One woman's quest to find long-lost "brother"
Guillermo Ernesto Escobar was sponsored through Plan by the Zweerink family from 1978 until 1991. The Zweerink's wrote to Guillermo for 13 years, and kept every letter and picture they received back from him; his picture was always on display on the mantelpiece of their home.
Now in her final year of the Photo Academy in Amsterdam, Els Zweerink made the decision to meet Guillermo and make a documentary about his life. Els and her mother recently visited El Salvador, finding Guillermo with the help of Plan Nederlands and Plan El Salvador. Here is their story:
It all began in 1978 when two little girls from Holland began pestering their parents for a little brother. The sisters were so insistent that their parents even considered the idea of adopting a boy from overseas, but decided against it as they didn't want to remove a child from his family and culture.
After much consideration they came up with an alternative - sponsoring a child through Plan. That's how little five-year-old Guillermo from El Salvador became a member of the Zweerink family, and Els and Kim finally got the brother they wanted so much. "We would tell everybody that we had a brother in El Salvador, and we were really proud of it," says Els Zweerink.
Guillermo's sponsorship started a relationship that lasted 13 years. The picture of Guillermo and his grandmother received a place of honor in the Zweerinks' mantelpiece along with photos of the two sisters and their family. The children exchanged letters, photographs, anecdotes, and even stickers. Els' mother wrote about their life and family in Holland, and Guillermo's mom replied with stories of football and school in the small community of Dulce Nombre de María, in Chalatenango, El Salvador. As the children grew up, they became more involved in the relationship and each letter from Guillermo was received with joy and excitement. This went on until 1991, when Guillermo turned 18 and Els lost touch with him following completion of his sponsorship.
Almost 20 years later, while Els was visiting her mother, she noticed that the picture of Guillermo with his grandmother was no longer on the mantelpiece. She asked her mother, who said she had put it away for safekeeping along with 23 more photos that they had received from Guillermo during the years of sponsorship. She had also safely kept away all the letters and cards Guillermo and his mother had written to the Zweerinks. Seeing the letters and photographs revived Els' fond memories of her brother from El Salvador, and it also sparked her curiosity to find out what happened to him since they lost touch in 1991.
She wrote to Plan Netherlands, asking if they could find Guillermo for her, but the reply was cautious. She was told it might be very difficult to locate him after so many years, but they would try. With the same persistence that characterized her as a little girl when she pestered her parents about finding a brother, Els didn't give up on her quest. She put on a detective's hat and gathered all the information she could find in Guillermo's letters, hoping this information would help Plan to narrow its search. "I went through all his letters and picked all the information, all the names I could find, the school he went to, community he used to live, and put it in one file," says Els.
Plan Netherlands forwarded Els' request to Plan's El Salvador office, where it was received by Rafael, a young, enthusiastic worker who decided to do everything he could to find Guillermo for Els.
It wasn't easy. The community where Guillermo used to live was heavily affected by the war in El Salvador, forcing Guillermo's family to disperse and seek refuge in different parts of the country. Very few people remained in Dulce Nombre de María who could remember them. Fortunately, the young worker was able to make contact with members of the community who put him in touch with the school's Principal who once was Guillermo's teacher and was able to turn the search in the right direction.
On November 25th, 2010, Els received an e-mail from Plan, letting her know that Guillermo had been found. She couldn't believe it. Against all expectations, they had found her little brother, who had become a self-employed man, with his own truck and had a family with children of the same age as hers. Els decided almost instantly that she had to meet him and began planning her trip to El Salvador. Being a photojournalist, Els saw the potential of turning her personal quest into a story that could be shared with the rest of the world, through pictures and letters that spanned several years, as well as the images of their reunion.
It took some time and the help of many, but with the moral support and company of her mother, Els made it to El Salvador to finally meet her long lost brother. The encounter was full of emotions from both sides. Guillermo couldn't believe that, after so many years, Els still remembered him and cared so much about him that she was willing to travel all the way from Holland just to meet him. He was so moved by the gesture that could not find words to greet her. Els was herself a little anxious but full of excitement to meet her long lost brother.
During her 12-day trip, Els learned many things about Guillermo's life and the hardships he went through. She learned how difficult it had been for Guillermo to grow up in a war-stricken country with little or no resources, and how much it had meant for him to know that her family cared about his well-being. She discovered that small things like letters and her little stickers had meant a lot to Guillermo as he was growing up in difficult times. "It was very emotional to me and my mother. It was really important for my parents to support Guillermo when he was growing up. They hoped they could make a difference, even if it was only little," says Els.
"During the war Guillermo and his family had to flee their home leaving everything behind. So, he didn't have any pictures of himself or his grandmother. I had 24 pictures of him which he sent over the years until he turned 18. I thought I had a part of his life and I wanted to give it back," she adds. Thanks to her gesture, Guillermo now possesses some mementos of his childhood that he can share with his family, including a photo of him with his beloved grandmother, with whom he used to live and who passed away many years ago.
Guillermo and his family still have a strong relationship with Plan. One of his sons is being sponsored by a family from Holland, and they all live in a community where the Plan is actively involvement in development projects, including the school where Guillermo’s children study. After seeing how much can be done with child sponsorship, Els is now planning to become a sponsor and help continue this circle of friendship and solidarity. If she could, Els says she would love to sponsor Guillermo's daughter, thus maintaining their bonds and history together.
Els knows that by sponsoring a child, she could help a whole community to become an architect of its own development. But she has also found out that sponsoring goes beyond growth and development; it also helps to build bridges between different cultures. It creates bonds that last a lifetime, and fills voids with friendship, caring and solidarity. Els says, "I tell my children about El Salvador, now. My relationship with the country started when I was seven, and now my children are eight and ten years old, and I can tell them. My parents started this relationship and now I'm continuing it, and I think that's beautiful."
Her quest hasn't finished, yet. Els and her mother are also travelling to Santa Cruz, California, where Guillermo's mother now lives. For the first time in more than 30 years, the two mothers will meet and share stories and probably even tears about the lives they have lived, connected by this invisible bridge of love and generosity through child sponsorship.