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What is your initial thought when you look at this picture? It’s okay if it is negative. If I looked at this picture from an outside perspective, my initial thought would probably be critical. There is something that creates a negative reaction about this white, privileged girl posing with a child she probably knows nothing about. Something that makes people think this girl was feeling the “savior complex,” rescuing a child of color from their plight. Or, maybe you had a positive thought about how cute that baby is and how beautiful her mother in the background is. Nonetheless, I want to take this opportunity of writing this blog to talk about perspective, MEDLIFE and my experiences.
So, as you may know, the privileged white girl in this photo is me, Marissa, and some of those criticisms are probably true about this photo and similar photos you’ve encountered of friends and family who have gone on service trips abroad. Luckily, the organization I chose to commit to, without doing a lot of research, has a mission far removed from the ideas behind the “savior complex.” To me, this photo represents my discovery of this mission in action during the mobile clinic week in Moshi, Tanzania that would change my life in more ways than I ever could have imagined.
For those of you non-Ohioans, I should explain that the Ohio State Buckeyes are a huge part of the Ohioan culture, especially in my family. I was born and raised to be a buckeye fan, going to “The Shoe” at a young age to watch the cheerleaders of course. With that being said, seeing this precious child with an Ohio State outfit on 8,000 miles away from home evoked many thoughts and emotions within me that I wanted to capture in order to remember and look back on.
First was the excitement and disbelief that we just so happened to wear Ohio State gear on the same day. Did the mother know Ohio State students would be at this clinic or was it just a complete coincidence? Then, I felt an immense sense of humanity. Knowing that when her mother dressed her in this outfit on that hot Tanzanian summer morning, she looked into her daughter’s eyes with the same love and hope for her future as when my mother dressed me in the same outfit as a child. Although this child and I may have been born into completely different environments with different access and opportunity, our parents both wanted a fulfilled and healthy future for us.
I see this in the communities we work with here in Lima. Almost every time community members propose a new project, they mention wanting it to improve the health, safety and environment of the community for their children. When I listen to these community members, I hear and see the same hope for a better future as the parents of the child in Tanzania had and that my parents have for me. These experiences have helped me realize that we are all just humans trying to survive and thrive in our lifetimes in order to better the world for future generations.
This is why I believe in a better future for the pueblos jovenes surrounding Lima and communities experiencing poverty throughout the world. With the commitment of these communities and NGOs like MEDLIFE who are committed to working WITH those experiencing poverty rather than FOR them we can improve overall quality of life. I believe that the individuals living in these situations did not choose to be there, but rather were placed there through a complex system that we have created over thousands of years. Although this may seem like an impossible circumstance to reverse, through generations of people aiming to improve the quality of life for the following generation we can make a change. Mano a mano (hand in hand), poco a poco (little by little) we can transform the world and if enough people believe in this transformation it will become a reality. I would like to end this brief excerpt by urging you to join the MEDLIFE Movement in whatever way you see fit in order to play your role in global development.
When Victor Aguero arrived to the community of Señor de Lureen, Lima Peru, in 1991 he was homeless. He had come to Lima from Ankash, a small city outside of Huaraz, hoping to visit family for the holidays and live with them, but they had rejected him. He had nothing but some clothes and an agreement to look after someone else’s land. The land had a small hole, where the earth sunk down just enough to make a shelter. Victor, who had nowhere else to go, added a roof and unstable walls; he made that hole his home.
The home Victor made was better than nothing, but it caused him a lot of problems. He wasn’t able to construct a sturdy floor for it. During the incessant drizzle that characterizes the winter in Lima, the hole would fill with water, covering everything in mud, trapping moisture and creating a humid breeding ground for bacteria that led to respiratory illnesses among other health problems. Sometimes it got so full of water, Victor had to sleep in the streets to avoid sleeping in the water.
His family does not support him and has rejected him, “One Christmas I went to my dads house… They treated me like a rat, like a thief,” Victor said. “They told me ‘bathe yourself.’ They watched me closely, telling me ‘don’t you look at our stuff like that,’ like I was a thief, ‘Don’t take anything.’ I wasn’t allowed to stay there.”
When he was younger, Victor said his family sold him to work in the home of a professor living in Huaraz as a servant. Victor said he was physically abused there, so he escaped. The police brought him to a church where he says he finally was helped. When he arrived in Señor Lureen he was truly alone, he had to fend for himself in a city he didn’t know.
Victor works doing other people’s laundry and hauling bags of product in the local market. He was born with an undiagnosed but obvious mental disability, and had trouble finding work doing much else.
