PNL Interview with Shirley Novak:

"We really are a part of their lives. We are family."


Ed Kinane

Shirley is a local bi-lingual teacher and long-time Central America solidarity activist and human rights worker. She's the moving spirit behind the Syracuse/La Estancia Sister Community. In February, just after El Salvador had been ravaged by two earthquakes, Shirl returned there with four other Syracusans to visit Estancia and to help with earthquake relief.

Here are some stats she gave us :

— January 13 quake (7.6 magnitude): 844 people dead.

— February 13 quake (6.6 magnitude): 402 dead.

— 4000 to 7000 aftershocks (many over 5. magnitude).

— 200,000 homes destroyed.

— more than 1.1 million homeless (17% of population).

— 43,000 micro and small businesses damaged or destroyed.

— estimated cost of reconstruction : $2 to 3 billion.

Your plane touched down at the Salvadoran International Airport just minutes after the third major earthquake. How are Salvadorans responding to these repeated disasters?

Mostly with fear and anxiety, even in areas of the country not seriously affected. People are living under a great deal more stress, of course, where damage was severe. While participating in medical brigades during this trip, the top complaints I heard were headaches, insomnia and stomach problems.

What can Central New Yorkers do to provide the Salvadoran people with support during this crisis? Isn't there a local coffee project we can plug into?

Probably the best way to help is to spread the word on the present-day reality in El Salvador. You might invite me to give a presentation to a group of friends or to an organization you work with.

If you're able to contribute financially, please donate to any of the several NGO's doing earthquake relief work. It's important to know where the money will go. The Salvadoran government is playing the same old game of keeping aid from communities "on the wrong side." Doctors for Global Health ( , the organization I'm closely involved with, is working directly with Salvadoran NGO's in communities that have received little or no help from their government. Contributors to DGH can be assured that any money earmarked for Salvadoran earthquake relief will be used 100% for such efforts.

Was Estancia directly affected by the earthquakes?

Thankfully, no, except that our brothers and sisters there are fearful and anxious, wondering if they will be hit next.

You and others here have worked hard to build our Sister Community. Periodically you put out a newsletter. Altogether a couple dozen Syracusans have journeyed with you to Estancia; with each visit delegations bring material aid to Estancia. Currently our community is helping to finance a $17,000 library/community center there. You've hosted people from Estancia here. What do you see as the long-term shape of the relationship between Syracuse and Estancia? Once a sister community relationship is begun, does it ever end?

I view our sister community as family. I've seen children grow and relationships deepen over time, despite the distance. In most families, relationships change over time; needs and desires change, individual and group dynamics shift. As Estancia continues developing, our relationship will - and should - change as well. Especially if the Salvadoran government begins meeting the needs of the community, and we see Estancia becoming self-sufficient. I hope regular communication, which has strengthened person-to-person connections over these nine years, will NOT change. Broadening the base of our sister community remains an important goal, too. Energy will be needed to keep the work going and to hike those beautiful mountains.

You're active on the board of Doctors for Global Health (DGH). Tell us about its work in general and in El Salvador. Does it have a clinic in Estancia?

Doctors for Global Health has accompanied NGO's in several Central American countries at their invitation. Founded five years ago, we're a U.S.-based volunteer and student friendly health and human rights organization. We're not-for-profit. In El Salvador, we've partnered with Médicos Por El Derecho a La Salud (MDS - Physicians for the Right to Health) and Médicos Del Mundo (MDM - Physicians of the World). Both of these have projects in Estancia. With DGH help they are responsible for the five "Kinders" or Centers for Integral Child Development there. And also for the Clinic/Education Center and for training the health promoters and mental health educators.

The U.S.-financed war in El Salvador has been over for a decade. Thanks in large part to U.S. military aid — both weapons and training - a tiny country was devastated: democratic initiatives were undermined; an economy was destroyed; land reform and a more equitable distribution of the wealth was sabotaged; 75,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed; many were maimed; hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. What is our responsibility to the people of El Salvador now, so many years later?

Good question! Let me come back to the idea of family. After a rift in a family, healing best takes place when all parties are involved. It's important that each take responsibility to repair the damage. Relating this to Salvadoran history, the Truth Commission Report assigned the U.S. government and military responsibility for training soldiers who committed atrocities, and for covering up the truth, along with the Salvadoran military (e.g. the El Mozote Massacre). The U.S. military sent 1.5 million dollars a day to El Salvador during much of the war. Shouldn't we help rebuild this tiny country that we destroyed?

You're an organizer. El Salvador is far away. Most years since 1993 you've spent about two weeks there, often using your entire spring break. Would your organizing energies be better spent closer to home — for example, working on oppression issues here in Syracuse or working to change U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America?

For me, it's important to do both. Since 1984, along with many other Syracusans, I have petitioned Congress to act responsibly toward El Salvador regarding military spending and the status of refugees within our borders. Making the annual trips to Estancia, I continue to learn from the Salvadoran people and gain strength from them. I get my juices refueled to continue the necessary work here at home and our visits provide folks there with strength and courage to go on, knowing that they are not alone. We provide a voice for those who have difficulty having their voice heard.

El Salvador is only one of numerous countries in Latin America devastated by U.S. military aid and training. Our local Colombia Support Network chapter is looking to establish a sister relationship with a town in Colombia. You're an active part of that initiative. From you long experience, what advice could you offer?

Don't promise what you can't deliver. Just to be there is important. The constant, regular communication speaks more than mountains of financial help, although that too is certainly needed to bring about social justice.

You need to make it a long-term commitment. These relationships are needed because their national governments aren't providing the support they should. It really makes no sense to me if a relationship is started and then stopped shortly thereafter. Doing a one-shot-deal project is okay, but because the world is full of injustices, social justice work is really long-term. We need to realize that we are in this for the long haul and it will take a long time to realize our goals.

What would happen to our sister community relationship if Syracusans were unable to visit Estancia every year?

It would remain strong. Folks there would miss our not coming and our time of sharing, but I don't feel the overall relationship would change.

How do you think the campesinos of Estancia view these highly mobile gringos from El Norte who suddenly appear and then disappear every year?

Sure, we come and go and come again, but their stories and letters verify that we remain very present in their lives. They gather in the hermita to read and discuss our letters. They pray for us at their church services and in the meetings of the directivas. We really are a part of their lives. We are family.

When are you returning to Estancia? How would someone get to take part in a delegation to Estancia?

My husband Larry and I will be spending a few months away from Syracuse starting in the fall. After two months in Uganda, Africa, where he will work with a DGH medical project, we will travel to several Central American countries. We plan on spending a month in El Salvador, although right now we don't know just when. A great way to join in the sister community work would be to stay in contact (, join in local meetings and work, and meet up with us there!

Re-building El Salvador "one cup at a time."

Another way to help is to buy Salvadoran Coffee which is now available in Syracuse. This Fair Trade Certified Coffee FTC coffee is from small coffee farmers who are guaranteed a minimum price in order to sustain coffee farming that is enviro friendly, socially responsible and produces high quality coffee beans.

It is being roasted by our local distributor, Paul DeLima Coffee, and will be sold throughout New York State in supermarkets and restaurants. Call 1.800.962.8864 or check out to find out the local markets. You can further help by asking your favorite grocery store, restaurant or coffee shop to carry this special coffee from Paul DeLima. It can then be purchased by the public for home use to help El Salvador recover, "one cup at a time."

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