Serving as a social worker in El Salvador's gang-afflicted cities
To celebrate the U.N.-sponsored World Humanitarian Day Aug. 19, Unbound is highlighting inspiring members of our global community who’ve overcome obstacles to help others. Carmen is from El Salvador and works for Unbound as a social worker in 11 communities in Santa Ana, with more than 200 sponsored children and their families. She started with Unbound seven years ago, learning about the organization while working as a caretaker for a sponsored elderly woman. Carmen and her husband have a 16-year-old daughter.
In this interview, conducted by Naresli Calitto, former communications liaison, Carmen shares about her experience working for Unbound amidst the challenges of life in El Salvador. Her name was changed for safety reasons.
Daily life is a challenge because of gang violence that overwhelms cities such as Santa Ana and San Salvador. Most citizens are at risk of encountering gang members. Gang violence has increased steadily in El Salvador since the end of the Salvadoran civil war. In this portion of the interview, Naresli asks Carmen about the challenges of her work with Unbound in this environment. Learn more about gang violence in El Salvador.
Naresli: What kind of danger or challenges do you and your colleagues face to do your work?
Carmen: We have to know what gang dominates the area where we are going; I believe that is our first danger. It’s a risk to go out alone or only with a driver.
Another risk is walking along the highway; there are a lot of trailers and trucks that pass by. Traveling with the [sponsorship] benefits [such as money, clothing or supplies] is also a risk.
Naresli: Can you describe one situation in which you felt afraid or felt you were in danger while doing your job?
Carmen: We went [to a community] to deliver some material because a house was being built for a sponsored friend. While there, a gang member asked me for money. In the beginning, I didn’t want to give him the $5 he asked me for, but then I thought it would be [safer], so I did. Later, we realized the person who asked me for the money was not an authorized person by the gang, because after that, the local boss of the gang asked me to describe the person who asked me for money. They even went to look for me at the house of one of the mothers of a sponsored child; they asked her the time and day when I would be back. I became afraid.
After this, the [gang] situation turned too difficult in that community and I never went back to that house. We had to move the [mothers] meetings to a different place that was about 15 minutes away, but even there the person [from the gang] identified me.
I was having lunch one day with another social worker and we realized something was wrong. We decided to leave in the middle of lunch, got on the truck and we went. I was afraid that someone was trying to attempt against my life. Even after that, I worked for six more months with that community [until another social worker was able to take over].“This is not only a job, this is family.“ — Carmen in El Salvador #NotATarget Click To Tweet
Sometimes I’m on my way to a certain community and I’m called and told that there are some people stealing nearby, so I take another way to get there. The families are the ones who tell us what is happening and what other roads we can take.
Now, what we do is that we ask a mother in the community to come out to the highway and drive back into the community with us; this is a normal thing [because she is a local, they’re less likely to be targeted]. We wear a badge and uniform to identify us as Unbound, but we don’t use it in some places because they think we are from the police since it’s a dark blue shirt.
Naresli: How do you identify the sector and gang in the community?
Carmen: We can tell through the graffiti which gang is present in the community. … When they ask me where I am from, I tell them that I’m from a place in which the same gang operates. I always identify the gang they belong to and I always say a place in which they are the same, because if I say I’m from a place in which the opposite gang dominates, they will start investigating me. All areas in Santa Ana are divided.
Naresli: And this doesn’t stop you from entering these communities?
Carmen: I always find the courage to go to work every morning, but we always pray before we go. Some ask me why I don’t change my job and find another opportunity in a different place, but the families are the reason I continue. When I see them come out to welcome me, all that we share with them fills me up; they pray for us and that is like the motor for us, the children and the families.
“Some ask me why I don’t change my job and find another opportunity in a different place, but the families are the reason I continue.”
We get excited when we go to the meetings because we are going to see them. Mothers tell us about their lives. Even if someone offered me a different job for more money, I would not go because the families and the children are already in [my heart]. I was invited recently to work for a doctor, but I have my people here so I didn’t [take the job]. I will be here as long as they want me. When I hear colleagues that say they have 18 or 20 years of working with Unbound I say, “God willing, I will say the same one day.”
This is not only a job, this is family. I have a daughter, but I have here in Unbound the sisters I never had. I have brothers, too, and even though we fight sometimes we always fix up everything because that is how a family works.
Quitting is not in my plans.
Naresli: How do you handle the workload?
Carmen: First of all, I think it is spiritual; God helps us. I usually go to church and that inspires me, because I realize that even the challenges and problems that everyone faces can be solved. And problems will be over when I die, not before. So I have to learn to live with them. When someone complains about my work or gives me an answer I don’t like, I remember the example of Jesus Christ. I will always have problems and pressure in any job I take.
What also helps is the support of my family and the team. When I see what I have accomplished in five years and one month I realize that they don’t see my age here, but my capacity, because here in the country if you are older than 35 you have fewer opportunities for work, but here we have staff members who are 40 or even 50.“Quitting is not in my plans.“ — Carmen in El Salvador #NotATarget Click To Tweet
God brought me here through the elderly lady I took care of and who already passed away. When I saw her happy because she went to Unbound, I felt happy, too, and now I work here and I can see that my work is to make other people happy.
Roberto [Bob Hentzen], our founder, said that we face a challenge every day. He told us that we were his heroes and I will never forget those words. God has given me the tools for my work, he has given me partners [in my colleagues], and I feel that nothing is impossible with them. God also gave me a motorcycle and I go to work with it on weekends. Sometimes, we sit with the team to talk about solutions if something is wrong, and that is how we face anything that comes.
Naresli: How have you grown since working with Unbound?
Carmen: I think I grow up more every day. Something that used to affect my life is that I only had one child, but now I see the reason why God just gave me one daughter. I realize that he gave me just one daughter because I would not be able to carry the pressure of more children due to seeing the families and how difficult life is for them. Maybe I can serve more people this way. The sponsored children fill [my heart]; the sponsored children hug me, kiss me, and share their love and affection with me.
I’m also thankful for my job. Every brick of my house is [there] thanks to the effort I make in Unbound. I have a decent house thanks to my work.
God has given me too much to believe that I have limitations.
Browse our blog for more stories about the humanitarian efforts of Unbound community members.