S.F. Jewish Sanctuary Coalition helps Mayans rebuild their village

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A few years ago, Jennifer Rader spent Passover in a refugee camp in Mexico. It was an experience of cultural overlay: She listened as Guatemalan Mayan refugees celebrating Easter far from their homeland compared themselves to the Israelites who suffered during the Babylonian exile.

This summer, Rader visited Guatemala to help finalize a sister-community agreement between the San Francisco Jewish Sanctuary Coalition and CopalAA, a community of former refugees who have returned to Guatemala. The JSC, which began assisting Central American refugees living in the Bay Area in 1986, has shifted its focus toward aiding former refugees who have returned to Guatemala.

CopalAA's current residents fled Guatemala for Mexico in the early '80s, seeking refuge as the Guatemalan military destroyed 400 Mayan villages and killed some 100,000 people.

The refugees began returning in 1993 as the political situation had stabilized somewhat, Rader said.

Now Rader, coordinator of the sister-community project, is looking for individuals interested in joining a JSC delegation that will visit CopalAA in January to strengthen ties between Bay Area Jews and the 86 Mayan families who are building a new village in the rainforest.

The JSC will fund a library and school supplies, and will set up what it calls an "urgent action network" to protest human rights violations. When the village clinic ran out of medicine some time ago, the coalition made an emergency grant to pay for medical supplies until the first corn harvest is ready, Rader explained.

Under the sister-community agreement, the JSC is also committed to supporting a human rights worker who will live in CopalAA for a year, helping to maintain sustainable agriculture projects and providing a link with the outside world in the event of human rights abuses.

The Mayans "want an international presence" to safeguard them against a resurgence of the violence that marked the early '80s, when "the world did nothing," Rader said.

The threat of violence is far from over. Government forces massacred 11 returned refugees in a nearby village last October, she added.

Rader drew parallels between Jewish and Mayan history. Both peoples, she said, "have struggled for liberation against all kinds of oppression." She compares "our effort [as Jews] to survive and maintain our culture" to the way the Mayans have striven to preserve their culture in the 500 years since Spain colonized the New World. She found a familiar note in Mayans' warmth, humor and family life.

Rader, who spent two years in Mexico working in a refugee camp, said many Jews have worked for social justice in Central America. But they have usually had to work under the umbrella of church-based organizations. The JSC allows Jews "to connect this work with our faith and our Jewish lives," she said.

The rural Mayans have had little contact with Guatemala's 800 Jewish families. Since Mayans practice both Catholicism and indigenous traditions, they are open-minded toward different religious customs, Rader said. JSC members, when meeting Mayans, identify themselves as Jews and explain that they read the same Bible and worship the same God as the Mayans.

The JSC's delegation will spend Jan. 4 through 15 in CopalAA, where delegates will celebrate the village's one-year anniversary, meet with Guatemalan human rights activists and learn from the Guatemalans' "ability to organize and strengthen grassroots-level efforts at social change," said Rader.

To fund its commitments in CopalAA, the coalition hopes to raise $5,000 this year through its annual sale of Rosh Hashanah greeting cards.