After the visit I was asked by José
Escobar, program director, to be on the board for The Interfaith Office on
Accompaniment to assist with the Going
Home Campaign which had just begun to try to repatriate Salvadoran refugees
from Mesa Grande and to assist them to return to their home communities in
Chalatenango and Cabañas. In 1987 I traveled with José and a few others to Mesa
Grande, a huge armed refugee camp holding 12,000 Salvadorans who had fled
across the border into Honduras to escape death in their own country. There we
spoke to large gatherings of Salvadorans to help them understand their Going Home opportunity, explaining that
refugees would be accompanied to El Salvador by groups of U.S. citizens to help
ensure their safety.
Between 1987 and 1990 I made four
additional trips to El Salvador and/or Honduras.I was part of groups that negotiated with the
United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), military leaders, and
Church groups to advocate for the refugees. I also organized delegations from
Rochester to bring humanitarian aid and support to the Salvadorans.
On each of the visits we met with
many refugees and listened to their harrowing stories. We were inspired by the
courage of the people and their generosity to their U.S. guests despite their
own extreme poverty. I still treasure those stories in my heart as well as
images of the absolutely horrific living conditions they endured, especially
while being forced to stay in the refugee camp for over seven years. I believe
that my trips to El Salvador changed my life forever.
Sister Donna Del Santo's Story
In 1989, I
was a member of Corpus Christi Church, which was a “Sanctuary Church” for
people fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. Sister Kathy Weider had already been
to El Salvador and helped our parish to become a partner with SHARE.
In early fall
of 1989, Sister Kathy had put out a call for parishioners to be part of a Peace
Keeping Delegation to go to Mesa Grande Refugee Camp in Honduras to accompany
Salvadoran refugees who had been living in the camps for nearly nine years.
There were about 600 refugees, of the nearly 2,000, who were now being allowed
back in to their homeland to a new re-settlement called Santa Marta. At the time I was unable to go on this delegation
because of other commitments. The group of four parishioners joined other
delegates from around the U.S. and went to Mesa Grande Refugee Camp only to get
“stuck” there because of political red tape. They were on the border so long
that their Visas to enter El Salvador had expired and they were unable to renew
calling others to create a new delegation of Peace Keepers. When she called me, all of my commitments had been
completed and I was now free to go. I reluctantly said yes because the Civil
War was at a fever pitch and it had become very unsafe to travel there. There
was a small voice within me that said, “Just say yes and I will do the rest.” I
thought that this meant that in the end, I wouldn’t have to go!
After a lot
of adventures to get my visas for Honduras and El Salvador, I ended up going!
When I arrived in Mesa Grande it became clear that my fellow parishioners who
had faithfully waited on the border to accompany these 600 refugees back in to
El Salvador would not be allowed to cross the border and that I would need to
go on without them.
As soon as
we crossed into El Salvador with the long line of school buses carrying these
600 refugees, one of the woman gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. She named
her “Patria,” translated it means homeland.
much more to this story that I will have to tell you at a later time. Suffice
to say, that the small voice within me never left me and helped me to
peacefully navigate many dangerous situations to finally return safely home.
Two weeks after my return, the brutal massacre of the six Jesuits, their
housekeeper and her daughter took place at UCA, the Jesuit School of Theology
in San Salvador.
Sister Mary Jane Mitchell's Story
Sister Mary Jane Mitchell (d. 2009) was
attracted to mission work, especially with Hispanics. Among her many ministries she worked as a
tutor and advocate in the Brockport Migrant Ministry Education Program. After a sabbatical in Central America in
1989-90 she found CRISPAZ, a volunteer organization in El Salvador. From 2001 -2004 she worked in San Francisco
and San Vicente, rural areas near San Salvador and lived with a Salvadoran
family.She had hoped that other Sisters
would join her in the ministry but illness forced her to return to Rochester. During
her sabbatical she also spent some time at the refugee camp in Mesa Grande.