Manuel de Paz suffered terror in his homeland and survived an arduous journey to the United States. Now he helps refugees and immigrants who are trying to make their way in the East Bay.
Manuel de Paz is a short, bespectacled man from El Salvador with a scruffy goatee and a round, friendly face that belies his turbulent past. He’s lived in the United States for almost two decades, though he still speaks with a slight Spanish accent. Dressed in jeans and a black turtleneck, he looks casual as he walks around the basement offices of the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, where he works as community outreach coordinator.
“After 20 years in the U.S., I’m able to do something for the people who suffer,” says de Paz. This is his passion, and his boundless enthusiasm shows in his voice. He can talk a mile-a-minute rattling off statistics about immigration reform proposals before Congress, but for him this debate is about more than abstract arguments. It’s about people with real lives and real problems.
The East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC) helps refugees from around the world, from Latin America and Asia and Africa, many fleeing persecution and violence, all looking for a better life.
That’s something that many people born in the luxury and stability of America forget, says de Paz. It’s a story that he knows well. He lived it himself.
In the 1980s, de Paz’s native El Salvador was wracked by terror and violence. The entrenched, U.S.-backed oligarchy—the so-called Fourteen Families—ensured that most people lived in extreme poverty.
As in neighboring Nicaragua, a popular movement built momentum and people began to resist the status quo. “People started getting organized and the government started getting scared,” explains de Paz simply.
Massive U.S. military and economic aid flowed to the right-wing Salvadoran governments whose “death squads” roamed the countryside, searching for agitators and revolutionaries. But often they didn’t care who they caught.
“If you had a neighbor and he didn’t like you, he could report you and the government would just come and kill you and your whole family,” says de Paz.
De Paz’s family wasn’t politically active. Perhaps his brothers belonged to a trade union, one of many agitating for change. But the violence came swiftly and senselessly, and de Paz saw three of his siblings murdered when soldiers massacred his village. His sister was raped before she was killed and a young cousin had his throat slit. In all, 20 relatives were murdered.
After the massacre of his family, de Paz fled to the mountains for a year, then moved from one town to another. Finally, he decided the only way to be safe would be to leave the country altogether. He knew he had relatives in the U.S; an older brother had already made it north.
He journeyed across Guatemala and Mexico, keeping hidden for fear that authorities would return him to El Salvador. The trip took him five months, traveling day and night and always on the watch for police. He was often hungry and cold, but he knew where he had to go. He arrived with only the clothes he had on, not knowing a word of English. Eventually, he found his way to Los Angeles, where he lived with an uncle.
Later, his brother brought him into contact with EBSC and Sister Maureen Duignan, the modest Irish-born Franciscan nun who today keeps EBSC running as executive director. It was Duignan who helped him to get a temporary worker permit and apply for citizenship.
“Even this country has some bad things,” says de Paz, who’s still sensitive to inequality all around him. “The laws are not always enforced equally here, but they’re much better than in many other places. There are more opportunities here.”
The East Bay Sanctuary Covenant was started in 1982, by members of five Bay Area churches who saw that the U.S. was financing wars in El Salvador and Guatemala and yet rejecting the refugees who fled the terror. These first churches (soon joined by synagogues and Buddhist temples) decided something had to be done. They founded EBSC on March 24 of that year, the second anniversary of the day El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated for speaking against the human rights abuses.
Across the country, people opened the doors of their congregations and homes to welcome refugees into sanctuary. Their acts of civil disobedience defied U.S. immigration laws, but upheld the biblical imperative of “welcoming the stranger” and United Nation’s protocols that say refugees should not be sent back into harm’s way.
Today, EBSC is housed in a room nestled in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church. Volunteers—many of whom are U.C. Berkeley students and others who are longtime community activists—speak with clients over the phones, many conversing fluently in Spanish. A colorful wooden screen depicts a band of Latin American farmers with a giant green quetzal bird, a traditional symbol of liberty, rising into the sky behind them. The office walls are lined with overflowing file cabinets and punctured corkboard; they’re covered in maps and informative posters, explaining the bureaucratic minutia of government agencies that penetrate many immigrants’ lives.
A young mother waits on a battered couch, watching her infant son crawl across the floor with a baby’s endless energy. De Paz works in a corner office, a cramped cubicle filled with fliers and documents. Everything that he needs to help his clients is within easy reach. There’s always too much to do—right now, the entire staff is preparing to commemorate the group’s 25th anniversary, but the steady stream of new immigrants looking for help never lets up.
De Paz’s job description as community outreach coordinator means that he encourages recently immigrated residents to get to know their rights through workshops on housing, labor and immigration law. He often recruits sympathetic lawyers and activists to lend support. Unofficially, he is a problem-solver, listening to clients’ stories and making sure they access the help they need.
He finds himself working with immigrants from all over the world, some newly arrived, others here for years but who are still struggling to adjust. Some fled political persecution in Tibet or India; others ran from sexual exploitation in Kenya. Still others are from Cameroon, where women who refuse to undergo circumcision are the targets of death threats.
United States immigration policies too have become increasingly hostile in recent years. In Richmond and San Rafael, Immigration and Naturalization Servive agents are known to conduct midnight raids on family homes, looking for undocumented immigrants. Many immigrants are too frightened to speak out, afraid that they might attract attention to themselves and be deported. Fear also makes these immigrants less likely to use police and emergency room services and leaves them vulnerable to abuse.
One family came to de Paz after their landlord threatened to evict them or to call immigration services. Part of the problem is explaining to people who are used to dictatorial governments that they have rights, that they can fight back without endangering themselves.
“I see a lot of abuse at job sites,” says de Paz. “Some employers think that just because someone is a foreigner that they can get away with mistreating them. I do whatever I can to tell them that they don’t have to accept that.”
De Paz’s background helps him to win people’s trust; they know he’s been through a similar ordeal.
“What I do is push them to become citizens,” says de Paz, “to show them that they will have rights. If you’re injured at your job, the government will respond. And when you’re a citizen, your vote is important. You can decide who will be our representatives.”
Even after his difficult journey to the U.S., the road wasn’t easy. For years, he suffered from depression and nightmares, often dreaming that he was deported back to El Salvador. The first several times he tried to attend college, the stress was too much.
He earned citizenship after 13 years in America. He’s learned English, bought his own home and graduated from college. But when he sees suffering, he can’t ignore it.
“I think that sometimes suffering helps you to see the world more clearly. It helps you to feel for people,” says de Paz. “What I am now is because of suffering.”
De Paz still sees something of himself in each new arrival, and that’s what keeps him going.
“When I work with them, I also feel like I’m helping to heal myself as well,” he says. “Helping other immigrants is something I just feel I have to do. How can I enjoy happiness and peace without helping those who are suffering?”
Mike Rosen-Molina is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly. His work has appeared in the East Bay Express, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento News and Review.
Sanctuary from the Storm | Manuel de Paz suffered terror in his homeland and survived an arduous journey to the United States. Now he helps refugees and immigrants who are trying to make their way in the East Bay. | By Mike Rosen-Molina
Man with a Mission | Rabbi Steven Chester grounds his congregation in works of social justice but constantly raises the question, “Am I doing enough?” | By Julia Park Tracey
Breaking the Cycle | Larry Fleming lost his son to the violence in Richmond. Now he’s helping ex-convicts find honest work to avoid a return to a life of crime. | By Mike Rosen-Molina