His community took note of the hardship in Victor’s life; they saw his collapsing and unsafe home, they saw that some days he could not eat, they saw that he worked hard to support himself, and they saw that he came back in tears from every visit to his family. They did not ignore what they saw.
When Victor got the news that he was being kicked off of the land his little hole was on, his community banded together to help him.
“Someone had to do something, he couldn’t be left to live that way,” said Ana Solice, one of Victor’s neighbours. “When someone is in need we come together as a community to support them.” The community decided to hold a pollada, essentially a cookout, to raise money to build Victor a home.
The home they built him is much better than the hole he was living in before. He lives a much better life now. His bed is lifted off of the ground with a mattress. Someone donated him a radio so he can listen to his favourite music, which he listens to all day. “Radio Q-Q-Qumbia!” he yelled happily as he cranked the music and danced.
When MEDLIFE brought a Mobile Clinic to Victor’s community, Ana Solice made him come with her because she remembered Victor had been complaining about persistent stomach pain for a long time. We gave him medication for gastritis, and we are coordinating with Ana to get him medical tests to make sure he doesn’t have something more serious.
The community and MEDLIFE both know we can do more together to help Victor. The community is planning to hold another pollada to construct a church. In the back, they plan to put a place to wash clothes that they will let Victor run all on his own. That way, he can make enough money to live more comfortably. MEDLIFE is working on plans to improve Victor’s housing situation. Working together with the community, we know we can make a big difference in Victor’s life.
Any of my close friends and family can tell you that the months leading up to my departure for Lima were characterized by multiple mini-existential crises; although I’m a fairly spontaneous person, the more I thought about it, the crazier it seemed to pick up my life and move to another country on my own for a year. Everyone around me was incredibly supportive, but always with an air of skepticism–was this really what I should be doing with my life at this point?
At the same time, I knew there would be a moment in which all of the worry and anxiety became worth it, a moment in which I was certain that I had made the right decision in moving to Peru. Luckily, that realization occurred much quicker than I had anticipated.
Before we started our internship, we had a weeklong training period with all of the staff in which we learned about the MEDLIFE mission and how each facet of the organization contributes to the overall picture. Although I was involved with my MEDLIFE chapter in college, I was amazed by everything I was learning. While we were listening to our founder Nick Ellis speak, I paused and looked around the room. The audience, the driving force behind MEDLIFE, consisted of individuals from all over the world with diverse backgrounds, interests, and skill sets. Seeing all these incredible people gathered in one place for one purpose, I immediately felt that I was a part of something bigger than myself, a feeling that is both intimidating and comforting. All my previous worries “se fue” and I dived in head first into my year with MEDLIFE.
Even though I came here by myself, I’ve never felt alone. I have found that friendship emerges easily between people who share a passion (even if you also share a kitchen). It is really incredible to be able to stand alongside my housemates and friends, the same people I eat breakfast with every morning, and accomplish amazing things together. This picture was taken at the end of a long day spent tossing bricks up a hillside to begin construction on a house for Soledad, one of our patients, and her son José. They were both there alongside us the entire day, giving us water and Inka Cola, chatting with us during breaks, and constantly expressing their gratitude.
There is still a lot to accomplish before the big inauguration and move-in. Although I wish we could simply snap our fingers and finish the project, part of me muses that every home should be constructed this way–piece by piece. True ownership springs from physical investment in a project and active presence each step of the way. At the end of the day, even though I was just a link in a long chain of MEDLIFE staff, interns, and community members, I have never felt so accomplished and, again, part of something bigger. I strive to apply this same mentality to my internship with MEDLIFE as a whole; no task is minute, no role is insignificant.
I was climbing down a steep hill-side of slippery rocks when I paused to catch my breath. It was my first week in Lima, and I was participating in our Reality Tour. Carlos, the Director of MED Programs Peru, was leading us through the communities on the outskirts of Lima to help us better understand the challenges they face everyday. “Ya, chicos, bajamos,” Carlos tells us to hurry down as we’re supposed to meet with the community members from Wilbert Basurto. Fearful I might fall, I crouched down and placed both hands on the rocks beside me for support as I lowered myself down.
Once I planted both feet on solid ground, I looked back at the precarious path I had just descended. There were two young children scrambling down the rocks, followed by a woman wearing flip-flops and carrying her baby in a poncho on her back. Shortly after, another woman approximately 7 months pregnant, Herlita, slowly made her way down to greet us. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here I was properly equipped with good health, youth and sturdy hiking boots, yet struggling to safely reach the bottom. How were these individuals supposed to do the same without stable shoes? What would they do if it were raining or dark out? It was that moment I realized the gravity of the situation. They need a safe passageway; specifically, a staircase.
