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Behind the Headlines: After Earthquake, Jewish Groups Help Locals in El Salvador Dig out

February 8, 2001
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David Rodriguez stands near the remains of his family’s house in the impoverished Salvadoran countryside.

The simple adobe structure has been reduced to rubble, one of tens of thousands of homes destroyed by the Jan. 13 earthquake that claimed more than 700 lives.

Now Rodriguez’s wife and five children sleep in a tent provided by a local development organization, and he sleeps underneath a plastic shelter.

The only bright spot in the story is that the quake happened at 11:30 in the morning, when the family was not inside the house.

“If it were at night,” says Rodriguez, 35, “we would have died.”

Several weeks after the earthquake ravaged this beleaguered Central American country — devastated by civil war in the 1980s and hard hit by other natural disasters, including 1998’s Hurricane Mitch — residents once again are attempting to rebuild their lives.

El Salvador’s tiny Jewish community was unaffected by the earthquake, but U.S. Jewish organizations and one Israeli group, active in long-term economic development projects around the globe, have responded to the tragedy. Jewish groups involved in the relief effort here — and also in India, where a Jan. 26 earthquake killed at least 15,000 people — say their efforts stem from a desire to become “global citizens.”

“It doesn’t matter the politics or the religion or if Israel has relations” with a country, says Yaron Lief, director of operations for Latet, a private Israeli humanitarian organization. “We will get there quickly. There are citizens of the world who need help.”

Those involved say the projects stem from what they see as the Jewish obligation to help the less fortunate, and from the fact that Jews are increasingly prosperous.

Latet — from the Hebrew word “to give” — provides immediate relief to disaster victims, while other Jewish organizations provide longer-term aid.

Formed in 1994 in reaction to the civil war in Rwanda, the U.S.-based Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which receives support from up to 45 groups, has responded to crises in places ranging from Kosovo to Ethiopia.

In addition to some immediate relief, the coalition provides support for what its organizers call “intermediate-phase projects,” mainly channeling money to local organizations to help improve health care and vocational training and to promote peace.

“We’re not there pulling bodies out,” says Laina Richter, the deputy director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s International Development Program, which coordinates the coalition.

The coalition is currently collecting money for victims of both the India and El Salvador earthquakes.

The American Jewish World Service, one of the most active partners in the coalition, works for even longer-term goals.

The 15-year-old group has spent nearly $300,000 on aid projects in El Salvador — including $100,000 since the earthquake — over the past five years.

In addition to its Central American efforts, the AJWS supports development efforts in Asia, Africa, the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the former Soviet Union.

The AJWS gears its outreach toward younger Jews, who may be receptive to the group’s message of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

The group tries to answer a question, says Rabbi Josh Saltzman, the AJWS’ director of communications, education and outreach, that is a “first for 21st- century U.S. Jews: Now you’re in a position of power, now you’re in a position of privilege. What are you going to do with it?”

For those involved with the AJWS, the answer is clear.

Judaism teaches us that “we are commanded to help others escape their slavery, of whatever sort that is, most notably the slavery of poverty,” says Don Abramson, chairman of the AJWS’ board of directors.

The poverty is evident during a visit to El Salvadoran villages in the days after the earthquake.

Dogs, small pigs and skinny cows wander the hot, dusty streets and yards. Animal-driven carts, pulling crops and people, are as common as cars.

Refrigerators and televisions are virtually non-existent.

While the loss of life from the Salvadoran quake is far less than that in India, the devastation is still evident. The parched earth is broken by cracks and even craters from the 7.6-magnitude quake, whose epicenter was miles away from La Papalota, a village in the rural region of Usulutan.

Along the road from the country’s main airport in San Salvador, people have been living in cardboard-box structures since the earthquake.

Throughout Usulutan, a 90-minute drive from the capital of San Salvador, variations of David Rodriguez’s story could be heard time and again.

But words are hardly necessary.

The proliferation of brightly colored tents and the piles of wood and tiles from ruined houses testify to the earthquake destruction. With aftershocks continuing, some residents whose homes were only slightly damaged have chosen to sleep outside for fear of further tremors.

While loss of life was greatest in San Salvador, more homes were destroyed in rural Usulutan than in other parts of El Salvador. Nearly two-thirds of this tiny nation suffered some damage in the earthquake, according to Rose Likins, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.

Nor are the threats over. With disruptions still possible to water and sewerage systems, the potential looms for health problems such as cholera, which may be transmitted through dirty water and dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease.

“After a tragedy like the one we just suffered, there is always the fear of epidemics,” said a Salvadoran woman named Patricia, who is a health worker.

Doctors are few in El Salvador, and mental health practitioners even rarer.

Besides the AJWS, other international relief agencies are working in El Salvador, and the United Nations has pledged $10 million in food aid.

The AJWS contributes most of its money through a local group called La Coordinadora, an umbrella group for 86 communities in Usulutan.

La Coordinadora, which works to promote self-sustaining economic development, is typical of the groups that the AJWS supports.

La Coordinadora “is an organization that is very community-based, that doesn’t work from the top down, that listens to the people who are involved,” says Catherine Shimony, director of international programs for the AJWS.

Despite all these efforts, many residents doubt that the aid will reach them before the spring rainy season, in part because of the country’s fractious politics.

During the 1980s, a right-wing government, supported by the United States as part of its Cold War struggle against communism, battled left-wing guerrillas.

A 1992 peace accord ended the war, but the fighting was soon replaced by political maneuvering. Many international organizations and countries concerned about corruption prefer to support non-governmental organizations than give their money to the El Salvadoran government.

“We’re not handing them $5 million, $6 million in cash,” Ambassador Likins says. “We’re saying, `We spent this much money on your behalf.'”

But, she added, “the government’s efforts are not without merit.”

For his part, El Salvadoran President Francisco Flores plans to visit the United States and Europe to request more aid.

In Usulutan, a region known for its leftist sympathies, distrust for the government is widespread.

The government has proposed that each resident be given $190 to clean up the debris and begin building temporary housing.

But the locals are wary. They accepted such an offer after Hurricane Mitch. Two years later, many say, they were still living in that “temporary” housing, which crumbled in last month’s earthquake.

Last week, some 200 people gathered in a small village, large cashew trees shading them from the midday sun.

As a bulldozer collects the debris of a nearby structure, they hear a proposal drawn up by La Coordinadora to refuse the government’s proffered help. Instead, it is proposed, they should hold out for money that will help them build homes more likely to withstand natural disasters.

By a hand vote, they pass the proposal.

But before they do, a petite woman in bright pink clothes steps out from the crowd and expresses a widely held cynicism about all relief efforts.

“In this country, there are many offers. But they must be ready to complete what they start,” she says. “I will thank them only when I see there is a house.”


(JTA staff writer Peter Ephross recently traveled to El Salvador on a trip sponsored by the American Jewish World Service.)

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