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Devastated Guatemalans get help from abroad

After Hurricane Stan swept through Guatemala, Central Americans abroad rushed to help family members and fellow countrymen during their time of need.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When landslides smothered his village earlier this month, burying dozens of flimsy houses and hundreds of people under mounds of mud, Jose Mogollon, 70, and his wife, Antonieta, were safely tucked away in a strong, eight-room house in this nearby town on the edge of Lake Atitlan.

The elderly couple, a retired janitor and cook, are far from wealthy. But when disaster struck, they had a distinct advantage over many of their neighbors. Their grown children, scattered from Fairfax to California and Canada, had built them a second home, farther from the steep volcanic slopes that surround the village of Panabaj.

For families across Central America, transfers of cash from children abroad can mean the difference between poverty and plenty. But when a calamity occurs, such as the torrential rains and mudslides that devastated regions of Guatemala in the wake of Hurricane Stan, believed to have killed at least 1,500 people, a personal link to the north can mean the difference between comfortably recovering and barely surviving.

In the case of the Mogollon family, the first days after the devastating mudslides were far more harrowing for their children overseas, thousands of miles away with no means of knowing whether their parents had survived.

"For three days, we had no news of them at all," said Amanda Mogollon, 42, who lives in a neatly decorated brick house in Fairfax with her brother, Luis, 37, another sister and their children. "We were desperate. We called and called. The highways were closed, the bridges were falling. There was no communication at all."

After a week, phone service was restored and Jose and Antonieta's phone rang at 3 a.m. It was Luis. Antonieta told him that their old wooden house in Panabaj had been spared, but that many friends had lost their homes in the avalanche of mud and debris and several had been killed. She told him that drinking water and supplies were scarce in town, and their funds were running low.

Luis, who owns a floor installation business, wired $200 to his parents the next day.

Rush to help
Across the metropolitan Washington region, home to an estimated 60,000 Guatemalan immigrants, many others rushed to help. Some, like the Mogollons, had relatives directly affected by the crisis, but most were moved by an equally strong bond of concern for their homeland at a time of need.

The U.S.-Guatemala Chamber of Commerce, which represents dozens of small-business owners in the Washington region, raised $65,000. Three Spanish-language radio stations here held fund-raising marathons the previous two weekends, broadcasting live from Hispanic groceries and clubs. Other local groups, including the Guatemalan Fraternity and Pueblo a Pueblo, raised more money for medical aid and emergency supplies.

"We have very few people from Atitlan, not many from the affected areas, but people were very generous -- not only Guatemalans, but Salvadorans and others," said Marco Sanchez, president of the chamber and owner of tax preparation and Internet design businesses in Adams Morgan. He said the cash was being flown to a bank in Guatemala, accompanied by volunteers to make sure it arrived safely.

Jack Page, an American physician who was working this week in Santiago Atitlan, said that "anybody who has family working in the United States is helped enormously when something like this happens."

"Even in good times, Santiago has a 50 percent unemployment rate," he said. "Now it's even worse, and it makes whatever help they can get from the States more critical."

Guatemalans working abroad, both legally and illegally, send more than $2 billion back to their families each year, according to the Guatemalan government. The amount is now the second-largest source of national revenue after tourism, having surpassed traditional exports of coffee, sugar and bananas. In the days after the hurricane, long lines formed at banks in Santiago, as wire transfers poured in.

"After the catastrophe, the amount of money coming in went up very fast," said Betty Esquevina, the manager of a bank branch in Santiago, where cash arrives regularly from Western Union agencies in Virginia, Texas and California. "Before, we would pay four or five Western Union checks a day. Now I'm paying 10 to 15 a day."

The American dream
For the Mogollon family, as for many Central Americans, the lifeline to the United States was attached 15 years ago, amid the turmoil of civil war. Guatemala was then ruled by a military government, and its forces were waging a brutal campaign in the country's highlands against a tenacious revolutionary guerrilla movement. Several hundred thousand people were killed before peace was declared in 1996.

