We have decided to publish the story of Elsabie because it has been a great opportunity for Claudia, while she was living in Peru, to test her ability to empathise with a person who had nothing whatsoever to do with Claudia’s life, values and principles, and who was considered a criminal and an outcast from society. Practising empathy means trying to understand people of totally different backgrounds and situations. Trying to imagine their feelings, no matter what they have done and in what situation they find themselves in, can lead to beautiful actions and results. Life tends to separate rather than unite us, so these stories need to be told.
As I explained in my article “How contact with local realities can spur your empathy”, I am grateful for the kind of life which my husband’s job has given me, because through it I have been able to meet people who literally changed my vision of life and who also made me discover a lot about myself, my potential and my empathic skills.
The story I am about to tell you speaks exactly of this: The person I made in contact with and helped in a terrible moment of her life, was the kind of person I otherwise never keep company with, seek out or share my experiences abroad with.
Elsabie was a mule. South African, she had been caught smuggling a couple of kilos of cocaine out of Peru. As a matter of fact, she had been used by dealers to divert the attention of customs police, thus allowing bigger amounts of drugs to slip out of the country.
Elsabie did not know this. When she accepted the risky but well-paid task of being a mule from Peru to South Africa, she was in her thirties and had three children and an abusive husband who was in and out of prison. She did whatever she could to make ends meet. At that time she was working as a waitress in a bar at Durban harbour.
When Elsabie was caught, she was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail to be served in a womens’ prison on the outskirts of Lima. Two years went by before she had a stroke that sent her into a coma. She was taken to the biggest public hospital in Lima, where she was diagnosed with AIDS. She regained consciousness but was not the same woman. The stroke had left her completely paralyzed on her left side: she could not speak, her left arm rested under her breast, and her left leg was curved so that her foot touched her knee.
Elsabie was pardoned by the Peruvian government, but could not leave the country: she had no money, no visa, nobody to take care of her case and help her repatriate. The only person visiting her was a volunteer from an association helping people with HIV/AIDS in Lima. Maria Luisa was a warm and practical woman, and did what she could to give Elsabie a sense of not being totally abandoned. She visited her once a week and made sure she had the proper treatment and physiotherapy.
Let me now take you into a house in a rich neighbourhood in Lima. Grace, a US-citizen who had spent several months in prison in Lima, was watching TV one night when she suddenly saw Elsabie’s face. She had met Elsabie in prison, and was devastated to learn from the TV programme what had happened to her.
She immediately talked to Anilù, a philanthropic friend of hers who loved to do good for others, and she had the idea of writing to the South African Red Cross to see if they could provide some kind of support.
This is how the story reached me. Through my husband, who works for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, I was made aware of the situation and put in contact with Grace. She invited me to her place to talk the situation over. Then, together with Anilù, we went to the hospital to meet Elsabie and Maria Luisa.
I was deeply touched by the story of Elsabie and when I met her at the hospital, my heart shrank. I thought no human being should go through the loneliness and powerlessness Elsabie was experiencing, no matter what she had done. I tried to imagine what it could mean to lie in a hospital bed, in a foreign country, unable to speak or move or ask, with no money, attention or resources.
Grace, Anilù, Maria Luisa and I joined forces. We quickly formed a small, highly motivated group and decided we would help her return home, no matter what it took.
And all it took was determination, love and creativity. Many were the obstacles we faced: bureaucratic ones, because Elsabie had to pay a fine for every day she had spent on Peruvian soil without a visa; logistical ones, because she could not travel on her own and the voyage from Lima to Durban through Brazil required a specialized nurse to go with her; health-related ones, because Elsabie was frail and had spent months lying in a bed, so that long journeys posed a huge challenge for her; economic ones, because we needed to pay the travel ticket for the nurse and Elsabie, and find a place in Durban to hospitalize her.
We thought long and hard, each one of us put in an idea, a contact, her time. Anilù and Grace looked for ideas to raise money, they contacted the airlines to get free tickets; I looked for a nurse available to come from South Africa and bring Elsabie back; Maria Luisa contacted lawyers to help speed up the bureaucratic process linked to her passport. And we each took turns in visiting Elsabie and staying in touch with the doctors to monitor her situation.
Everything worked out magically. Two airlines donated all the necessary tickets. Henrietta, a fantastic South African nurse, came from Durban for free to take Elsabie home. Lots of people donated the money to cover the administrative costs for the permit to release her. We even secured a place in Durban, where Elsabie would be received and taken care of once she arrived.
I will never forget the day she left Peru. Henrietta and I went to the hospital to get her ready for the journey. Around her bed were some prison comrades, some of their friends and the hospital personnel that had taken care of Elsabie during all those months. Emotions were high. Elsabie went from laughter to tears, the nurses were moved. They dressed her, prepared her few things and instructed Henrietta about the drugs to give her during the trip. An ambulance took her to the airport. There, all the women who made this possible were waiting for her. We did the check-in, the airline personnel were wonderful: a signature was still missing on the travel document the South African Embassy has released for the occasion – it arrived at eight at night, one hour before take- off. Elsabie was exhausted. We stayed with her until she was due to depart; we hugged her, everybody cried. It was an amazing moment, which will stay with me forever.
Elsabie was welcomed home by her elderly mother and settled in the nursing home we had found for her. We remained in touch for some years, and then we lost contact. But I’ll never forget the lesson she taught me: no matter what a person has done or where she comes from, if you connect with her at a deep human level, you can always find a commonality and share the immense, sometimes painful but always fascinating gift of life.