The Year of Jubilee

Magazine cover with white text reading "North Carolina's bitterly contested 1984 US Senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt will easily go down in history as one of the meanest, ugliest, and most divisive campaigns ever. North Carolinians could not read a newspaper, watch TV, or open their mail without being bombarded by political rhetoric, mudslinging, and pleas for money."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 1, "The Jesse Helms Machine." Find more from that issue here.

“I was someone in my country. I was a doctor in my country. I have seven years post-doc. I have a house with eight rooms and three baths and a beautiful garden. But I was not safe. The soldiers were watching my house. One time when I came home, a lady ran to stop me and said men wait at my house with guns, with their license plates covered with scraps of cloth. I drove past my house in my friend’s car huddled on the floor.”

Now the doctor and his family share a dormitory in the Georgia woods with another family of refugees. The dormitories are part of a 260-acre settlement called Jubilee Partners. The group chose the name to honor the Biblical law which calls for the release from bondage every 50th year of all debtors and others held in slavery. Jubilee Partners is the American organization responsible for the largest number of Central American refugees safely and legally resettled in Canada. In the last 21 months, 220 Guatemalans and Salvadorans have found homes in Canada through the agency of Jubilee. 

The dining hall at Jubilee Partners is the central meeting place for the residents. It has a rustic, hand-built look. A cross made of two branches bound with rope hangs in a high corner — the room serves as a chapel as well. The meals are simple: salad, fruit, cheese, and bread, served on bright plastic summer-camp plates. After the meal, the residents join hands and say grace; a committee cleans up; someone hands out hymnals and the “partners” pull their seats into a circle and sing church songs. The adults are in their thirties and early forties; the atmosphere is that of both a 1960s commune and a weekend church retreat. 

Eleven adults and eight children are permanent residents of the Jubilee Partners community. All volunteers, the adult members perform assigned jobs in exchange for room and board, including childcare, food preparation, gardening, machine-repair, carpentry, and teaching English to classrooms of refugees. They receive contributions from churches all over the United States, publish a newsletter, welcome temporary volunteers on sabbaticals from work or study elsewhere, and drive a bus to south Texas twice a year to pick up refugees from detention centers there. They now host up to 45 refugees at a time. 

Don and Carolyn Mosely, Karen and Ryan Karis, and Ed and Mary Ruth Weir established Jubilee Partners in 1979. Formerly members of Koinonia Partners (see SE vol. VIII, no.1), the newly founded community lived in tents that summer while deciding what course their ministry would take. Their experiences in Malaysia, Korea, and Zaire as Peace Corps teachers and surveyors made them especially responsive to the reports and photographs of fleeing Southeast Asians that filled the press that year. Touched by the refugees’ desperation, they contacted refugee agencies and English-teaching programs to learn whether an additional facility was needed. They learned that the need was staggering. An estimated 15 to 20 million refugees were adrift in the world. Aided by a work crew from Koinonia Partners, they began building a shelter and laying the foundation for their ministry. By the time the Jubilee dormitories were finished, 120,000 Cubans were landing in Florida. Forty Cuban men who were imprisoned at the Krome Detention Center in Miami made up the first group of refugees to live at the settlement. 

“I was exhilarated when the people came,” Ron Karis declared. “I’d been working toward it for a year and a half.” Jubilee Partners was able to help the Cubans find jobs and sponsors in the Atlanta area after providing medical assistance, English instruction, and cultural orientation. Subsequent groups of Cubans, as well as Laotians, Cambodians, Thais, and Vietnamese, many of whom could not have entered this country without Jubilee as a sponsor, have benefitted from the assistance and training program at Jubilee. But these days the guests are all from Guatemala and El Salvador. 


El Salvador is green and mountainous, filled with palm trees and wild sugarcane. Exotic birds like the Toucan, the Turquoise-browed Motmet, and the Common Potoo sing in its forests. The mountains descend to white beaches, and painted wooden saints adorn the chapels. But the Salvadorans are fleeing  their beautiful “Land of Volcanoes and Lakes” by the hundreds of thousands. There are body dumps at the foot of the volcanoes, and dead bodies sink through the lakes. According to the Archdiocese of San Salvador, Amnesty International, and other monitoring organizations, 40,000 civilians have been murdered in the last four years, the vast majority at the hands of the military or army-affiliated death squads. The International Red Cross claims that 150,000 to 200,000 people are displaced within El Salvador, and up to 700,000 have fled to other countries. A fourth of the country is adrift. 

