Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Counselor's Note on Mental Health and Resiliency

As a mental health care provider trained in the USit is important for me to recognize the many differences in the conceptualizations and treatment approaches across cultures. Since the majority of my work has been with immigrants from Latin America, I have learned a great deal about how to adjust paradigms and approaches to provide culturally competent care. This trip to El Salvador provided me the opportunity to understand mental health as it is constructed both theoretically and practically within the Salvadorian cultural context.

The approach of the San Luis pastoral team in Morazan could be viewed as a community mental health approach. Guided by their faith in Liberation Theology and their close connection to the Martyrs of the revolution, they work with youth in "value development". This consists of education, consistent engagement, youth activities, and general support. In a conversation with two of the women carrying out this work, they described the youth most in need of their services are those whose parents have left for the US. (Read more about this complex issue in my previous post on Family Separation.) The leaders of this team are doing continual outreach to these youth and their caretakers to envelop them into the community. 


In Amando Lopez, the democratically elected collective of leaders serve the community with supportive guidance in addition to their executive duties. I see this too as a culturally accepted way to address the trauma experienced by the war and the ongoing security threats of violence, poverty, and the resulting separation of families. In contrast to the US individual mental health approach,community settings offer a socially accepted space to share and receive support. This works particularly well when a community has experienced, or is experiencing, a collective trauma, such as those listed above.


When I inquired about individual therapeutic approaches, many people either stated it wasn’t available or it was too stigmatized for people to utilize. A surviving family member of the Mozote massacre shared she recently sought out a psychologist for her granddaughter after she experienced trauma similar to what the grandmother had gone through as a youth, yet this seemed to be a rarity and after all of the trauma she shared about her own life I question whether she considered seeking support for herself as well. In the schools we visited, all of the teachers seemed to recognize the need for therapeutic services, but lamented the lack of access to mental health professionals, which seemed a luxury when teachers are scarcely paid.


With the scarcity of formal mental health care, I found myself looking for the intangible factors that support resiliency in El Salvador. What I witnessed was humbling and inspiring. I saw and felt HOPE; people continuing to strive while confronting obstacle after obstacle. Not a blind faith, nor an ignorance of the realities to be overcome, but a genuine belief in the capacity of the people to flourish. Teachers showing up day after day with very little resources, overflowing classrooms, minimal pay and no guarantee the situation will improve. Community members voluntarily taking on leadership roles to care for their neighbors in spite of potential threat to their own livelihood and personal safety. Speaking honestly about the political system and the gang issues in the face of very real danger. Through these actions, LOVE of one’s people and country was more than evident. Refugee camps in Honduras during the civil war created tight knit self-reliablecommunities. Organizations like Voices on the Border have continued to support COMMUNITY through the transitions back to El Salvador and to work for peace and prosperity despite extreme obstacles. Many of these communities are rooted in FAITH based on Liberation Theology via the highly adored martyrs of the revolution, such as MonseƱor Oscar Romero, who continue to inspire and motivate the people to work for justice. The ongoing presence of these martyrs in their lives and gratitude for their sacrifices cannot be understated


I have nothing but respect and appreciation for those who taught me so much about mental health and resiliency in El Salvador. The HOPE, LOVE, COMMUNITY, FAITH, and INDESTRUCTIBLE SPIRIT of the people is undeniable and radiated throughout our brief time there. I look forward to lasting bonds of solidarity with Voices and the communities that welcomed us.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Counselor's Note on Family Separation

After years of working with Salvadorians in the US, this trip offered me an opportunity to experience the country and culture firsthand. Having lived in Nicaragua and traveled throughout the rest of Central America I knew a good deal of the collective and individual histories of each country, however on this trip I wanted to focus specifically on exploring trauma and family separation. These recurring and pressing issues our students deal with push me to seek deeper understanding so I can provide the best support possible.

To begin to comprehend the effects of migration, it is important to understand the root reasons why people make the difficult decision to leave their families, communities, and country. In El Salvador they are based in either economic need (lack of opportunities etc) and/or security reasons (ie threats from the gangs). This could be direct threat of harm or the threat of losing your livelihood through extortion in the form of a "tax" or "contribution" that everyone knows is not optional.

While education was at the forefront of our delegation, I was able to address my concerns about the effects of the trauma of war and poverty and resulting migration as they intersect in many ways. Through our conversations with a variety of people and communities, we were able to have multilayered exchanges that seemed as much of interest to the Salvadorians as it was to us.

As we answered each other's questions about how members of the community experience the separation it became clear that it isn't merely the individual family that is effected, but the entire community, especially in the areas we visited which were tight knit communities that emerged out of the refugee camps.

