Isabel Marsh is our diocesan Step into the Gap volunteer. She is working at St Cassian’s retreat center in Kintbury and in February she visited CAFOD’s Partners in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Here is her reflection on her visit..
“Less than 12 hours after arriving in El Salvador, our group set off for the University of Central America (UCA) to meet with one of CAFOD’s partners. The UCA is a private university, meaning they are able to charge fees for students (but there are several scholarships and bursaries available) and are not reliant on government funding. This has meant the University has more autonomy and does not need to follow the views of the government, providing it with an independent and non-biased voice.
We were led to the Social Outreach Vice-Rectorate, for our meeting with Omar Serrano, the Vice-Rector. We spent the morning with Omar and his colleague Eduardo. Omar shared with us about El Salvador – its history; politics; society and social norms and economy.
Why social outreach is a key pillar of UCA?
Omar told us the different struggles the country had been through and how the UCA was founded with social outreach as a key part of its work. The UCA has become a place for independent thinking and is able to use its independent research and analysis to contribute to the country. For example, as a university, more specifically, the Social Outreach Vice-Rectorate where Omar works, they played a key part in the passing of a law to ban mining throughout the country.
This ban has been put in place to protect the environment as there is barely sufficient water of good enough quality in El Salvador for people to use in their daily lives. El Salvador has become the first country to completely prohibit mining of all kinds.
Following this, we went on a tour of the Monseñor Romero Centre at the UCA. A student showed us around and there was so much to learn. I had no idea how, throughout the civil war years, the University had continued Romero’s example of demanding peace with justice, and the effect that had on it – especially with the eight martyrs we learnt about.
Learning more about the history of UCA
Fr Ellacuría was inspired by Romero and said of him, “In Monseñor Romero, God walked through El Salvador.”
Nine years after the assassination of Blessed Oscar Romero, who was killed while celebrating Mass, six Jesuit priests of the UCA and Elba and Celina, the wife and daughter of the UCA’s gardener, were killed in a planned military death squad attack. The most shocking part I learned from this was that the army had tried to pin the blame on the guerrilla fighters, saying they had entered the University grounds and killed them. However, we learnt there was no way it could have been the guerrilla because the army had bases practically surrounding the University campus.
The martyrdom of the UCA Jesuits confirmed for the University that they couldhave the poor as their central focus and they can dedicate the University to social outreach – educating others on the issues of social injustices and having concern for the poor. The UCA continues to focus on social outreach and working towards a fairer and more equal country for all, especially those who are stuck in the poverty cycle. It does this by educating its students and others about the injustices that still exist.
It was so clear throughout the morning, just how important social justice and having concern for the poor was for this University, and for Omar himself. Having heard such strong passion in his voice when he was explaining the work the UCA had done to try and help improve the situations of those often left marginalised by the government you couldn’t help but be inspired.
Inspired by education
There was so much hope and drive in Omar and his Vice-Rectorate to continue working on social outreach and the education of others, alongside CAFOD. This gives people the ability to learn about their rights, but also to know what has actually happened during the history of their own country. It surprised me to hear that very few people are aware of all the events that had occurred during the civil war.
Everything I have learnt from this meeting and the trip as a whole has truly inspired me. The courage some of these people have in sharing their experiences, but also in standing up for and defending these different issues – economic; social; environmental; historical and so on. I am very grateful for CAFOD enabling me to have this experience and everything I have had the privilege to learn about.”