Walking across their lovely mountains, carrying children and sacks of tortillas, lines of civilians attempting to escape the violence are strafed and napalmed from the air, by planes and weapons that rebels say are imported mainly from the United States. An estimated 18,000 Salvadorans are living in camps established by the U.N. in Honduras. Those with bus fare may ride into Mexico, where a thousand-mile gauntlet of police awaits them. Both Salvadorans and Guatemalans, identifiable to the Mexicans by their accents, are subject to arrest and detention, rape, strip searches, extortion, and forced repatriation to their home countries. 

Yet despite the grim welcome they are receiving outside their countries they persist in fleeing for their lives across every border. Only a remnant reaches our borders but even that remnant represents half a million Central Americans living illegally in the United States. 

“In my country, you cannot wear any boots or any green clothing or green shirt — if you wear them, you will be dead. They will kill you as a guerilla,” says one Salvadoran college student sheltered by Jubilee. “My friend was shot to death because the soldiers saw her talking to another student they thought was a guerilla. She was 13 when they shot her. At the university, the guerillas come one day to recruit and the army comes the next day. When the army drafts you, you must go or they will kill you as a guerilla. In my country, there is no middle. 

“I did not want to go. The soldiers came to me and said, ‘We know you are one of them.’ I decide to get out of my country and live in the United States because I believe United States keep the human right.” 

“Salvadorans and Guatemalans believe in American democracy like few other people in the world,” Eric Drewry claims. A resident of Jubilee partners and an immigration lawyer, Drewry believes the testimonies of the men and women arriving at our borders penniless who profess that they seek — not prosperity — but safety and freedom. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the State Department are among those who are not so readily persuaded. The Salvadoran college student was denied asylum because INS determined that he was an “economic migrant” rather than a “political refugee.” 

There is a tacit assumption at Immigration and Naturalization Service that Central Americans emigrate simply to seek more prosperous lives. There is a strong tendency not to grant them asylum as fugitives from political terror. Historically, our laws have favored and welcomed refugees from Communist Eastern Europe or from a socialist state in Asia, Africa, or South America. And, “as a more or less logical corollary,” wrote Gary MacEoin and Nivita Riley in their report, No Promised Land, “it was determined administratively that Free World countries do not persecute their citizens for political activities.” 

The refugees must live secretive lives on the periphery of our economy, working as domestics, farm laborers, and piece workers, at the loading docks of warehouses and in the kitchens of Mexican restaurants — ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice. Their fear of detection and capture is great for it almost always leads to deportation. The immigration lawyers — both publicly funded and those employed by private firms — do not counsel their Central American clients to give up their underground lives. Most of the refugees request political asylum only after they have been caught. It is their one hope of gaining legal status. 

“You can confidently assume that most cases will be denied and you’ll find yourself in deportation proceedings,” says a Washington D.C. attorney. “Polish diplomats, Russian dancers, and Chinese tennis players make asylum look easy,” confides Myron Kramer, an immigration attorney in Atlanta. “In fact, the probability of a Central American winning asylum is extremely remote, and the definition of ‘refugee’ has become a battleground in the courts and the legislature.” 

Nearly 30,000 Salvadorans have applied for refugee status, and concurrent withholding of deportation, in the last three years — about one in 90 of those living in this country. In an 18-month period between October 1,1982 and March, 1984, 3.02 percent of the Salvadorans applying for asylum were successful. In the same period 17.8 percent of the applications from Nicaraguans and 68.4 percent of those from Iranians were approved. In May 1981, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) passed a resolution declaring that all Salvadorans who fled their country after January 1980 should be considered bona fide refugees. In October, 1981, a UNHCR investigative commission found the United States had a “systematic practice” of returning Salvadorans to El Salvador regardless of the merits of their claim for asylum. The UNHCR concluded the U.S. was failing to adhere to the U.N. code, which recommends shelter for people whom the U.N. defines as refugees. Since 1980, over 35,000 Salvadorans have been deported. They are currently deported at a rate of about 400 a month. 


The Jubilee Partners were aware of this crisis in Central American immigration, and wanted very much to help the refugees. But two problems confronted  them: first, the Central Americans were in the country illegally; and second, they weren’t going to be allowed to stay, as the Cubans and Vietnamese had been, so there was no point in orienting them to life in America. Jubilee’s supporters across the country were people who might look askance at sending money to a program whose purpose was to shelter illegal aliens. At Jubilee, the members themselves were torn between Biblical admonishments to help the needy and homeless, and American laws which classified these particular needy and homeless as “economic migrants.” They studied and prayed, leaning towards the verse, “But Lord, when did we see you a stranger and not take you in?” 

