Stern College Senior, Tamara Freiden, Finds Common Ground in El Salvador
By Tamara Freiden, senior at Stern College for Women
The single most surprising thing I saw in El Salvador was not the dust-strewn shacks made of thin slabs of aluminum hardly able to keep a drizzle out, let alone the downpour that struck them during the rainy season. It wasn’t these sorry substitutes for what they called home, containing little more than a hammock to sleep in. Nor was it the emaciated livestock in the backyard which would ultimately determine whether they would make a living these next couple of months. It wasn’t the barefooted kids running in the street, who should have been in school. It wasn’t the poverty. Because we expected that.
It was the sense of pride despite it.
There were sixteen of us who spent our winter break in Ciudad Romero, a small community in El Salvador named for the Archbishop Oscar Romero who devoted his life to finding peace during the civil war which plagued the country approximately three decades before. While most of us had this or that volunteer job during high school, or an entire afternoon devoted to chessed [kindness] during our year spent in Israel, the bulk of us have never been immersed in a situation so foreign to us, both culturally and economically, to this extent.
When we stepped off the plane into the Salvadoran heat, we brought along with us much more than our bag of necessities which included a pair of converse, several changes of clothing, face wash, and Ipods. We brought along societal standards, preconceived notions, ideals, and expectations. How would we break the barrier? Could break the barrier at all, was perhaps a better question. Could people so different, with so little in common, find common ground with us nonetheless? Would they be able to appreciate the support we brought from overseases, or would we be just another humanitarian group staying just long enough to be able to say we did it and then leave taking from the experience far more than we were actually giving?
Ciudad Romero didn’t want our American pity, sympathetic sighs exchanged behind the back, or anything of ours really. Never once did they asked us for a piece of our food, a bracelet we wore, or one of our frisbees. In fact, oddly enough, it seemed the opposite. They were the ones who took the initiative in giving. What little they had to offer, they gave. And because they didn’t actually own very many things, they showed it with actions instead.
There were two moments in particular which epitomizes the kind of giving I refer to above. Both were small gestures with an infinite amount of meaning behind them.
Each day at the worksite, our job consisted of mixing the sand, water, and rocks to form the cement, and then laying it across bricks which would eventually form the latrine we were meant to be building. The mornings were particularly hot, and we weren’t the most coordinated latrine-builders, while that might surprise you. The woman for whom we were building the bathroom never stood aside and watched. While I am sure she wasn’t a professional latrine-builder either, she plunged headfirst into the work we flew six hours to do. At one particular instance, I was attempting a rather sloppy job of brick layering. Seeing my struggle, she pushed me out of the way to take over. She immersed her bare hands into the cold cement and flattened it out neatly. In a last effort to do my part, I threw off my own work gloves ready to join her. She wouldn’t allow it. My hands were too delicate. Her course skin was used to the work, and I would have to sit beside her and watch.
The second moment involved her daughter. The whole family was gathered in the front yard with us as we exchanged good-byes. The little girl (she couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10) skipped away from the crowd, returning with a beat up plastic lawn chair. After insisting I sit down, she promptly made me get back up again. Without saying a word, she dragged the chair into the shade, and pointed at it one last time. Now it was ready for their guest.
Both times, these simple acts of kindness surprised me.
But should they have? When one thinks of the poor, perhaps by accident, they often become dehumanized. We think all they should have on their mind is food and shelter. They don’t need self-dignity or pride when they have much larger problems to deal with, after all. Let’s worry about providing them with the necessities, and leave it at that. It’s simply not our responsibility to go beyond.
I learned something about the people of Ciudad Romero while only there for a week. They became more than the picture of a little girl with big white eyes and scraps for a dress on the cover of National Geographic. They are a people that appreciate their culture and heritage despite the long history of abuse from their government. They are a people who are in love with their land and could not imagine living anywhere else, even if that means living in substandard conditions. They are people who left as a community together of approxiametly 300 to Panama th the start of the civil war because bonds to each other were stronger than the desire to be responsible only for themselves.
They are a people with a sense of pride who happened to be dealt a rough deal in life, and are still suffering repercussions because of it.
They do not give up, though. They know they need our help and they accept the resources we have come to offer. They insist on proving that they deserved it, and did so with certain subtleties. It was the smiles despite the hardships, the dirt underneath their nails, the respect they have for God, the dreams of an education, the sense of pride in their families, and the glint in their eyes as they told us the stories of their past.
Are we really so different? On a material scale, the spectrum is vast and the distance between us immense. But when we strip away the superficialities, and concentrate on the essence of their character as fellow human beings, we couldn’t be more similar. Is their Salvadoran pride not reminiscent of our Jewish sense of identity? Despite the suffering, they pick themselves up again and are stronger because of it. They remain in the land because they believe in it. They work hard despite the hurdles that have barricaded their way so often in the past. Looking back, we had far more in common that I ever thought imaginable. This bridge that was there all along that should further strengthen the responsibility we have for others in this world, who are first and foremost human beings than a torn up dress, a dust-strewn house, a statistic, or a burden.