Mapping memories nets team Humanitarian award

Moses Monterroza // Special to Western News

Photos at a community workshop in Copapayo, El Salvador, April 2018.

Amanda Grzyb and her colleagues don’t see their efforts in El Salvador as fitting the traditional definition of humanitarian work.

What the team is doing instead, she said, is showing a commitment to working in solidarity with the country’s civil war survivors on a project founded on principles of collaboration and anti-colonial methodologies.

“Surviving Memory in Postwar El Salvador” is a trans-national interdisciplinary initiative based in El Salvador, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

The project works with former refugees and massacre survivors to document their experiences  during the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992). Grzyb, the principal investigator and professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), is among more than a dozen members of the Western community involved with the project.

“Refugees often have a secondary place in historical accounts,” she said, noting the aim of the project is to work with repopulated communities in El Salvador to break historic silences about the war, contribute to inter-generational knowledge, build capacity within affected communities, produce educational materials for Salvadorans, plan community-designed massacre memorials and develop scholarly publications that deepen international understanding of the war era.

For such efforts, Grzyb and her team have been named this year’s recipient of the Western Humanitarian Award.

Established in 2010, the award recognizes faculty, staff and students who work to improve the quality of life for individuals and communities around the world. Funded by the Office of the Vice-President (Research), the award provides a maximum of $5,000 in support of humanitarian efforts as chosen by the recipient.

We think of ourselves as fellow travellers on this project, rather than the old-fashioned colonial model of people coming from the west, going in, helping then leaving. We want to be involved from the ground up, in helping them to achieve the things they want to achieve for their country.” ~ Amanda Grzyb

Among the last of the Cold War conflicts, the Salvadoran civil war raged between a U.S.-backed, military-led government and a coalition of five left-wing guerrilla groups who came together under an umbrella organization called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

The war ravaged El Salvador with state-sponsored massacres and 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 years of terrible conditions.

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“There is tremendous urgency to this project. The survivors and former refugees are aging and there have been many years of silence about wartime experiences. Although the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador’s 1993 final report called for the national commemoration of the victims of the war, no government has adequately complied it. Historical memory is at a critical point in El Salvador, and Salvadorans are committed to documenting their wartime experiences in order to promote commemoration, justice, and intergenerational education,” Grzyb said.

Her research team has collected more than 600 photos from Canadian and U.S. aid workers, medical personnel, peace delegates and politicians who visited the UNHCR refugee camps in Honduras in the 1980s and has returned them to the former refugees and their families.

In collaboration with the Association of Survivors of the Sumpul Massacre and Other Chalatenango Massacres, the team is mapping more than 58 community-identified massacres in Chalatenango, collecting survivor testimonies and community input toward planning, designing and building a Sumpul River Massacre Memorial Park.

“We know a lot about the history of the Sumpul massacre; it’s one of the largest massacres that was committed by the Salvadoran army during the civil war, but there are many other smaller massacres in the region that have not been documented,” Grzyb said.

Grzyb’s team recently worked with survivors and interviewed and accompanied them to massacre sites.

“The idea is to work to create an online map where you can click on a particular massacre site and pull up video testimonies, written testimonies, any kind of official documents and news coverage that was available. It’s a way to digitally archive and provide a topographical sense of where the massacres occurred,” she said.

This archive will also include a music component from Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Abrams Ansari, who has worked with refugees to collect folk songs written during the civil war.

“Some of the songs describe in great detail the massacres that occurred but no one has made any efforts to preserve them or document them,” Ansari said.

The team is collaborating with architects in Belgium and working with survivors on a design for the memorial park.

“Traditionally, architects like to do some consultation and do a design, but in this case, we have been working together at every step, in terms of building materials, a vision for what the community wants at the massacre site, what are the needs that take place at commemoration events yearly and how we can accommodate those in the architectural design,” Grzyb explained.