Then Jubilee discovered Canada. In 1981, Canada’s quota for Latin American immigrants stood at 1,000 and only 200 had been admitted. According to INS figures, the United States accepted two Salvadorans that year. In 1982, the year Jubilee investigated the problem, the United States accepted 69 Salvadorans while Canada’s unfilled quota rose to 2,000. In 1983, when the United States accepted 71 Salvadorans, Canada had room for 2,200. The Jubilee volunteers thought they might take in Central American refugees lacing deportation and help them apply to Canada for asylum with the aid of a hospitable Canadian consulate in Atlanta. Canada accepts political refugees and assists them financially for a year or until their English and job skills are established. 

Jubilee negotiated with INS to suspend pursuit of those Central Americans who agreed to leave the U.S. voluntarily within six months by heading north to Canada. They spoke with the INS director in south Texas who said, in essence: “What you’re doing sounds fine. We’re deporting them south, you’re deporting them north.” Jubilee now co-sponsors volunteers in south Texas, chiefly a couple named Richard and Ruth Ann Friesen in Alamo, who visit the detention centers where illegal aliens are held and who are in constant contact with local refugee agencies. They advise everyone of Canada’s criteria for admission and the availability of Jubilee Partners in faraway Georgia as a sort of halfway house for those Central Americans willing to relocate to Canada. When the Friesens find someone who is interested, they send the individual’s name and history to Jubilee. The volunteers attempt to determine whose need is most urgent and who might be most likely accepted as a political refugee by the Canadian government. 

The New Underground Railroad

From the Revolutionary War era to the demise of legalized slavery in this country, there have been people of conscience who defied the law to assist the enslaved in their quest for freedom. A support network, known as the Underground Railroad, assisted runaways from slave-holding states to free states in the North. Often, however, even in the North legal proscriptions proved hostile and local communities proved unable — or unwilling — to provide protection for the fugitives. In 1830 the National Negro Convention spoke favorably of a colony of 1,000 former slaves who established Wilberforce Settlement near London, Ontario:

We view it as an asylum from oppression, and a generous invitation for our people to dwell in a land where they can breathe the pure air of liberty, and where every opportunity is held out for us to occupy that space, and enjoy those rights in the moral world, which God, in his wisdom has destined us to fill as rational beings.

As the Fugitive Slave Act of 1840 made it more and more dangerous for escaped slaves and free people of color alike, many of them continued the dangerous and arduous journey further north to Canada. A similar movement is now underway to aid Central American refugees.

Salvadorans and Guatemalans are finding few havens along their route away from their homelands. There is simply nothing similar to a neutral Switzerland nestled between Nicaragua and Honduras. With Central America and the Caribbean in upheaval, we find ourselves — since desperate Haitians landed on our shores in hand-crafted boats — to be a country of first asylum, a country across whose borders terrified people are collapsing. We were not prepared for this. Most of our doors are closed to them. 

The refugees’ presence among us, their lack of legal status, and their desperate fear of deportation are leading increasing numbers of citizens to take steps to shelter them, even though those steps have brought them to the brink of civil disobedience and sometimes beyond. 

“We didn’t really make a decision until we were asked: ‘Will you aid this family?’ ” a woman in Atlanta admits. She and her husband have sheltered a Salvadoran couple in their basement for five months. “We weren’t terribly well-informed on the particulars. They came to us so suddenly we weren’t ready for them. We barely had a bed set up or a table. . . .” 

“The decision to make the commitment was a large one,” her husband says. “The minister of our church called us and said the church was helping Jorge and Rosa make application to Canada and that could take six months. What he didn't say was what we should do if Canada denies them. I mean, are we going to tell them, ‘Look, it’s been nice, but is six months really long enough?’” 

The couple lives in an old working class neighborhood in a big, half-restored house full of old rugs, worn-out record albums, herbal teas, and hanging plants. They are involved in neighborhood organizing, Atlanta politics, the nuclear freeze movement. 

“It’s exciting, enlarging, expanding,” says the wife. “But it’s also very intense. We’ve had no relief from the pressure.” 

“We’re much more conscious of the extreme experiences people have,” adds the husband. “Jorge said the children in El Salvador are used to seeing dead bodies. He said that if you get on the wrong side of an argument with a soldier, even a personal argument, the soldier will kill you. And once you’re dead, you were a Communist.” 

An acquaintance of theirs, another American who shelters illegals, took a Salvadoran family with her to a Fourth of July picnic. “When the fireworks went off, the whole family jumped up, ran, and hit the dirt. All around us were people eating potato salad and dill pickles and here were these people running for their lives,” the husband explains. 