For years, the Santiago Atitlan area -- a beautiful region of lakes and volcanoes popular with American tourists and bohemian expatriates -- as well as dozens of impoverished villages inhabited by indigenous Mayans were spared from violence. The army occupied much of the immediate area surrounding Santiago Atitlan, about 45 miles west over twisting mountain roads from the capital, Guatemala City, and soldiers even married local women, the Mogollon family recounted.

But by 1990, the war had arrived here. There were clashes between students and paramilitary groups, and 13 Mayan villagers were killed in an army massacre in Panabaj. The Mogollons lived only a few blocks from the site of the killings. Luis, then 22 and a student, said he ran into problems with the army and decided to flee the country.

He crossed Mexico and entered the United States illegally, as thousands of other Central Americans were doing. But unlike most, he said, he was able to obtain political asylum and become a legal resident. After taking a series of low-wage jobs, he saved enough money to start a flooring business -- and start sending money home.

Now Luis employs 10 men to lay linoleum in school cafeterias and other public buildings. His two sisters, who followed him to Virginia, share his suburban split-level house, which was decorated this week with an elaborate Halloween display of pumpkins, ghosts and witches.

"I went back to see my old village in 1998," Luis said, shaking his head at the memory. "A lot of the old customs have changed. Most people don't wear tipica any more, they wear pants and dresses," he said, referring to traditional indigenous costumes. "They used to farm corn and beans, but they are going into business and growing avocadoes for export. They used to speak only Tzutujil, but now they are even learning foreign languages."

Luis' parents said they were frightened and sad when he left Panabaj. For an entire week, they worried while he traveled north with a coyote, or smuggling guide, to lead him across the U.S. border. They knew how dangerous the journey was, they recounted, because others had disappeared along the way.

But this week, as they sat in the parlor of the sturdy cinderblock house built with money sent by Luis and his siblings, the couple beamed with pride. The room, rarely used except when relatives visit from abroad, was decorated with plush furniture and cedar woodwork that gave off a pleasant scent.

The walls were hung with framed certificates, showing that their seven children had all graduated from high school. Antonieta, a retired cook, said she had pushed them to finish their educations, even though they often had to work after class, sewing tipica to sell to tourists. The front door was open, and a shaft of sunlight stretched across the shiny tile floor. Outside, the streets were caked with hardened mud and people were lined up for free tetanus shots.

'We are lucky'
"They say it will be three or four months before we can return to our own house. We are lucky we are able to live here until then," said Jose, who worked as a janitor in the local hospital for most of his adult life and is more comfortable speaking Tzutujil than Spanish. His monthly pension is $40, but Luis sends them $100 a month and his brothers add to that sum.

When the storm hit, the extra cash Luis wired was a huge help, they said. With roads blocked, the water system in ruins and no supplies reaching town, rations ran low and prices soared. One neighbor said the price of a five-gallon jug of purified water increased from $2 to $14.

Some former residents living abroad were able to bring far more substantial aid. One Guatemalan man who had left 20 years ago for Canada arrived with a team of paramedics, local health officials said. They helped dispense medicine and spent hours operating a portable water filter in the town plaza.

"People were lining up hundreds deep to get clean water," Page said. "It was this man's tie to the area that brought them here."

The medical help was especially welcome, he added, because the only local hospital was filled with by mud. After being closed for 15 years because of the civil war, it was refurbished by Pueblo a Pueblo, the Washington-based aid group, and just reopened in April.

The storm dumped several tons of mud in the lobby and destroyed the road to the clinic. Corpses washed up near the front door. Hospital officials said they did not know whether the building could be used again, but that that even in badly damaged areas such as Panabaj, local residents were keen to return.

"This is a very proud, very traditional community. They love their town," said Lyn Dickey, an American photographer who is treasurer of the hospital foundation. She said one reason more residents were going north now was so their parents could remain behind and be part of the indigenous culture. "Having a son in the States makes that possible," she said.

But the greatest source of relief overseas children provide is putting their families on sounder economic and physical footing before disaster strikes. Maria del Carmen, 33, a neighbor of the Mogollons in Santiago, said the $200 her brothers send home each month enabled her father to build a second story on their house and pay for her tuition as a nursing student, a new refrigerator and a huge TV set in the living room.

"What they send makes a big difference to us," she said. "We haven't had to sell anything, and we have a safe place to live."