When Sister Mark Hollywood makes her way home through the hashish laden air of her San Salvador slum, it’s a good day if she doesn’t hear the crack of gunfire.
“It’s not as regular as it once was, which can only be a good thing. It still happens, just not on a daily basis.”
Her fellow slum dwellers are unaware that this 64-year-old woman’s name was once Enda, or that she grew up in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, as a sports obsessed girl who had all the usual teenage dramas over spots and boys.
They don’t know that she walked into a Sisters of St Clare convent in Newry as a 17-year-old girl and took the name Mark after her favourite gospel chronicler, as a sign of her devotion to her duties.
They know her as Sister Mark, and they know she helps them, which is why she has only had “a handful” of bad experiences in this slum and refuses to expand on them.
For the past decade this slightly built woman, who can point to bullet holes in the walls of her home, has been waging a hearts and minds operation in one of El Salvador’s poorest and most violent slums, La Chacra, the farm, a five hectare gateway to hell.
Home to 32 communities and over 13000 people packed tightly into makeshift homes bereft of water, electricity and sanitation, this is a place where no crops can grow and surviving to the grand old age of 18 is a badge of honour.
Life expectancy, wages and hope are all low. Gangs run riot through the tightly packed alleyways and drugs, vice and violence are the norm. It is the most violent sector of one of the world’s most violent cities, inside one of the world’s most turbulent countries. 71 people in every 100,000 thousand will die at the hands of another.
As if that wasn’t enough, every year the floods sweep away dozens of the makeshift homes and in some cases entire families have been forced to start again for the third, fourth or fifth time. Their only consolation is they don’t have much to replace.
Amidst this seventh circle of hell, Sister Mark is quietly doing some quite remarkable things. Gangsters have become scholars, child prostitutes have become dancers and slum kids have gone to university, returning to La Chacra to teach their own.
As if that wasn’t enough, La Chacra is now also home to three roving clinical psychologists, who help Sister Mark wage her campaign for the hearts and minds of these people.
In a slum where a dollar a day is as good as it gets, it took some time to convince people that talking through their problems might help them find a way around them.
“I moved here ten years ago, as school principal, and it was difficult to come to terms with the very different education system and standards. There’s a very high level of poverty, violence and vice. Let’s just say that every child who makes it through school here is a success story. The important thing is to look for the good and cultivate it so that every child has a chance to flourish. We have had two children murdered in the last three years, a boy who was shot and a girl who was battered, two of the most difficult times in my life.
“We are trying to give them new perspectives that will make life more liveable for them. The main roles they fill tend to be street sellers, leaving home at 5am and not getting back until 8pm. In these circumstances the family unit breaks down. They start school at four years of age and two years ago we managed to find funding for a new school block so we can keep them all the way through to upper secondary level. That has been a bonus for everyone and included some very generous donations from the United Kingdom.
“Two of our teachers are ex-school pupils and come from la Chacra, which is just incredible. It tells these young people it is possible to forge ahead if you have the motivation. When I started a decade ago there were only 25 pupils in ninth grade. Now we have two ninth grades and we have sent dozens of students to the national university and to private ones in the country.
“Again, we have been helped by others to provide funding for them. Nothing much is free here. When I first came to El Salvador the war was still underway. People asked me was I not terrified but I had lived in Northern Ireland and, sadly, to live through a war is more than enough in one lifetime, to live through two is definitely so.
“But the experience of my homeland helped me here. I adapted with relative ease because of that. The people have great respect for us because they realise we are working for and with them. There have been one or two occasions of violence but nothing serious. I find talking calmly and presenting a different reality to the aggressor makes a big difference, but I take that confidence from God.
“The school now has 890 pupils and most of the children of La Chacra will be at school. The government has made a huge effort in the last two years by providing uniforms, pens and books.
“The shooting is sporadic now, not every day, but gangs still fight with each other, although they are getting better at staying in their own areas.
“Drugs are readily available, they are everywhere. We try to teach the consequences of getting involved to the children but we have watched some get involved in that scene. We have a psychologist at school and through a CAFOD project we have been able to hire three clinical psychologists for the community.
“Many of the people living in La Chacra have had very difficult childhoods where they have been victims of literally all types of abuse. They have never had a chance to recover from these events, until now. The psychologists do not wait for these people to knock on the door, that would never happen.
“They went roaming through the slum, working in the streets, meeting and talking to the people and gaining their trust. They eventually move from talking in the streets to the houses. If one person is hurting you can be sure there are others hurting in that same family. In a lot of cases the results are not immediately evident because people have been carrying this around for up to forty years.
“At times we see progress then regression, but the results have been remarkable. The psychologists are Salvadorians, local people, who know the context of the area they are working in. The initial reaction of the people was ‘I’m not mad, I don’t need a shrink,’ but we just gently remind them the opportunity to talk is there and now they take it.
“I think they know they have nothing to lose from it, and some of them have gained immensely. The psychologists have given 100 per cent to the project.
“Under the umbrella title of ‘Strong Family’ we put them through a seven week programme where parents learn about love and limits. You need to remember these people have no role models for parenting.
“We had women telling us they had stopped drinking, swearing at their children, throwing plates and things at walls. One woman was known to stand in the streets shouting and screaming, she stopped that completely. A man who took his belt off to lay into his son only to stop and remember the lessons from strong family. It’s all about mental and physical wellbeing and it seems to be working. These people are becoming more loving to each other, forgiving each other.
“We also work with teenage mothers with one simple aim: that their babies will go through life without receiving abuse.
“Seeing the smile on a child’s face instead of the tears in their eyes, and knowing that they and their parents have become that wee bit more human, is great.
“It may seem strange, but I am just truly grateful to be here.”
CAFOD’s Sarah Smith-Pearse said: “I visited Sister Mark in March, just a few days after a shoot-out in front of her house.
“It´s a dangerous place to live, but the people are strong and proud of what they are doing to heal their community in the face of such violence. The emphasis on building close, united families is what makes this project successful. Parents and children are learning to relate to one another with greater tolerance and respect and build more peaceful and loving relationships within their homes. Already you can see how that is impacting on the wider community culture.”
CAFOD supports the La Chacra project with a grant of US$ 30,000 per year.