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Kidnapped by the military who murdered her husband, woman starts school for unhoused teenagers, turns tragedy into purpose

I married my husband, became pregnant, and enrolled in studies to become a teacher. Then, one afternoon, the unthinkable happened. As my husband and I enjoyed lunch with a friend, a group of military men burst into the house and kidnapped us.

  • 4 months ago
  • August 5, 2023
5 min read
Following her own tragic life, Susana founded a school to help Argentinians access free education, art classes, job training, and other assistance, many of whom are unhoused. Over 800 students and 150 workers take part today. Following her own tragic life, Susana founded a school to help Argentinians access free education, art classes, job training, and other assistance, many of whom are unhoused. Over 800 students and 150 workers take part today. | Photo courtesy of Susana Reyes
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Susana Reyes founded the Isauro Arancibia School in the city of Buenos Aires to help those who cannot afford to study get a better education. After being kidnapped and losing her husband during Argentina’s dictatorship regime, she became deeply involved in social justice issues. She always dreamed of being a teacher, influenced by her mother who always brought her along to work. Watching her mother and her students deeply inspired her and she got her official teacher’s degree in 1985. She is currently retired.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Isauro Arancibia was a teacher in the province of Tucumán. He was a trade unionist, who sought the unification of all the unions, mainly with FOTIA. He was also one of the protagonists of the process that would lead to the birth of Argentina’s Education Union(CTERA), of which he was the Deputy General Secretary. On March 24, 1976, he and his brother were assassinated by civilian and police personnel. The school that bears his name is attended by street children, young people and adults. The institution offers job training, art workshops and social economy enterprises. There are 150 workers and 800 students who pass through the school every day. Currently, there is also a Civil Association of the same name, which supports a transit home for students of the school.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — When I pass by an unhoused person, I stop to speak to them. I see their humanity as I listen to their story and yearn to help any way I can. My own experiences as a young adult, being kidnapped by military officials who ultimately killed my husband, left me terrified. Yet, I remained determined to make changes in my country.

When I founded the Isauro Arancibia Institute, I named it after the teacher whom the regime shot 120 times and then stole his shoes. The story still gives me shivers. This desire to assist and uplift my fellow human beings has been inside me since childhood. Today, I invite those unhoused people I meet on the streets to study at my school, guided by a pedagogy of kindness.

As a young woman, the military kidnapped me and killed my husband

Growing up, I sat in my mother’s classroom watching her teach adults. Her students visibly adored her, their faces radiating positive energy. The room felt warm and welcoming where people could be vulnerable and fail. She treated everyone as equals. I envisioned myself in her image.  

As my sensitivity toward and passion for social issues grew, I went on a high school trip to literacy classes in a low-income neighborhood. It seemed deeply unfair that many children did not go to school because of cost. The problem was in the system itself and I decided to fight it.

I married my husband, became pregnant, and enrolled in studies to become a teacher. Then, one afternoon, the unthinkable happened. As my husband and I enjoyed lunch with a friend, a group of military men burst into the house and kidnapped us. As they carried us out, people put their heads down, pretending not to see. Terror swept through me, and I expected we would die.

For three long months, they kept us in prison. I began searching for my husband, but he never came home. Eventually, I learned they killed him, and he became a name on a list of the disappeared. Pregnant and overcome with grief, I struggled to find my footing. I was 20 years old, widowed, and a single mom.

Putting the pieces of our country back together, we began working with unhoused teenagers

The law at the time prevented single mothers from becoming teachers. I dreamed the military dictatorship would come to an end, and it finally happened in 1983. Within two years, I received my teaching degree. Years later, I traveled to a center to teach sex workers. One day during class, a girl told me about a group of teenagers living on the streets.

That same afternoon, during rush hour, we went to the train station where they slept. A crowd of people swarmed around us, and no one even noticed these kids. My heart broke seeing them sleeping in a corner with no covers. I bent down and began talking to them. Suspicion painted their faces as they wondered if they should trust me. I invited them to our school but left feeling uncertain.

The next day, two of them showed up to class. As the weeks passed, more and more children began showing up. As we hired more teachers, I felt everything in my life coming together. The students challenged me constantly, but whether they arrived unprepared or late for class, we focused on the teaching. Understanding where they came from, we formed deep bonds.

Our world comes full circle and hope remains

While I have since retired, I continue to visit the school and the students as often as I can. I will not stop going there, and a sense of excitement about the future remains prevalent in my life. A certainty exists, knowing the school will grow into something more and more extraordinary with each passing year.

Susana and her students, with a cut-out of Isauro Arancibia, the teacher who was murdered during the dictatorship regime. | Photo courtesy of Susana Reyes

Thirty-three years after my kidnapping, in 2010, authorities found the remains of my husband. I belong to a generation of people who wanted to build a more just, humane Argentina. We wanted to change the world.

The Isauro Arincibia Institute feels like the legacy we leave behind in honor of all those we lost along the way. 

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