Rosa is the child of a poor Indian family, but Jorge’s family was wealthy and powerful. His grandfather is a colonel. He grew up in a house with polished floors and military guards at every entrance. When Jorge joined the labor movement, he was arrested but his family connections prevented his murder. The army tied him up, drove him to the border in a jeep and threw him over. 

“Will democracy come without revolution?” said Jorge at the kitchen table of his hosts on a winter morning. “Will it be dark in an hour? Will leaves spring out of the trees? The little kids go to school at 7:00 a.m. The bodies are lying about for them to see. Soldiers come and remove the limbs with electric saws. Reagan has conceptualized the battle wrong. He sees it as a battle against Communism.” 

Rosa says little. She stays close to Jorge. They both try to stay out of the way of the family upstairs. Rosa silently cleans the house and washes the dishes. Jorge does carpentry work for church members and coaches the family’s 11-year-old son in soccer. The American family upstairs include them in everything they do: every church meeting, every holiday celebration, every party. But the Salvadoran couple are without a country or a future at the moment. Their own children have been scattered among different relatives in El Salvador, and they have not heard from the Canadian Embassy. They are profoundly depressed much of the time. At Christmas time, Jorge would not eat nor leave the basement. The family upstairs grieves with them. 

Once a refugee is accepted by Jubilee, his or her bond is paid — usually between $1,000 and $2,000 per person — out of a revolving bond fund created by Jubilee with contributions received for that purpose. If the refugee, upon release from detention, disappears, the bond is forfeited, diminishing the fund and the capacity to rescue others. A high premium is set on finding illegal aliens who, once accepted for the program, will continue with it into Canada. At the border, immigration officials record the names of those departing the country and close their cases, allowing their bonds to be refunded. 

Jubilee also acquired a bus and began sending it on long trips to Texas to bring back as many Salvadorans and Guatemalans as it could carry. “The people are scared of us when they first meet us,” says Drewry, who frequently makes the run to Texas. “There’s no reason they should trust us. Many of them have been in jail since they crossed the border. But they realize they’ve run out of options. At the last minute, they choose us over deportation. They’re nervous and quiet when they first get on the bus. By the time they get off the bus in Comer, [Georgia], they’re calling it the Freedom Bus. 

“I remember a misty night when I was driving — we were still inside Texas and approaching the border check-point 50 miles north of the international border. We started driving out of the dark into bright floodlights and searchlights and notices to stop. And suddenly it was as if there was no one behind me. I turned around and everyone in the bus, except the one or two other Americans, had, without a word, pulled their hats over their feces and slumped so low in the seats that they were invisible from the windows. One minute I was aware of 40 people behind me, and the next minute, as we approached the guards, the bus was empty. It was a strange feeling, driving out of the mist like that. Of course, we had papers for everyone and were permitted to cross.” 

The bus traveled nearly 50,000 miles in 1983, ferrying refugees from Texas to Comer and from Comer to Canada. At the first all-important meeting with the Canadian consul, who traveled to Comer from Atlanta to meet the refugees, each person was given the opportunity to establish his or her need for sanctuary in Canada as a political refugee. 

Drewry, who had listened to their stories on the long ride from Texas, was amazed when some student leaders, union organizers, members of farmworker cooperatives — all with histories of threats, and murdered friends and family members — were denied political refugee status by the benign Canadian consul. Drewry decided to attend some of the interviews himself and was startled to see how their stories were transformed. Face-to-face with a government official the refugees resorted to a survival technique practiced by oppressed people all over: they knew nothing. 

“Did you ever have trouble with the military?” 

“No, sir.” 

“Were you involved in the trade union movement?” 


“Do you have any reason to fear for your life if you return to your country?” 

“No, sir.” 

Angry with himself for not having foreseen the problem, Drewry told the refugees, “Look, you may never tell your story again but you’re going to tell it today.” He took them back to the consulate and upon second hearing all were accepted as political refugees. Jubilee-sponsored refugees’ acceptance rate by Canada has been 100 percent. 

After that experience, Jubilee began offering classes on new kinds of survival skills. Every group of refugees is now taken on a field trip to the Athens, Georgia, police station. Some of the refugees are so frightened, they get physically sick on the day of the trip. Classes in nutrition, map-reading, and Canadian history are now given in addition to the basic English classes. And when reports came back of Central Americans ill-prepared for the Canadian winter, a class called “Dressing in Winter” was added. 

“The character of this place changes with each bus-load of refugees,” Drewry says. “The Southeast Asians found our housing to be extremely luxurious: the walls kept out the cold, each family had its own room, it was possible to cook indoors. But some of the Central Americans may have had modern homes and cars back home. For them, these are modest quarters.”