The SSHRC grant funds everything up to the construction of the memorial park, after which a community fundraiser will be launched to proceed with the building plans.

The team is also developing a mental health strategy that addresses historical memory work, collective trauma and community resilience. This work is led by Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Arlene McDougall.

The Surviving Memory in Postwar El Salvador group is comprised of faculty and graduate students from five Western faculties (FIMS, Music, Arts & Humanities, Social Science, and Schulich) as well as community partners, scholars and volunteers from Ontario, El Salvador and Belgium.

The Western scholars involved in this project think of their work as deliberately anti-colonial—as humanitarianism reimagined –  as a bottom-up effort to facilitate and collaborate.

“The essence is all about allowing the former refugees to determine the course of our research,” Ansari said. “With them, alongside them, we are working out what is most needed in terms of preserving this very important part of their country’s history, which has been largely overlooked, and not often talked about because of a culture of silence, but which really shapes Salvadoran society today.

Grzyb initially launched a pilot project of memory workshops in El Salvador 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.


The Surviving Memory in Postwar El Salvador group includes the following individuals:


Amanda Grzyb, professor
Juan Bello, lecturer and documentary filmmaker/producer at Triana Media
Giada Ferrucci, PhD student, Media Studies

Arts & Humanities

Marithza Andagoya, Linguistics MA (alumna)
Jaime Brenes Reyes, PhD candidate, Comparative Literature
Ulises Unda Lara, PhD candidate, Visual Arts
Maria Laura Flores Barba, PhD candidate, Hispanic Studies
J. Luis Jaimes Dominguez, PhD candidate, Hispanic Studies
Mary Carmen Vera Lopez, PhD candidate, Hispanic Studies
Marjorie Ratcliffe, Professor Emeritus, Hispanic Studies


Emily Ansari, professor

Social Science

Beatriz Juarez, PhD candidate, Anthropology


Dr. Arlene MacDougall, professor, Psychiatry
Dr. Katrina Fenicky, Psychiatry resident

Other team members and community partners:

  • Alfredo Marroquin, Executive Director of SalvAide and Western alumnus (Canada);
  • Reynaldo Hernandez, volunteer (Canada);
  • Fatima Perez Cervantes, volunteer (Canada);
  • Antonia Ponce, Western alumna and volunteer (Canada);
  • Meyer Brownstone, founding Director of Oxfam Canada and Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto (Canada);
  • Harold Fallon, Professor of Architecture KU Leuven (Belgium);
  • Evelia Macal, Architect (Belgium);
  • Thomas Montulet, Architect (Belgium);
  • Pedro Cabezas, CRIPDES (El Salvador);
  • CRIPDES – The Association for the Development of El Salvador (El Salvador);
  • Asociación de Sobrevivientes de la Masacre del Sumpul y Las Otras Masacres de Chalatenango / Association of Survivors of the Sumpul Massacre and Other Chalatenango Massacres (El Salvador); and
  • Municipalities and Community Leaders in San José Las Flores, Suchitoto, Milingo, Copapayo, Nueva Trinidad, Las Vueltas, and Arcatao.



Established in 2010, the Western Humanitarian Award recognizes faculty, staff and students engaged in a range of efforts directed toward improving the quality of life for individuals and communities around the world. Funded by the Office of the Vice-President (Research), this award provides a maximum of $5,000 in support of humanitarian efforts as chosen by the recipient.

Previous winners have included:

  • Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor Sandra Smeltzerand Ecosystem Health professor Charles Trickin 2011;
  • French Studies professor Henry Boyiand Western Heads East pioneer Bob Goughin 2012;
  • Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor David Cechettoin 2013;
  • School of Kinesiology professor Darwin Semotiukand Medical Sciences/Biology student Joshua Zyssin 2014;
  • Communication Sciences and Disorders professor Jack Scottin 2015;
  • Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing professor Abe Oudshoorn in 2016; and
  • Arts & Humanities professor Michael Arntfieldin 2017.