'Beyond is Home'
painting shows the view from the Honduran refugee camp into El
Before the end of the
war, the refugees elected to go back home under extremely harsh
with Lucy Strausbaugh
The Village of
"They tell us that
just visiting with
them is the most important thing-
that they are not forgotten."
Please explain what
this program is:
It is a Sister School
relationship: NDP to the elementary school in
the village of Ignacio
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
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
GATEWAY: What do the students do once they are in El Salvador?
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
GATEWAY: What are the
students' tasks/living arrangements/community service when they are
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?
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
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
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.
they re-named their community Ignacio
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?
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?
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?
Now that there is a computer with
e-mail in a town about 45 minutes away from
is possible for returnees to stay in touch. The entire school supports
the community through various fundraisers all year long.