A scenic view of mountains from Cacaopera, Morazán, El Salvador

The mountains of Cacaopera, Morazán, El Salvador. PHOTO: SEAN HAWKEY

UMCOR partners with Cristosal to resettle displaced families in El Salvador 

By Christie R. House 

January 7, 2021 | ATLANTA 

Although violence was a constant threat in the rural area of El Salvador where Tanaya’s* family lived, they weren’t personally threatened, so they chose to stay in the community they knew. Understanding how to navigate social systems to find services like health care was important to Tanaya because she cared for three family members who were developmentally disabled: her older brother, her older sister and her daughter. 

But then relatives in her extended family were targeted and killed by a gang and Tanaya no longer felt she could keep her family safe. They had to flee before someone in her household became the next target. 

At first, Tanaya wanted to migrate to the United States, where a second brother and another daughter lived, but she knew her family members were not likely to survive the journey. She was the only one in her household who could read and write. If they got separated for any reason, the consequences would be devastating. With new regulations put into place in the U.S. in the last few years, it was doubtful the family could even make it across the border to ask for asylum. 

Tanaya found temporary quarters in another village and contacted the El Salvadoran Ombudsman for Human Rights. That office referred her to Cristosal, an agency that works throughout the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala to support victims of violence, providing protection for people deported from the U.S. and for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) like Tanaya and her family. 

A Cristosal workshop, held before COVID-19 closed public gatherings, to help community groups and local leaders consider the rights and needs of IDP families entering their community.

Fortunately, Cristosal was increasing its outreach at that time because of a Global Migration grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. While some migrants choose to leave the country, many can be moved into safer communities within El Salvador. 

Global Ministries general secretary, Roland Fernandes, noted the importance of this work for UMCOR and that supplying hope and humanitarian aid to families and individuals displaced by violence was what compelled Methodists to create the relief agency 80 years ago. “Today, we realize the interconnectedness of our world and the need to partner with agencies like Cristosal, so that humanitarian aid is received from neighbors working within the context and cultures of the people they serve. We are grateful for the opportunity to support this work.” 

Local migration is a big part of global migration 

In their home village, Tanaya supported her family by selling tortillas and food, and she also received remittances from her brother and daughter living in the U.S. Tanaya had her own house and access to the basic services her family needed, especially health care. After they evacuated, Tanaya was at a loss. 

“I will not be able to see my family through this situation,” she said to Cristosal staff. “It’s difficult, and I cannot leave the country.” 

Tanaya did not feel she had a secure support network to help her relocate, which Cristosal says is a fundamental necessity in a context of widespread violence. The agency helped Tanaya see that she had more connections than she knew. Tanaya received psycho-social support to help her think through her situation step-by-step and pull together a plan that would give her long-term security. Her brother in the U.S. still had a house in El Salvador in a more urban area and her daughter was able to send money for her to buy that house. 

Cristosal also helps relocated families with small grants or other forms of assistance to set up small businesses. Since Tanaya had developed such a business in her former village, she received initial start-up help to open a small grocery, which her family members also supported. Eventually, she could see the light at the end of her family’s dark tunnel. They found a congregation to join and are on their way to feeling at home in their new community. 

A small grocery store with a few goods to sell can increase stability and security for a displaced family seeking to resettle in a new community.

Migration doesn’t always involve crossing country borders to find safety. Sometimes choosing to stay within country borders can be the right choice. The UMCOR grant meant that 69 families received shelter, emergency humanitarian aid or temporary housing for relocation. 

Taking a human rights approach 

The Rev. Jack Amick, UMCOR’s director of Global Migration, notes that Cristosal exhibits a ministry of radical hospitality. “I first experienced that hospitality a few years ago when I was on an educational and awareness trip to El Salvador to learn about displacement in that country,” said Amick. “Cristosal provides for the basic humanitarian needs of people who have to flee violence, and they also work closely with leadership in the new villages to ensure that displaced families are truly welcomed and can become part of new communities. Through this grant, not only was hospitality provided, it was also promoted. In a sense, Cristosal is evangelizing care and compassion and reminding communities that when they welcome someone who was desperate enough to leave everything and flee to their town, they encounter Christ.” 

Although certain aspects of Cristosal’s work had to be postponed because of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as community workshops and municipal briefings, the agency has continued to accompany families and individuals through relocation. It has increased humanitarian aid for relocated families as needed and focused on income generation and economic solutions. 

Global Migration program manager, Mia Nieves, pointed out that “when the pandemic hit, we worked with Cristosal and encouraged the flexibility they needed to be able to pivot programming that took into account the increased economic hardships and stigma that IDPs face because of El Salvador’s COVID-19 lockdown and its enforcement.” 

Tanaya’s family is still adjusting to their new environment, but they are building relationships with their neighbors, who recently helped them receive government aid during the pandemic. The ties they established with their local church provided support for medical care and medicines during the coronavirus health emergency. 

“Here we live in peace,” Tanaya confided in her Cristosal counselor. “I feel happy and sure that my family will not have a problem. That is what matters. The help you gave us made all this possible.” 

Support for UMCOR’s Global Migration ministry allows UMCOR to act quickly to reach migrants who need urgent help to survive. A gift to UMCOR “Where Most Needed” will also increase UMCOR’s flexibility to respond quickly. 

* Name changed to protect the family’s identity. 

Christie R. House is a consultant writer and editor for Global Ministries and UMCOR.