Team looks to rescue, reunite refugees with their history

Molly Todd, left, a History professor at Montana State University, is working with Amanda Grzyb, who teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, on a memory project looking to unearth the stories and experiences of Salvadoran civil war refugees while helping the community reclaim its experience and collective history.

Reynaldo Hernández // Special to Western NewsMolly Todd, left, a History professor at Montana State University, is working with Amanda Grzyb, who teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, on a memory project looking to unearth the stories and experiences of Salvadoran civil war refugees while helping the community reclaim its experience and collective history.

With a historically heavy focus on the protagonists of the Salvadoran civil war, the stories of tens of thousands of refugees have fallen by the wayside. But now, thanks to the efforts of Western researchers and their colleagues, that history is being rescued and reunited with the people and nation who lived them.

“Refugees often have a secondary place in historical accounts. There were many Salvadorians, driven out of their homes – some of them internally displaced for some time, who then eventually fled to Honduras to camps where they (suffered) really bad conditions,” said Amanda Grzyb, who teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Grzyb is working on a collaborative research project with Molly Todd, a history professor from Montana State University, looking to unearth the stories and experiences of Salvadoran civil war refugees while helping the community reclaim its experience and collective history.

Among the last of the Cold War conflicts, the Salvadoran civil war was waged for more than a decade (1980-1992) between a U.S.-backed, military-led government and a coalition of five left-wing guerrilla groups who, despite different ideologies, came together under an umbrella organization called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

The “long and brutal civil war” ravaged El Salvador with a number of state-sponsored massacres, displacing thousands of refugees whose stories have gone unheard. More than 40,000 Salvadorans fled into neighbouring Honduras, finding refuge in four large camps, where they endured terrible conditions for years.

While working on an unrelated project in El Salvador earlier this year, Grzyb and Todd connected and met a woman who was doing civil war memory work in repopulated Salvadoran communities. The woman mentioned the community didn’t have any documentation of refugees’ time in the camps. But documentation existed – a lot of it, actually – in the “so-called Global North.”

Personal connections and research garnered Grzyb and Todd access to thousands of photographs, children’s drawings and papers taken from camps in Honduras. They had recordings and music from the camps, too. Many of the photographs in their possession were taken by documentary photographer Steve Cagan and Meyer Brownstone, former chairperson of Oxfam Canada, whose solidarity work in Central America is an inspiration, Grzyb said.

All of this was material that belonged to the Salvadoran communities. It had to be returned.

“There was a flow, with good intentions, of these materials out of El Salvador, to tell the world about the struggle of the refugees. And now, 30-plus years later, it’s time to bring those materials back to the communities where they belong,” Grzyb noted.

Next month, Grzyb, Todd and the research team will be joined by Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Abrams Ansari, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Arlene MacDougall, as well as Western graduate students across numerous faculties, to conduct memory workshops in Milingo, El Salvador, as well as one other undetermined community. About 50 per cent of the people in Milingo spent time in Mesa Grande, the largest refugee camp in Honduras.

In the spring, the team will also run a pilot workshop with Mesa Grande refugees from southern Ontario.

“We’re working in a collaborative and supportive role to collect and bring back the materials, to work with communities to find the best way to share these materials with the repopulated communities there,” Grzyb explained, noting the project features a large anti-colonial approach.

“As we went through (Meyer’s) photographs, he identified other people from Canada who had gone down in delegations, including Dan Heap, David Heap’s (French Studies professor) father. David found an envelope of his dad’s with photos and negatives of a trip to a refugee camp. Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn agreed to donate original photos and negatives to the project. We’ve created quite an archive of materials and it happened very quickly,” she continued.

Ansari, a musicologist, is joining the project to interview participants about their experience with music in refugee camps. There is a huge musical aspect to this project – music was an important part of life in the camps.

“A lot of the ways they understand their history, they describe through song. This is not uncommon especially in societies where literacy is low. Music can become a way history is passed on – this is one of the reasons it’s so important for this community,” Ansari said.

The ways in which they used music for protest also seems to have been interesting.

“They weren’t allowed to stay in the camps if they declared themselves to be affiliated with any political position,” Ansari said. “Often what they would do is, they would sing old folk songs, but they would write new words to them – protest words, anti-government words – and if an official happened to come by, they could just switch back to the old folk song words. So, there’s all kinds of interesting functions music played for healing, after truly awful things that happened to them.”

MacDougall, a clinician-researcher with the Department of Psychiatry, is joining the research team to look for opportunities to include mental-health support for refugees participating in the memory workshops. The whole project and its methodological approach is interdisciplinary, Grzyb stressed.

The project is supported by a Montana State Scholarship and Creativity Grant for the Advancement of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. It is also supported by an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

“There’s a lot of excitement and momentum. This is a history that needs to be recovered. It’s a hidden history that exists within communities and we’re giving these materials back to them, and working with them to find a way to preserve this history and teaching it to the next generation and the international community,” Grzyb said.