I grabbed at my sunglasses and pulled them down over my face, attempting to cover up the tears that had already begun to flow. A simple string of colorful letters hung across the small concrete patio, W-E-L-C-O-M-E. A quartet of men, their faces hidden by hats, played music on instruments that had seen better days. The children, dressed in their blue school uniforms, lined up against the walls of the blue and white tin school and as we filed off the bus, they applauded.
"Bienvenidos a Irioma," the mayor said. Welcome to Irioma. A gentle faced man dressed in jeans stood beside the maestra of this school of 60. I reached out and shook his hand.
Pausing as our guide translated, the mayor welcomed us, this group of 23 who had flown all night to be a part of this. The existing school was a mismosh of painted tin and tree limbs. The floors were dirt, the desks in various stages of disrepair. Inside the dark room, the days math lesson was written on the white board.
Santos, the land donor, stood to the side. This was her property we were on, land that she had given to build the new school. She looked at me as she shook my hand, her face weathered by the hardships of a life I could only imagine. "Buenos Dias," I said hesitantly, in my best high school Spanish.
We sat on hand hewn benches in the "lunch room," a far cry from the cafeteria our kids were familiar with. The kitchen, a small closet like room covered in chicken wire, would now store building supplies; pick axes and sledge hammers and wire cutters for rebar.
The children, dressed in traditional costumes, danced, their beautiful brown faces smiling out at us as we watched with interest. As we took pictures, they nudged each other forward, trying to get a view of themselves on camera and when they did, they did what all kids do, they giggled.
We were finally here. After all the meetings and pancake breakfasts, the countless hours of planning and reassuring worried parents, the phone calls and emails and hours spent lying awake in the middle of the night wondering if we we would make it, we were finally here.
One by one, she carried out the chairs to the porch. "Sientense, por favor." Sit down, she said. And so we did. Christina was 54 years old and had 14 children, all raised in this tiny house made of bamboo and mud. Her husband had been killed as he worked the fields harvesting coffee. Another example of the gang violence that ravages this beautiful country. She had gone it alone after that. Mother and father. We sat in the shade as she shared her life with us. There was no anger in her voice. No regrets. A chicken walked in and out of the house, meandering through the makeshift living room we had created on the mud-floored porch. A bunch of bananas leaned against outdoor kitchen. Her 14 year old daughter peeked out of the doorway. She was tending to her infant, asleep in the hammock. She was the only one left at home. The others were gone, she said, gone off to work and to school. Mother had encouraged them. She knew it was important. Knew it had the potential to change their lives. Wanted them to have something different, a chance at a life filled with possibility.
Bienvenidos a Irioma.
There are bullet holes in the walls of the buildings, reminders of the civil war that stole the life from this country. One by one, the people we meet share their stories of survival, their scars still visible. Like September 11th, 2001, it is their flash bulb memory of a time when life changed forever. The vestments of Msgr. Romero, still stained with blood, serve as a talisman for the people he loved. Outside the church where he was assassinated, a nun clad in traditional religious clothing sweeps the sidewalk under the very tree where the gunman perched, waiting to take that fateful shot. The hairs on my arms stand up as I mindfully snap her picture.
It is a week of welcomes. A week of saying hello, of sharing stories, of opening doors. The mayors office. A magnificent rustic ecological center. A tin school. A mud floored home. The message is always the same. Bienvenidos. Welcome. We are so glad you are here. A week of connecting and opening hearts.
A week of building connection.