I found there are many differing ideas between those who left for the US and those who stayed in El Salvador. Many who stayed understand why parents leave, but don't think the parents themselves comprehend the responsibility that falls on the community to step in and support the children. Those working directly with youth (mainly the teachers in Amando Lopez and the pastoral group in Morazan) describe children of parents who have left as having a hard time emotionally and often don't get the support they need to stay in school and make other good choices for their development. Some described the detriment of children who receive money and material gifts from parents abroad as lacking drive and motivation to work hard since they are having everything “handed” to them without comprehension of how it was earned. The truth is they are not seeing, and often sheltered from, the hard work and sacrifices that went into making that money. 

On the other hand, many parents I work with in the US carry extreme guilt about not being present in their children's daily lives and feel the only thing they can offer is material support. The desire to protect their families from the harsh reality of life in the US causes parents to misrepresent their experiences and shelter their families back home from the struggles of obtaining the money they send. Although many blame this lack of transparency on the expectations they feel placed on them by family members back home, it is a cycle perpetuated by the lack of honest communication on both ends. Many community members here say they wish their family in the US would describe the reality of their lives to help the children understand the sacrifice of the real cost of the remittances sent. 

Overall I heard from many people their great concern about the future generation of leaders. What is to become of the communities striving so diligently to survive if members continue to leave and the youth are unprepared to carry on the work of the current leaders?

While my understanding of the issues surrounding family separation has grown immensely, it won't change my empowerment model of counseling. Rather what it gives me is more ideas and complexities to explore with the parents struggling with these issues. It is clear that there are no simple solutions for the growing number of families whose lives are stretched across the border and the communities who struggle to adapt to their changing populations.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Solidaridad - Solidarity (by Lindsey)

When our trip leader Jose (below in the yellow shirt) asked us why we were on this trip, I knew for sure that for me it was because I wanted to understand our majority Salvadoran student population better, to be able to serve them by understanding their context and what obstacles they may be facing. It was clear in my mind that I was trying to gather information to make me a better teacher. Really I was focused on myself, my students, and my life in Washington. What I didn't yet understand on the first day of the trip was how Voices on the Border would change my perspective not only on what I was going to get out of the trip, but how one-dimensional (though well-intentioned) my reason for going on the trip actually was.

It started to dawn on me that this trip was going to be more than just learning the context of El Salvador and how this applied to my teaching during day 3. We visited the Romero Center where an enthusiastic tour guide/professor explained the significance of the art in the church on the Universidad Centroamericana campus, the site of a horrific massacre beginning the end of the civil war. She also took us to a museum of martyrs and to the small dorm-style room where 4 American nuns were shot in cold blood.

Later in the day we had leaders of teachers' unions fit us in their busy schedule and visit us at our guesthouse. The whole day I of course was trying to fit this into my context of teaching and students' learning. But once we went on to Morazan, my mind opened up and the real reason for the trip hit me on the the form of a song!

This group from rural Morazan is resettled from the refugee camps in Honduras where they lived for 9 years during the civil war. They were so open to sharing their life journeys! So gracious with their food and stories (I ate fried chicken for the first time in like 5 years)!


Most of all, they were gracious with their words. The group leader (above with the red shirt) thanked us again and again for our solidarity. For listening and caring about their stories. And for sharing in these moments with them. This trip is not so much about me and my Washington, DC life. This trip was about understanding the resilience of the Salvadoran people. How they have struggled, but have also lived resiliently! They are, despite the poverty and violence that racks a lot of the country, are living happy lives and support one another in a way that I have not seen with my own eyes before.

We heard this message again and again as we met more amazing people who have lived very difficult lives. I was having a conversation about Voices with a couple of my co-travelers and we were wondering why they do it? Why do they bring delegations down and go through the hassle of keeping us safe, making so many appointments and arrangements, and to barely break even on the cost?! It's because of solidarity. Simple as that. They love El Salvador and they want us to pass on to everyone we know what a strong and loving people live there. They want us to pass on their history. They are important, they are special, they know it, and they want us to carry this message back to our communities.

We love El Salvador too. I definitely brought back a completely better sense of what our Salvadoran students have overcome to make it to the US and also what traumas could be lingering and complicating their education. It's been awesome telling my Salvadoran co-workers about how I visited and learned all about this country. They usually thank me just for visiting! Most of all, I am so happy that I have first hand experienced how amazing Salvadorans are and I am excited to spread the news.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Milking cows in Amando Lopez

A quick shout out to friend and fellow teacher, Alex, who lives and works in the community of Amando Lopez in the Bajo Lempa.   Long before school starts every morning, he and his dad are up to milk their herd of ten cows.  They make it look easy, but this a time consuming and involved process.  

