A Half-Century Ago, Gail Phares Went to Nicaragua. She Came Back a Radical. | The Immigration Issue | Indy Week
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A Half-Century Ago, Gail Phares Went to Nicaragua. She Came Back a Radical. 

Gail Phares, pictured in the Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh

photo by Ben McKeown

Gail Phares, pictured in the Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh

"We all need to be radicalized."

These are not necessarily the first words you'd expect to hear from Gail Phares, a seventy-seven-year-old with a shaggy bob and a wooden cross draped around her neck. But in her Raleigh office, she's seated beneath a wall of posters reflecting that mantra: stenciled-in maps and photos of activist trips to Latin America, farmworker advocacy signs, tributes to religious figures slain in El Salvador. Her faint North Dakota accent flares up in exasperated bursts of "you know, really.''

Phares, the Triangle-based cofounder of the Raleigh-based organization Witness for Peace Southeast, which advocates for peace, justice, and sustainable economies in Latin America, believes people need to have their "blinders" taken off, "to really see each other, think critically." For her, that was the genesis of a path to radicalization.

In 1963, she boarded a plane to Nicaragua and left behind an affluent conservative family to work with the Maryknoll Sisters, a Catholic missionary group. She returned to the United States six years later, hardly the same starry-eyed girl. After Nicaragua, Phares spent time in Guatemala, where a bloody civil war was underway.

In the mid-1960s, the U.S. became involved in a counterinsurgency campaign with the Guatemalan army to quash a small band of leftist rebels. Over the course of more than three decades, an estimated two hundred thousand people were killed or disappeared; the majority perished at the hands of U.S.-backed forces following a CIA-sponsored coup against the country's progressive, democratically elected president in 1954.

Although Phares wasn't there for all of the fighting, what she saw strengthened her resolve against U.S. military operations in the region. By the time she left Guatemala, she was so disturbed that she'd stopped speaking English altogether.

"For me, it was seeing the economic power and the military power of the U.S. government. I was appalled. And I came home, so angry that I didn't read body language back then. My dad thought I was a communist," she says.

The eighties were a roller coaster for peace activists like Phares. Back then, the cold warriors of the Reagan administration were involved in wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, supporting repressive military dictatorships as safeguards against socialist uprisings.

Those forces were responsible for devastating human rights violations. In Nicaragua, the U.S. government opposed the country's socialist Sandinista government, which had toppled a brutal right-wing dictator in 1979. Instead, the U.S. supported the Contra rebels, forces Human Rights Watch concluded "were major and systematic violators of the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict, including by launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians, selectively murdering non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners." Reagan's description of them as "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers" was anathema to Phares.

"For God's sake, they were attacking clinics and schools and killing regular people," she scoffs.

The wars killed hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans over the course of several decades, and the violence touched Phares personally. In 1980, members of the Salvadoran military raped and killed an American missionary named Maura Clarke, one of her closest friends and a former housemate, along with three other churchwomen. (Phares keeps a tribute to them on the wall of her office.)

Phares points to an image of colleagues killed in El Salvador. - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • photo by Ben McKeown
  • Phares points to an image of colleagues killed in El Salvador.

The bloodshed fueled a mass exodus of Central American refugees to the U.S. border. But less than 3 percent were granted asylum, thanks to the Reagan administration's insistence that those fleeing terror were "economic migrants," not political refugees. In response, in what's now referred to as the "sanctuary movement," communities of faith began harboring and supporting undocumented refugees. Federal officials, wary of bad optics, held off on arresting religious participants and barging into holy spaces, though they later took a more aggressive stance, even going so far as sending informants to infiltrate the movement.

In the Triangle, Phares says, a network of people—not churches—took part in that movement, providing temporary sanctuary for Latin American refugees before placing them on planes to Canada, where more support for Central American refugees was available.

As all this was playing out on the national stage, Phares cofounded Witness for Peace Southeast in west Raleigh in 1982. The following year, Phares and her fellow activists led a delegation to Nicaragua, with thirty others in tow. The plan was to give delegates a close-up look at the war so they could effectively lobby for policy changes at home.

They made it two hundred yards from the border with Honduras, Phares recalls. The goal was to visit people most intimately affected by the violence. As they approached the site, the shooting subsided. An anthropologist on the delegation told Phares, "If all it takes to stop the killing is to have Americans in the war zone, let's call for a vigil."

Three months later they were back in Nicaragua, aiming for a near-constant presence in the country. Shortly thereafter, Phares says the government granted them clearance to travel to war zones without military accompaniment. By then, they were sending three delegations a month to monitor the fighting.

"It was just amazing!" she says. "We started to put the names of Nicaraguans and ages and what they were being killed for. And we would go right to Congress with our pictures and say, 'This is what the Contras are doing.'"

That effort went well beyond the halls of Congress. In 1986, as Republican congressman William Cobey was battling Democrat David Price for reelection, Phares and a group of activists walked to his office offering crosses etched with the names and ages of Nicaraguans killed in the war. The press accompanied them, too.

"We went up the stairs with our crosses and said, 'What are you doing?' We got [Cobey] out of office. We did a bunch of stuff like that."

Among their actions with an ongoing legacy is an annual immigration pilgrimage across North Carolina, inspired by Nicaraguan activists who traversed the country to raise awareness about the war. In 1985, Phares and the Witness for Peace network embarked on their first pilgrimage. In early April, they will once again walk across the state, culminating in a visit to the state legislature.

Phares suspects that a lot of people will want to participate this year, given the political climate. She believes a sanctuary movement reminiscent of the one that took shape in the eighties will emerge once again, distinct in its own way, but fueled by the sense of moral outrage that has long compelled people to stand up to the government at extraordinary personal risk.

Phares intimately understands the urgency that drives people to make these decisions. After all, she hauled everyday North Carolinians to deadly war zones, people who jotted down their wills before boarding planes to Nicaragua. The lesson that can be applied to this political moment, she believes, is to convince broad swaths of people to participate in small actions.

"People take steps. Give them something they can do, little steps," she says. "Not everyone is going to do civil disobedience right off the bat or be a sanctuary church. But you can do something. You could have a study group on immigration at your synagogue or your mosque or your church. If you see something happening at a grocery store, you can stand beside whoever it is getting harassed. You can do little things. You can grow."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Radical."

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