Nine years ago, the Poolesville resident and other Guatajiagua natives in the area formed the Comite Pro-Guatajiagua, a group that has helped get potable water into the town’s most remote areas and has purchased computers and supplies for schools.
Their efforts and those of other Salvadoran immigrants in Montgomery County inspired a “sister city” agreement between Montgomery and Morazan, a region in the northeastern part of El Salvador that borders with Honduras.
The agreement, signed in July, builds on the work Salvadorans in the county have been doing for years to reach out to one of the poorest regions of El Salvador, said County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).
“It opens up opportunities for Montgomery County residents to collaborate with the residents of Morazan, to learn and to lend a hand,” Leggett said.
Morazan is Montgomery’s first sister city, but county officials say they would like four more in the next three years. The county already is planning an agreement with Beit Shemesh, Israel, about 18 miles from Jerusalem and 25 miles from Tel Aviv. Officials said they are exploring agreements with Luhansk in the Ukraine and Gondar, Ethiopia, and are considering an as-yet-undecided city in China.
The program, coordinated by the nonprofit group Montgomery County Sister Cities, encourages cooperation through educational, cultural, social, economic, humanitarian and charitable exchanges.
“It helps us to better understand and work with the citizens who are here . . . making contributions in Montgomery County,” Leggett said.
El Salvador is the No. 1 country of origin of Montgomery’s immigrant population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many Salvadorans have continued to invest in their home country through remittances and small economic-development efforts.
Nearly 53,000 Salvadorans live in Montgomery, according to the census, and approximately 2,000 are from Morazan, according to estimates from the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington.
Granados, 55, whose first job here was as a dishwasher at a Bethesda golf club, met his wife in the Washington area, and they raised three children in Montgomery. He is actively involved in county politics and in the business community as owner of Morazan Groceries, which has two stores in Gaithersburg and one in the District.
“I love this country. I feel this country adopted me and has treated me right, and I am thankful,” Granados said. “But I am not going to forget where I come from just because I have found success. I believe we can all make a difference — we can bring change to those areas where there’s need.”
Morazan, one of El Salvador’s 14 “departamentos” — similar to a state — was a battleground during the country’s 12-year-long civil war that prompted hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran nationals to come to the United States in the 1980s.
The significance of the region during the war and the existing links to county residents were factors in the decision to make Morazan its first sister city, Montgomery officials said.
Nearly 20 years after the peace treaty, the region remains among the poorest in El Salvador. One-third of its 180,980 residents live in poverty, and one in four is illiterate, according to Salvadoran census figures.
“Morazan has been the most forgotten area of El Salvador,” said Evelyn Gonzalez-Mills, a counselor at Montgomery College who came to Washington in 1981 from Morazan’s capital city, San Francisco Gotera.
Like many Salvadorans in the Washington area, Gonzalez-Mills came here fleeing the conflict. Now, she said, all they want is to move the country forward.
“We want to build a new El Salvador,” said Gonzalez-Mills, a lead advocate for the Montgomery-Morazan sisterhood. That’s why she founded the Association for Educational Development, a nonprofit based in Montgomery that promotes educational opportunities in El Salvador.
“We haven’t forgotten where we come from and the conditions back home,” she said.
Francisco Altschul, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States, said his government welcomes Montgomery’s engagement in his country to improve life there and to stop the exodus of people, which has continued since the war.
“One of the objectives in this government is to find the means for Salvadorans in the United States to support their home communities to help improve quality of life,” Altschul said. “This government acknowledges that the Salvadorans who have left the country have done so because they haven’t found in their places of origin the adequate means of life in reference to work, education, health care. . . . In a way, they have been forced to leave the country.”
‘Not a one-way street’
Since the official agreement was signed, more nonprofits and county residents have joined their Salvadoran neighbors’ efforts.
The Washington Area Wheelchair Society in Silver Spring, for example, recently donated medical supplies — including 20 hospital beds, wheelchairs, crutches and bedside commodes — for a Morazan hospital and clinics. Habitat for Humanity has made a commitment to build 38 homes for people living in dangerous structures there. Students at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring collected sporting goods for a Morazan school, and the Anthropology Club at Montgomery College collected books for a school library.
A county delegation visiting Morazan for the official sisterhood accord in July helped with community projects. Some built a garden at a school, and others volunteered at a maternity center. Officials exchanged ideas about how to improve recreational activities and economic-development projects and start parent-teacher associations.
“It is not a one-way street,” said Rebecca Kahlenberg, executive director of the nonprofit MoverMoms.
“I just love the way it bridges cultures,” said Kahlenberg, who traveled to Morazan with her 9-year-old daughter. “It is an opportunity for them to learn about us and for us to learn about them.”