Manuel De Paz has a job and a community college degree. With his extended family, he is buying a home and he has dreams of investing in a family business.
De Paz’ life, however, has not always been so filled with hope.
Sitting in the Bancroft Way basement offices of the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant—celebrating its silver anniversary Saturday—De Paz, now the community development and education coordinator at EBSC, told the Planet his story of escape from a brutal regime in El Salvador, how he got to the United States and found help at the EBSC.
De Paz’ horrific story is not so different from thousands of refugees who have made their way though Sanctuary’s doors since March 24, 1982.
In his homeland, De Paz’ three siblings were killed by the military in the early 1980s. “My one brother was decapitated and the other one was cut in pieces,” he said matter-of-factly, likely having repeated the story many times. His sister was raped before she was killed and a 9-year-old cousin had his throat slit.
During that time, refugees came from other towns to the tiny village where the De Paz family lived, which made them targets of the military, he said.
After the murder of his three siblings, De Paz became a refugee in his own country, living in the mountains for a year, then moving to various towns, until he decided that the best course of action would be to leave the country—an older brother had made it to the United States before him.
He was able to cross through Guatemala and into Mexico. “I had to walk day and night,” he said. “I had to ride freight trains.” De Paz said he was often cold and hungry during the five months it took him to cross Mexico.
In Mexico, “I was caught by immigration twice and they stole my money,” he said.
Once in the U.S., his brother took him to EBSC, where he met Sr. Maureen Duignan, now EBSC executive director, who connected him with those who could help him obtain temporary asylum, then political asylum. De Paz has finally obtained residency.
Today at EBSC, he helps others learn many of the things he had to struggle with when he first came to the U.S.: how to access healthcare, how to apply for college and understand class schedules, where to look for work and more. He’s also working on a citizenship campaign, going back to former EBSC clients who qualify.
He is enthusiastic about teaching new immigrants about their rights as tenants and workers. “Landlords think they can evict somebody just because they don’t have documents or don’t speak English,” he said.
Duignan, the engine that keeps EBSC going, is a diminutive nun who lives the religion she preaches. “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong … we are all sojourners,” she says, with a slightly perceptible Irish accent, as she quotes Leviticus.
While the sanctuary movement started with the flood of El Salvadoran refugees fleeing the military government supported by the U.S., it has grown to “protect, advocate for and support” people from every continent, Duignan told the Planet, noting that the newest challenge is working with recently jailed Latin American immigrants living in Richmond and San Rafael. EBSC is working to get them released on bond and linked up with legal help.
“Right now we are facing a real crisis in our own country,” says a message on the EBSC website, written by Duignan and Mia Trusker of the EBSC steering committee. “We are witnessing the suffering of people who are being rounded up like cattle, their families torn apart in raids as some of their members are being summarily deported. They are being targeted by a campaign officially called ‘Operation Return to Sender,’ as if they were an unsolicited package. Perhaps that name in itself symbolizes the inhumanity with which our country, a country of immigrants, is now treating its ‘undocumented immigrants.’”
Today EBSC and its student interns from Boalt Law School—this year there are 55 of them—continue to work with immigrants and refugees from Central America, but the work has expanded to include women who have escaped domestic violence and female circumcision and those persecuted in China for their spiritual practice of Falun Gong.
“It doesn't matter where you are from—Central America or Africa—you still are human. You still have rights,” says Manuel De Paz.
Those EBSC tends to often do not have documents allowing them to be in the country. “But there’s a law that is higher than man’s law, that compels us to reach out to our brothers and sisters,” Duignan says.
Returning to EBSC’s roots in the early ’80s, she talks about how dicey it was for the five local churches to publicly declare sanctuary for immigrants. “That was a big risk to take at that time,” she said, noting that, while the United Nations declared people escaping from El Salvador in the 1980s political refugees, the U.S. looked at them differently, because the country supported the military there.
Over the years, EBSC has begun to see its mission in a larger context, and tries to influence U.S. foreign and economic policies to promote peace and justice. EBSC is among those campaigning to shut down the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. alleged to teach torture to Latin American military.
Duignan has endless lists of projects—shelter and jobs for immigrants, the political situation in Haiti, improving the EBSC website. “We’re preparing for a big May Day event,” she says.
The anniversary celebration and recommitment ceremony will be Saturday, March 24, 7 p.m. at St. Marks Episcopal Church, 2300 Bancroft Way. Donations are welcome. For information, call 540-5296.