When we visited the shelter for amputee victims of the Death Train in Tapachula, Mexico back in June, we created a program to help folks get economic training or jobs back in their own countries, so that they could support their families without trying to sneak into the U.S. again. As we were leaving the shelter one of the residents said he doubted he'd ever see us again, as so many people came and made promises. It's easy to do when people are in such desperation. You want to reach out and help, you promise so much, but when you get home, well, there's so much else to do. My words that we weren't like that were small consolation.
I have just returned from El Salvador, where we celebrated the successful return of two "clients", Maria and Nelson. I was there with Michael, President of Polus Center in Massachusetts and Santiago, head of Walking Unidos in Nicaragua. We have worked together in the past, setting up our popular cafe/roasterie in Nicaragua whose profits support Walking Unidos' prosthetic clinic, and where post-therapy clients can work in a good job with good pay and high visibility. We are met at the airport in San Salvador by Beatrice, the Salvadoran social worker (miracle worker) who had done so much of the groundwork to get Maria and Nelson back and settled. Beatrice met us in a battered rental car without windshield wipers (how did she know it would rain the night she picked us up?). She was trying to save money for the project.
Maria has been back for almost a month. Her wish was to start a small store so that she could get back with her kids and be able to support them. Our budget for Maria included six month's rent on a house, furniture, and cash for inventory and living expenses. We visited Maria at her new house. In the front room of her house, Maria had established a small store, selling bread, Doritos, toothpaste and such to her neighbors. She met us at the door in her wheelchair, saying it was too hard to get around her new home on the two prosthetic legs that replaced her own, cut off above the knee when she fell from the Death Train. She is twenty-six, very pretty, and engulfed in the energy of her two boys, aged 5 and 3, who can't get enough of their mother now that she has returned after six months in the Tapachula shelter.
Maria tells us that business is growing slowly, and she predicts that she will be able to make the rent and take care of her family after only a few months (pretty good for a small business!). She would like to expand her offerings to include cosmetics, which are not readily available in her neighborhood, so we gave her a small grant to cover her initial inventory. While we are visiting, several customers come. Maria fills their orders, the boys race the bread or fruit over to the window and return to mom with the money. Maria's mother and brothers had come from the countryside to help Maria get set up, but have recently returned to their village. Maria says she was ready for this, as her two teenaged brothers ate lots of food from the store and never paid for anything (sound familiar,anybody?). We make plans to have lunch at a local Mr. Pollo (sort of McDonalds for chicken) and head off to visit Nelson.
Nelson lives in a small apartment block close to the center of town. He is happy with his two rooms, which afford him space and privacy. When I walk into his apartment, he just looks at me and shakes his head "I didn't believe you, man. I thought you'd never come back". We throw our arms around each other and laugh until we are in tears.
Nelson tells me about his new job. He is a special assistant in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His job is to help find other illegal Salvadoran immigrants who are trying to come home and work with the governments and private sector to make it happen. I tell him he is the right man for the job. He is charming, friendly and intelligent - and he knows what it is like to be an "indocumentado" in a foreign land. Nelson had been in the U.S. three times, washing dishes in West Virginia restaurants, busted and returned three times. On his fourth time he fell victim to the Death Train, losing one leg.
"I thought my life was over, losing a leg" he says plainly "but when I saw all those guys in the shelter without any legs or without arms, I knew what a lucky guy I was". Nelson has an amazing attitude.
I had promised Nelson in Tapachula that the next time I saw him I would get him some good clothes. We go shopping for a couple of suits, shirts and ties. When he comes out of the dressing room in a suit for the first time in his life he looks great. He looks himself over in the mirror and turns to me with full, wet eyes. "This is the first time in my life I feel important".
We all meet at the Mr. Pollo. It has a play area like MacDonald's and the boys, with their newly combed hair, go absolutely bonkers. They have never been to one of these! Needless to say we are pelting each other with plastic balls and shooting down the slides at warp speed, much to the amusement of the other patrons. The chicken was great.
We also visited the Ministry where Nelson works. They have a new division of repatriation, so Nelson was "a gift", they say. He is really making things happen. "I know what a good thing this is, it has changed my life and I'm not gonna screw it up" he says with determination. The head of the division says that this is the only successful repatriation program in Central America, and would we like to sign a Memorandum of Agreement with the Ministry for our work? We tell them we would love to have a good relationship with the government, but the program is still in development. We want to see how it evolves before creating anything larger or more complex (that's polite, I don't like to work with governments).
Our days with Nelson and Maria are too short, but I have to get up the mountains to work with some coffee cooperatives to help them develop strategies and better management so that they can get real money for their crop. Beatrice will keep in touch, as we watch our program mature. We hope we can find Beatrices in the other Central American countries where the project needs to be. The shelter is full of victims of the Death Train, and more are being created each month.
I'll keep you informed of our progress. I promise.