net

 

 

 

GATEWAY Interview

with Lucy Strausbaugh

Fall 2000

 

The Village of Ignacio Ellacuría and NDP:

Our Story

 

 

"They tell us that just visiting with them is the most important thing-

that they are not forgotten."

 

 image: "el barrio' trudymyrrh


GATEWAY: Please explain what this program is:

Strausbaugh: It is a Sister School relationship: NDP to the elementary school in the village of Ignacio Ellacuría.  As far as we know it is the only one of it's kind- there are many Sister City relationships, but not high school/sister school relationships.  In the very beginning we offered material aid for essentials (their water source, and helped to build their school) and political advocacy; but for the past 10 years they have relied on us for scholarship aid- so that those who graduate from the elementary school who want to be teachers can be sent to a neighboring town to go to high school, and come back and teach.  Now we are helping some of those graduates to go to university in San Salvador to learn to be doctors and engineers, who will then return to and help the community.

GATEWAY: What do the students do once they are in El Salvador?

Strausbaugh: The most important thing they do is to get to know the people. This is not a 'service' trip, but a 'delegation' from our community to their community: the purpose is to maintain and nurture our solidarity with them. They go to classes, teach games and play with the children, have meetings with the 'Directiva'  (community leaders) to better understand the needs of the community.  They meet with the teachers (who are usually of high school age) to find out about scholarship needs.  They also work, worship and play with the wider community.

GATEWAY: What are the students' tasks/living arrangements/community service when they are there?

Strausbaugh: Our delegation stays in their Daycare Center- since we go down during Holy Week it is their vacation too, and is not needed.  It is an 'open air' kind of building, and the girls sleep either in hammocks or in sleeping bags on the floor.  There is a common water source (a sort of a well) outside of the building that is only available for a few hours a day, and they use outhouses. Life there is very primitive and extremely poor: animals roam freely, cooking is done over open fires....our girls are fed the best of what they have: they kill chickens for them, and have tortillas, rice, beans and soup at every meal....the women who cook still don't understand how little 'norteamericana' teenage girls eat, and even less so with the heat, so our girls do their best to eat as much as possible so they don't hurt the feelings of the women who so generously cook for them.

 
GATEWAY: When was it started? Why was this program started? Is there a particular story behind its inception?

Strausbaugh: This relationship had it's inception in 1988 when our then principal, Sr. Ellis Denny, went on an SSND delegation to El Salvador, which was then at the height of the war. They traveled to the northern province of Chalatenango, the most violent area, because Sr. Cathy Arata, worked with the Community, located in Guarhila, that would later be known as Ignacio Ellacuría.  These 8 nuns rode in the back of trucks over rutted dirt and mountain roads, waded through rivers that had land mines in them, and slept in shanty homes close enough to the fighting to hear gunfire all night.

This community had left their village and homes in 1981 because the government forces were bombing and slaughtering the poor in that region.  Hundreds of them refugeed to the Honduran border and were caught in the massacre at the Sumpul River, where Salvadoran helicopters were machine gunning men, women and children as they crossed the river to U.N. run refugee camps on the Honduran border. Hundreds were killed.

The community lived in tents in those camps for 7 years, and then decided that no matter what they would go home. They came back with nothing, and when they arrived saw that all of their homes and fields had been destroyed.  It was at this point that Sr. Cathy Arata, who had been working with a number of similar communities in the area. came to know them.  The leaders of this community were in their late teens and early 20's. They had come of age living in the tents of the refugee camps. Most of the adult men had been killed in the war.

They were still in danger as they began to re-establish their lives....and this is where NDP comes in.

When Sr. Ellis met these incredible and brave people she wondered how we could support them, and this is when the 'sister school'  idea was born. At that point their 'school' was simply sitting in the dirt under a particular tree- and the teachers were those who had gotten through the elementary levels.

