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The Post-War Story of the Salvadoran Refugee

My mother often told me stories of her mother country, El Salvador. She would tell me about how she would enjoy the vast greenery within the hills of her rustic village and how the cheese there brought many good memories. Often on her trips to El Salvador, she would come back home with the cheese and teach me the traditional meal of eating it with beans, cream, and tortillas while ecstatically telling me about her ventures with the people there. So when I asked, “why did you leave?” An honest but unbeknownst answer surprised me, “because I had to. I was running from the guerreros and the military of my country, they would come shooting up the schools and it was no longer a safe place to live.” What she is talking about here is the Salvadoran war that lasted from 1980 - 1992 during which tensions rose between the FMLN leftist group and the Salvadoran military. This 12-year civil war ended with a death toll of 71,629 people, about 2% of Salvadorans, according to the Demographic Research 2019 report. Nearly one million Salvadorans fled the country, abandoning their dreams and opportunities, their land and property, and even their relatives and friends behind. 


The beginnings of the Salvadoran civil war started around 1932 when the Salvadoran government open-fired at a group of 30,000 people during an uprising led by Agustine Farabundo Marti, which later came to influence the FMLN, or the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a left-wing party that sought to end the oligarchy of the Salvadoran society and the government's repressive nature, which contributed to El Salvador’s poverty and social inequality. Around that time, the Nicaraguan revolution victory of 1979 and the Honduran insurgency (1961-1996) helped influence the development of the FMLN group since they were successful in overthrowing their repressive governments. Due to Cold War era tensions, the American government, under Ronald Reagan, decided to support the Salvadoran military forces in combating leftist guerillas. A series of events made way for an increase in the further slaughter of the Salvadoran people, which has become known as the 12 years of terror which eventually ended in 1992 with a peace treaty signed between President Alfredo Christiano and 10 guerilla leaders.


It is no surprise that most are in the United States since 69% end up in neighboring countries. My mom arrived in Los Angeles where she had some of her family members and friends to rely on. At only 21 years old, with very little on her person, she traveled through Guatemala, Mexico, and finally arrived in America, while paying the coyotes $3,000 for the trip which at the time would total around $11,000 today.  


My mother’s time in America has been filled with a lot of hardship, this is something that a lot of other refugees and immigrants experience. Often, many refugees end up with employment that does not match the skills or experiences they developed in their home country because their skills and experiences aren’t recognized as professional credentials in the new country. This can be seen in my mother’s work history in the United States, where she has been a housekeeper, a babysitter, and a security guard. In her home country, she developed skills to become a nurse right after high school and has credentials for it but it was considered illegitimate when she applied to move up in her career. These types of jobs are often taken up by immigrants and refugees because of the language barrier so they end up taking up blue-collar jobs that can lead them to take risks during the job. This barrier to employment can lead many to be stuck in poverty within the new country, which can be hard to get out of for many generations. However, it is hard to quantify poverty rates among refugees as there has been a lack of credible data. Furthermore, many immigrants experience the negative effects of a life post-war that is potentially filled with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and/or depression. Besides, it has been documented that refugees have these mental illnesses 8 times higher than the general population and can notably persist among many individuals who experienced the war. Treatment for mental illnesses such as PTSD for refugees is also considered to be very poor. Due to the lack of cultural knowledge within diagnostic assessments, many psychologists have misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed refugees. 


Personally settling as a refugee or a migrant from a completely different country with different customs and a different language can prove to be challenging. According to the University of Cagary, Language Research Centre 2011 report, it takes an average person 10,000 hours to learn a language but if an individual is older or has to work long hours for basic needs, learning a language proficiently is extremely difficult. However, my mother said she learned how to speak English fluently through her time watching American media, going to the public library, and watching “Sesame Street” while taking care of me. Sesame Street is a popular children’s show which teaches children the alphabet and various other learning topics. I wonder how many refugees have had to do their creative learning based on the lack of resources or had difficulty learning due to their restrictions. 


The story doesn’t end here. Although my mother has expressed interest in returning to her home country in El Salvador, there is always this sense of hesitancy. See, El Salvador doesn’t seem to have recuperated ever since the civil war with gangs, human trafficking, and a high rate of homicide which recently has been reduced since President Nayib Bukele took action to crack down on gangs. On the other hand, it has been reported that refugees return to their home countries due to the extreme challenges of the language barrier and unemployment, which pose a high risk to a better livelihood. 


Many refugees are beneficial economic contributors to the countries they settle in especially if they have formal labor market access. However, my mother says that the hard work that refugees and immigrants put into their job hardly gets recognized by the American public despite all the challenges they face and I think she is correct in this assumption. Both my mother and I live comfortably in the United States as proud citizens and though we still face the struggles and challenges from the past, we are always looking ahead. 

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