Step 1:  Tie up mama cow's back legs so that she doesn't wander off or kick you.  Tie her calf to the fence off to the side so that it doesn't get in the way.

Step 2:  Have a seat and milk her for a couple minutes.

Step 3:  Untie the calf and let her over to drink for a couple minutes.

Step 4:  Repeat 3-4 times.  You milk, let the calf drink, you milk, let the calf drink... Um, did I mention that they have TEN cows?!

Aside from a lot of time and patience, you also need technique!  Of the approximately ten squirts that I personally handled, maybe two made it into the bucket.  The others went anywhere but the bucket, including onto Alex's shoes.  

By the way, YUM!  

Step 5:  Take the milk down the street to the lecheria and sell it.  

Done!   Thanks for letting us hang out with you, Alex! 


Monday, July 27, 2015

Day 4 and 5 by Sheryl

Our first three days in ES were action packed with meetings, discussions, hikes, pupusas, etc. On Thursday morning, we packed up the van, left San Salvador and headed to Morazan, a rural mountainous region in the northeast.  We stopped in the town of San Luis for lunch and passionate discussions with the women of the pastoral community, many of whom had been residents of refugee camps in Honduras during the civil war. This was our first direct interaction with members of a small rural community. This is where I first started to get a more complete picture of the people whom our students leave behind. We started with a song called "Solidaridad."

 It really set the tone and gave me my first real sense of the strength of the people of the community. This is also where I started to realize that when our students leave, communities are affected, not just families. When so many members of the community immigrate it really diminishes both.  However, Maria, one of the leaders of the group, was generous and sincere when she thanked us for the work that we do for those that have left.  She called it a gift.  We were humbled.

We moved on and got settled into the Jocoatique hostel,

 but only for a few minutes and then it was back in the van to go to the Museum of the Revolution in Perkin. We were met by our very capable and knowledgeable guide who provided details of the war. There were many pictures of the guerrillas, weapons and artifacts of the war.  The pics that really impressed me were the ones of the women fighters.  We also saw the helicopter that General Monterrosa was in when the booby trapped radio equipment he had picked up exploded. This is also where we got our first detailed description of the massacre at El Mozote.  It was disturbing but it helped prepare us for our visit to El Mozote the following day.

Special forces combatants, carefully traversing a minefield.

General Monterrosa's helicopter

After the museum we took a hike up to the lookout where the FMLN would broadcast news about the war from their perspective.  (This was a constant source of concern and aggravation to General Monterrosa because, prior to the establishment of this radio operation, called Radio Venceramos, news about the war had only been provided by the Salvadoran government, which of course did not describe an accurate and complete picture to the people.) On our hike we saw the cave where the guerrillas carried out their broadcasts and we even saw trenches that the guerrillas used during combat.

The next day we were up early (as usual) and prepared for a hike in Guacamaya to see a cave with some petroglyphs.  We picked up 3 young teenage boys that are part of a group supported by Voces to help keep youth out of gangs.  They were our guides to the cave and they took their job very seriously. It was a great hike.

 From the cave we went to the river for a little swim.  We were really looking forward to a relaxing break after the hike; however drama followed.  We were all in the water or getting ready to go in.

Rocks in the river, and Frida!

 Oscar, one of our young guides, decided to dive from one of the rocks and ended up diving into another rock just under the surface and cracked his head.  It was clear this was going to take more than first aid.  We wrapped up the gash and he and Ebony jumped on a motorcycle to head for the clinic. Did I mention that we had Ebony's dog, Frida, with us for the day? Well Frida decided to try to follow Ebony on the motorcycle, unsuccessfully. Frida ran off, with Lindsey trying to catch her.  Now we had a seriously injured boy and a lost dog.  It was a tense time for the Traveling Teachers and our entourage.

After about a half hour we heard from Ebony that Oscar was getting stitches and his mother was with him.  And Lindsay retrieved Frida.  Whew!! We all reunited and had lunch, but there was still major concern that Oscar may have  a concussion.  In addition to this concern, we heard from one of Oscar's friends that his grandmother would probably beat him when he got home for what he did.  Several in our group tried to convince Oscar's mother to allow us to take him to the hospital (a half hour away) for further tests to make sure he didn't have a concussion, but she said no.  "God would take care of him." We felt we could only push so far, so we dropped off Oscar and his mom at their house and reluctantly left. It was a clear moment of culture clash that was much more serious than just a difference in taste of food or music. It was a stressful and emotional afternoon.