When Sr. Ellis came back in 1988 she talked to some of the religion teachers who had already been to Central America about this possibility of creating a Sister School relationship.  It took a while, but our first delegation was in 1991- myself, my brother, Steve Strausbaugh, who also taught religion at NDP, and Heather Howlett. a senior.  Since El Salvador was still at war, it was incredible that we got any parent to permit their child to go with us as we began to establish this relationship. Heather and her parents were amazing.  Since the community was behind the militarized zone, we could not get government permission to travel there. So Sr. Cathy, who knew the back roads, snuck 2 of the community leaders around the military lines to meet with us in San Salvador.

This brings me back to how our relationship has evolved. Since they were still very vulnerable to military attacks and human rights abuses at the hand of their government, our relationship began as one of solidarity and political advocacy. For them to have Americans know them and care about what happened to them was reassuring beyond words.  Even before our first delegation, in 1990, we got a frantic phone call from Sr. Cathy saying that the community was being attacked by helicopters. Homes were destroyed and children had been killed.  We (NDP and the SSNDs) began to bomb all of our Congressional representatives and Senators with phone calls and faxes....so much so that Sen Mikulski yelled 'uncle' and said she would do everything she could to stop the attacks....just make the nuns stop calling her office!  This advocacy is a foundational aspect of our relationship- they are poor, marginalized, and still persecuted at the whims of a government that doesn't care about them. This is why they tell us that just visiting with them is the most important thing- that they are not forgotten.

In 1989 they re-named their community Ignacio Ellacuría, after one of the 8  Jesuits who had their brains blown out by the Salvadoran Military at the University of Central America in San Salvador.

One of the things that is difficult for the students is when they realize that all of this suffering was paid for by our government. From the early 1980's to the Peace Accords in 1992 the U.S. sent 1 million dollars a day for 11 years to the Salvadoran Military, and also trained many of the officers and soldiers (at Fort Benning, Ga.) who committed atrocities against the peasants, and also were involved in the assassinations of Archbishops Oscar Romeo, the 4 American religious women and the 8 Jesuits and their housekeeper. It is humbling to be received warmly by people who have been harmed by your government.

GATEWAY: How popular is it with the students and their families? How many students have participated? How many go on each trip? How many trips have there been? 

Strausbaugh: It was a real hard sell in 1991, before the war ended, and even for the 1992 delegation, which was right after the Peace Accords were signed.  I am still in awe of the parents who let their kids go.  Of course were were as careful as we could be, and also relied totally on Sr. Cathy Arata who was our liaison and delegation leader.  In 1994 the concerns shifted from the war to the increasing crime (all those unemployed government soldiers and guns laying around) and that concern still exists today.  We spend as little time as possible in the capital, and spend all of our time with the community, in the campo, where it is safer.  In answer to your question MANY more girls actually want to go than are allowed to go, because of their parents very legitimate concerns.  I've lost track of the delegations, but think that since 1991,1992, and 1994, we have gone down almost every year. The number of girls on each delegation has ranged from 6-8 to 15. 

GATEWAY: Why do you think this trip impacts students so much?

Strausbaugh: First, because it is their first exposure to 3rd world poverty.  But even though they don't take a shower or wash their hair for a week, coming back home is more of a culture shock for them than going to El Salvador.  From the very beginning the girls have had no trouble living simply and getting into community life....they acknowledge the poverty, but they are blown away by the people....how can they be so 'happy' when they have nothing? They share everything they have and work together....people are more important than things.....nobody care what you look like...the real trouble is when they come home and are immediately confronted with our consumerism and excess.....there is a Jesuit phrase that we use with them....we warn them before they go down that they will be 'ruined for life'.....that they will never see the world in the same way again. Some of the girls also have a sort of 'spiritual' conversion: they start to ask different questions and begin to see God in a different way.

GATEWAY: Do you know of other students who continue keep in contact with the people back in El Salvador. How do other students try to help out these Salvadoran communities?

Strausbaugh: Now that there is a computer with e-mail in a town about 45 minutes away from Ellacuría it is possible for returnees to stay in touch.  The entire school supports the community through various fundraisers all year long.

 


 trudymyrrh/SAN MIGUEL