Tall and lanky, Sister Virginia Searing towers over almost everyone, both with her stature and her energy, at the Barbara Ford Peace Center just outside of the city of Santa Cruz del Quiché in Guatemala.
Originally from New Rochelle, New York, Sister Virginia is a member of the Sisters of Charity of New York and serves as the director of the Peace Center. She has been serving in Quiché for 23 years, and Paul Townsend, country representative for Catholic Relief Services, described Sister Virginia as a “spirited seeker of social justice” who works with determination and love.
Founded in 2009, the Barbara Ford Peace Center is named for a fellow American Sister of Charity who was murdered at the order’s mission in an apparent robbery attempt in 2001. It offers a series of empowerment programs for individuals, families and communities, all with the aim of helping the residents transform themselves and their society.
A history of violence
A largely rural and indigenous region, the area where the center is located is one of subsistence farming and poverty and has high levels of both childhood malnutrition and unemployment.
It is also the area of the country that suffered most during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, with 432 recorded massacres taking place here — 90 percent of all the atrocities in the region — according to a 1999 U.N.-sponsored report. According to the report, the vast majority of these were perpetrated by U.S.-backed government forces fighting against a leftist peasant guerilla force calling for a more just division of land and wealth.
It has been estimated that some 200,000 people were raped, tortured and killed, and the U.N. has declared the killings genocide. More than 200 Catholic laypeople and nuns, and 17 Catholic priests were killed during the civil war.
Though the conflict ended in 1996, silent emotional scars run deep, said Sister Virginia. And so she has coordinated a mental health program with the local Mayan indigenous community specifically to help them heal their memories and help in recovering the family unit destroyed by the civil war.
“There were killings and burnings, burning people in churches and raping all the women. From the ’70s and ’80s there was a scorched earth policy,” said Sister Virginia. “We are still in an area where every single person of that age has something affecting them from that violence, trauma and horror. When you have a family where the father and mother experienced some kind of trauma, where they saw loved ones macheted to death, that affects (the family dynamic). That took away the social fabric. The Mayans had that and now they don’t have it.”
She added, “They have nightmares. They need mental health counseling. We are still killing people in Quiché.”
Children suffer from secondary trauma, from a trauma their grandparents and parents suffered but is never spoken about, she said.
The combination of unresolved emotional trauma, lack of opportunities and high unemployment leads to suicide and family violence, she said.
“Anger and machismo is so strong here. Most women over 40 are raped (by their husbands) every night. A woman has no value. They are raped at night and then get up in the morning and make the food for their family,” said Sister Virginia. “This is violence that has never gotten healed from one generation to the other. It is in the homes. Incest is epidemic. Girls aged 13 and 14 are raped by family members.”
For many years, there was a sense of taboo, as if they couldn’t accept the violence that had happened to them, she said. But using some of the spirituality intrinsic in the Mayan tradition, they were able to create an integrated Mayan mental health program using all five senses and traditional Mayan symbols.
“When they speak of a pain of the heart we burn a flame (as a symbol) of the pain. Fire is a positive symbol,” said Sister Virginia.
One difficult result of this cross-generational trauma is lack of communication within the family, she said.
The Youth Builders project, which the center has sponsored together with Social Pastoral Caritas Los Altos and Catholic Relief Services, has helped 480 youths and their families over a three-year period. Though the immediate aim is to help maximize employment opportunities for young people by boosting their confidence and providing training, it also strives to transform violent relations and promote inclusion and dialogue within the family through meetings and workshops. Sometimes parents are invited to participate in the dialogue.
In a region where many of the youth see emigration north as their only option for survival, the program opens their eyes to possibilities at home which they hadn’t seen before.
“This is giving an opportunity for the youth. It is not just teaching techniques, but it is teaching them about what is happening to the heart, it is listening to them. Now people are able to see that girl who is being abused by all her friends,” Sister Virginia said. And because the government is not involved in helping them, she added, “If we don’t help there won’t be a chance for these people to live a normal life.”
Recent graduates of the program spoke about their plans and the hurdles they face. Delia Magelena, 17, said she was thinking of going back to high school and then opening up a small bakery. Sporting funky painted fingernails and dressed in the traditional skirt and blouse of her village, Lydia Zapeta, 19, already was providing beauty salon services out of her parents’ house.
For 19-year-old Victor, whose real name is not being used in order to protect him, the program has changed the course of his life.
Constantly facing ridicule at school and arguments at home with his father, Victor was recruited into the gang culture of the Guatemalan maras, which terrorize urban centers and rural, largely indigenous villages alike. He was instructed to rob people and beat them up if they refused.
“I went with them for a time, but thank God I saw the injustices in that, and other friends helped me to get out of that life and set me on the right path. In gangs there is a ‘baptism’ to be officially initiated, but thankfully I did not reach that stage,” said Victor. “But they kept calling me and calling me. I was able to escape their harassment only by leaving school.”
Then another friend told him about Youth Builders. “I had already seen my future with the gangs, but now I know that our lives shouldn’t be like that. We have to find our talents and build on them,” he said. “But what makes me the happiest is that I got closer to my family. I have connected emotionally with my father, and we are closer now and the communication between us is better than it was last year.”
Before he had thought of leaving the country, but now he and his friend have plans to open a small storefront where they will sell homemade stuffed pastries, he said. Through a scholarship program with the center, they are also taking a jam-making class.
Sister Virginia encourages the Youth Builders graduates to go back to school, and she helps get them scholarships to continue their studies.
“Violence is a part of their lives, but if we are able to help them gain confidence they can do whatever they want to do,” she said. “They won’t repeat what their parents and grandparents are doing.”
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.