Guillermo, awake late at night in the dining hall, had always wanted to be a doctor to work among the poor. He became director of a rural health administration in Guatemala with seven outlying clinics under his jurisdiction before he was run out of the country. One of his goals was to bring clean water and a sanitary sewage disposal system to the villages. “I would walk seven miles at night to treat a sick person,” he recalls. ‘‘One time guerillas come to a village. They took me and told me they were happy I treat the Indians. They were happy with my work. I was happy too.” But the army was not happy. The doctor was familiar with the surrounding area as he often walked the forest paths at night. Tacked up all over his office walls were maps of the region which the army wanted. They pressured him for information on suspected “subversive activities” in the Indian villages where he vaccinated children and provided medical care. 

“One night I am walking to a patient,” he recounts. “The army ambushed me and threatened to kill me if I do not treat the wounded soldiers. I told them ‘I am not political man. I am doctor.’ I treated the soldiers. Then the army came to my office for the maps.” When he refused to surrender his maps and other data, a scuffle ensued and the doctor’s assistant was shot by one of the soldiers. The young man died in the doctor’s arms. Shortly afterward, the doctor continues, “a friend came running to me and said, ‘Doctor, they have just killed my father, they are asking for you.’” 

The doctor resigned his rural post and returned to the city, but the harassment continued. The army abducted his three-year-old son and held him for a day. The family’s house was watched. And then came the day when trucks and jeeps with armed soldiers parked up and down his street waiting for him to come home from work. Evading the troops he and his family moved secretly to his parents’ home. After a period of hiding, Guillermo, his wife, and their three children — four years, two years, and seven months old — escaped into Mexico. By the end of the trip Mexican border guards had stripped the family of their remaining money and possessions in exchange for being allowed to cross illegally into the United States. “They took the diapers and the bottle from the baby. We had literally nothing left,” says the doctor. 

He took his family to a garage in Los Angeles where they slept on flattened cardboard cartons. There was no water, light, or toilet, and they were expected to leave during the day. In spite of these hardships, the doctor co-founded a medical clinic for Central American refugees in California who were made fugitives by their status as illegal aliens. But he too was an “illegal” and could not find paid work even as an orderly. He applied repeatedly for asylum, hoping to legalize his status so that he and his family would be safe and he would be free to practice medicine. But his petitions were denied. His former status, skills, experience, and credentials were meaningless. 

“I was a doctor, you see,” he says, moving his hand angrily back and forth over the table. “No, I aw a doctor. It was a shock for me when I come here. I thought I will have progress when I come here, a place to live and grow. Some dignity. When I still live in the garage I teach my kids to love this country, to respect his flag and his symbols, no? I was thinking that maybe some day we stay here.” 

Guillermo finally found work in California picking lemons; his wife worked a public job for the first time, doing piece work in a sewing factory. “They told her she can work faster. They promise her seven cents to make a collar, then they pay her four cents. Sometimes she work for 12 hours. When the lemons finish, I work for a furniture store, to unpack the trucks. In California, I know if INS catch me, they will deport me. I am denied three times political asylum. I meet a woman lawyer, but I tell her I don’t want to live no more here. I was thinking of Mexico or any other place. She arranges for us to come to Jubilee. When we come here, we find something that look like family. Something we don’t have for a long time, we have here. We have been treated — it look like — like human beings. We are coming from hard life. We don’t find support. We are treated like animals, we act like animals escaping, we are hunted.” 

The doctor wears a schoolgirl’s coat. It is turquoise with big round buttons and a fuzzy collar. It was donated to Jubilee by an Atlanta church. Guillermo’s long arms hang out of it. He acts chastened every time he looks at his bare wrist still expecting to see his watch. His look brightens only when he is talking about his former life and work in the villages of Guatemala. The doctor has become a melancholy man but during his long narrative, he cries only when speaking of leaving Jubilee and the friends he’s made there. “We love one to each other. It is very hard for us, the leaving. It is hard for them, too. This place for me and this time for me I am not going to forget.” 

The refugees at Jubilee are well-fed, well-rested, and very grateful to the Americans who rescued them. Most look forward to Canada, and pronounce the strange words like “Vancouver” and “Montreal” shyly and happily. Still, most hope to return to their countries, and see this Canadian adventure as an interlude until they are reunited with their friends and colleagues back home. And most, in the privacy of their lamp-lit dormitories in the woods, make phone calls and write letters to the last known numbers and addresses of parents, sisters, brothers, friends, children — letters to which no responses come, telephone calls which ring and ring in the night. □