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Fey y Esperanza: A Former Refugee Camp Named Faith and Hope

SAN SALVADOR—We are in the hills just outside the chaotic urban sprawl at a former refugee camp where once bombs fell and Devora Rivas huddled inside the wire with hundreds of other women and children, not daring to go out and hoping the Army chose not to come in.

Former refugee Devora Rivas leads a tour of the Fey y Esperanza facility outside San Salvador where she was sheltered during the civil war.

 It is quiet except for the wind in the trees and the old hymns being sung in the nearby chapel and it is hard to imagine the thud of shells and the crack of rifles and the smell and sound of terror. This place is called Fey y Esperanza, faith and hope. There is a Lutheran church of the same name and plans to convert the empty buildings into schools and the land into farms. According to Rev. Abelina Gomez, the facility was begun in 1982 with an initial population of around 500 refugees, mostly sympathizers of the revolutionary FMLN party but the elderly and young. The land was bought by the Lutheran church, according to Gomez, with foreign funding specifically as a refugee sanctuary.

 American humanitarian Betty Ann Larson was here in that time. She looks around with eyes that are seeing another time. She speaks quietly, “When I decided to come to El Salvador there was some sort of spirit or force that stayed over my left shoulder that let me know I wouldn’t be harmed.” She is silent for a long moment, as if unwilling to put the inexplicable to voice, “It isn’t there anymore but it was, all through the war. I can’t explain it. How do you put that into words? I kind of sense that feeling again, now that I am here and talking about it. I haven’t spoken of it in a long time.” And then she was done and turned away, put her dark glasses back over her eyes and slowly followed the others.

 Devora Rivas led us around the compound, followed by her two-and-a-half year old son Brian. She too seemed to be seeing another time. “When I came here I was seven years old. We would never leave here. It was all enclosed. It was dangerous, it was death outside. We would make food and clean the grounds. There were problems with the soldiers. They would come and search us for weapons but we were all children and old women and men. They would ask where all the men were. But they saw the Bishop here and so many foreign people helping that they held back. I live here now and take care of the children. I am the only one. Everyone else returned to their towns.”

Salvadorans now living near the former refugee camp and using its facilities.

 Betty Ann listened, took off her glasses, spoke in a firmer voice, back in the more secure realm of action and history. “It was about 1989 and I was working with ADEMUSA, the largest women’s organization at the time and health promoters all over the country. We brought children out of the city, often alone. They were very disoriented and unhappy and they asked no questions and didn’t even cry much.. There was so much disruption in family life and yet they all seemed to believe we would take care of them. It was kind of like a prison because you couldn’t go out. You could feel it out there, a darkness of the spirit. We could here the bombing and sometimes there was so much bombing here we took children back to the city.”

 Back in the Fey y Esperanza chapel Abelina Gomez is leading Sunday afternoon services. She is the wife of Menardo Gomez, Lutheran Bishop of San Salvador who was a dissident voice during the war. Bishop Gomez was arrested and tortured several times but was always released through pressure from the foreign press, activists and churches. A small congregation sings to the accompaniment of a single guitar and the voices are rough but lovely, full-sounding of the faith and hope for which their church is named. Co-pastor Joel Rodriguez explains, “Our vision is to convert this place to a land of milk and honey where the men and women and children have the opportunity to harvest their own food. There is so much injustice and hunger in this country that the only way to fight the hunger and injustice is to teach our brothers and sisters in a spiritual and in a physical way to fish and harvest. If we are filled in stomach and in mind with what God wants then here is where the Kingdom of God with food and justice for all can begin.”

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