But the day was not over yet!  We went back to our hostel for 10 minutes to regroup before we got back in the van to go to El Mozote. This is the town where General Monterrosa ordered a massacre during the war and over a 1000 people, including 100s of children, were murdered.  We had the privilege of speaking to someone who had been there.  She had left the town at around 5pm to do some shopping, and the killing began around 6. She hid in the mountains for 3 days without any food or water. It is amazing that she is willing to relive the events regularly by being a guide. It is understandable that she wants to make sure the story stays alive, but still, I have to admire people who are willing to put themselves through it time after time.   WHAT A DAY!!

Site where the children were massacred.

The next day we loaded into the van and made a quick stop to a small museum that displayed pictures of the refugee camps in Honduras.

Then it was off to the beach, El Espino, for a  much needed break and some down time. We spent the afternoon at La Tortuga Verde. It was lovely. It was at this point in the trip that we all realized we were absolutely exhausted: physically, mentally and emotionally. We had seen, heard and processed a lot of really heavy information in five days.

We so wanted to stay longer, because we felt we just didn't have it in us to be at the top of our game as "diplomats" or representatives of Voces, Carlos Rosario or the U.S.  But we were due to have dinner with the community leaders in Amando Lopez that evening. Many plans, including our homestays, were already in place and couldn't be changed.  Soooooo, what did we do?? WE GOT IN THE VAN and headed down the road to our next adventure.

Getting the bigger picture: Those who stay vs those who go (by Sheryl)

One of the biggest take-aways for me was getting a better sense of the people who stay behind. Up until this trip, of course, my understanding came only from what my students had told me. I imagined a country virtually populated only with children, abuelas and tias.  This is not the case. A more realistic  picture began to emerge after we left San Salvador and headed into Morozon.  Our students, the ones who leave, are not the leaders, so it was somewhat surprising to see that there are many strong leaders in the small villages. Our first encounter was a lovely gathering with members of a pastoral community. We gathered in the church, formed a circle and sang the song "Solidaridad." Among many topics, Maria, the primary spokesperson for the group, talked about how the communities are left fractured and diminished when someone leaves, not just families.

This same concern was echoed by the community leaders of Amando Lopez and Monte Cristo. However, unlike our students, who see the solution to a better life in the U.S., these people have made a conscious decision to stay and do the best they can to provide a better future for their children in El Salvador. It was very helpful to have the opportunity to talk to the leaders of  San Luis, Amando Lopez and Monte Cristo and to know that there are people remaining in the country who struggle against great odds every day to build opportunities for their families right there.
San Luis

San Luis

Amando Lopez

Monte Cristo

Monte Cristo

Another significant experience of the trip, that added to the big picture, was staying with families. I have to admit that this was the part of the trip I was most anxious about.  It's very demanding to be a guest in a stranger's home under "normal" circumstances, but being a guest in a stranger's home in another country, speaking another language is a whole different ballgame. Again, my vision of a typical Salvadoran home came from descriptions from my students, so I had a little idea of what to expect, but "living" it, even for just 2 days, gave me a more realistic picture of what their daily lives had been like: cooking over an open fire, bathing at a concrete sink with a basin, washing dishes at the concrete sink, sleeping in a hammock, washing clothes in the river, and going to the bathroom in an outhouse. It was important to experience this first hand, if only for a short period of time.

Jeanne Rikkers also added some insight into the dynamics of leaving vs staying. We see our students as making a huge sacrifice by leaving their children behind to find jobs in the U.S. so they can provide for these children.  But she sees children who feel abandoned by their parents; children who don't care about the material things their parents provide by sending back money, they just want their mother or father with them.

Jeanne Rikkers

Parents who leave also tend to paint a rosy picture of their new life in the U.S. (even though the reality is that their new life is really hard) because they don't want their families to worry about them. Rather than alleviating the worry, it has the effect of causing resentment in the family left behind. Jeanne feels it would be better if the parents would be more honest about how difficult their life in the U.S. really is.

Jeanne also suggested that often times young mothers are secretly relieved to leave their children behind and start a new life in the U.S. although it is never spoken.  Of course they love their children, but they see an opportunity to leave an oppressive country where the primary objective of women is to simply bear children.

So I now have a more complete notion of the immigration picture and it's effects here at home and in El Salvador. It's not pretty.  I only hope it helps me, helps us all, be more aware, sympathetic, and ultimately more effective as teachers and counselors.