Less than two months later, I found myself sitting in that same location next to Herlita, except this time she was holding a happy, healthy baby, just 20 days old. We shared traditional foods, cachanga and cebada, from the region Huancavelica, where most of the community members had migrated from. As we enjoyed this meal, the community members of Wilbert Basurto discussed their plans with Carlos to begin the process of building their first staircase. The community was ready and inspired. They had just witnessed the inauguration of two new staircases in a nearby community Laderas de Nueva Esperanza, a location where we have been working for five years and have completed 11 staircases. The community members of Wilbert Basurto were able to see the success of their neighbors’ efforts first-hand, turning a seemingly unattainable idea into a more tangible goal.
Wilbert Basurto is a much smaller community. They only have 21 families in comparison to the 93 families that make up Laderas de Nueva Esperanza, but Carlos assured the community members that it can be done. He emphasized the importance of commitment to the project and suggested that they ask to rent the wooden molds for their staircases from Laderas de Nueva Esperanza. As the community members came to an agreement with Carlos, I turned to Herlita by my side and smiled. She, her baby, and countless neighbors would soon have a staircase, providing safe access to and from their home.
It was that moment that I realized the true magnitude of MEDLIFE’s impact. We have built staircases, individual relationships and collaborative partnerships. We have empowered communities to organize and create positive change for themselves, but what I find to be the most meaningful is how communities have started to collaborate and learn from each other. To me, this is the truest essence of empowerment, and this is how the MEDLIFE mission will continue to grow.
Erika is 18 years old and lives in the hills surrounding Lima with her 19 year old husband and their one year old son. She moved to Lima from Iquitos in search of new job opportunities and a better life for her family. She is currently living in a small shack on a dusty hillside in the community of Laderas. She has no land title, no water and no sanitary facilities. In January of this year, Erika started feeling pains in her belly that began disrupting her normal eating and sleeping habits. She put off going to see a doctor as the process is time consuming and expensive. However, by March, the pain was so bad that she couldn’t delay it any longer. Erika explained how it felt “I couldn’t eat or sleep, I knew there was something very wrong”
Erika made the journey down the steep hill from her house and into the centre of Villa Maria to consult with a doctor about the pain she had been experiencing. The doctor ran several tests and scans. When the results came back, it became clear that Erika had a tumour growing in her belly. The scans did not determine whether the tumour was cancerous or not and finding out would require more hospital visits which would mean more time and money. Erika is a full time mum and her husband works two days and two nights at a plastics factory though the family still have a very low income.
Erika put off going to see the doctor until the pain was so great that she could not bare it anymore. The doctor told her that the tumour had grown in size to be 30cm, meaning it would need to be operated on. However, he had also discovered a complication, Erika’s results now showed she was five weeks pregnant.
The doctors deemed the danger of operating on the tumour whilst she was still carrying the baby to be too great. She was told it would be necessary to have more scans and tests to determine how dangerous the tumor was and the possibility of it being cancerous. However, it was too early in the pregnancy for these scans to be carried out without the risk of them affecting the pregnancy.
As the baby continued to grow, the tumour was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Erika is only three months pregnant but already has the appearance of someone who is almost at the due date as a result of the swollen tumour in her belly. Erika’s doctor has decided to conduct some preliminary scans to try to determine if the tumour is cancerous. If it is, they will need to delay any treatment until after the birth, however if it is not they will be able to think about a short term treatment to ease Erika’s pain during her pregnancy.
These tests were carried out on Friday 23rd September and the results should be back within the next week. Following these results, Erika and her family will have a better idea of how to proceed with the next few weeks. MEDLIFE nurses will be with Erika every step of the way over the next three months, supporting her with whatever treatment she may need and helping her through her pregnancy. We will make sure Erika’s son has somewhere to stay and someone to look after him if his mother needs to go into the hospital and we will be supporting the family financially with any medication Erika is prescribed.
We hope that over the next few weeks Erika will be able to sort a clearer treatment plan of what the next steps will be in both her medical treatment and her pregnancy.
MEDLIFE have been working in the community of Laderas for nearly five years now. As well as running educational workshops and mobile clinics in this community, we have also been heavily involved in constructing projects here. Over the past year, we have been working on a project to constuct five staircases in this community which is located on a steep hillside. We completed the majority of these staircases with the help of volunteers from our mobile clinics but the last staircase, which we finished last week, was left to staff and interns. Here are a few photos from the week:
We look forward to continuing to work with Laderas in the future and have already started making plans for potential future projects in this community!
There is a custom in Peru to keep a human skull in the home as a way of protecting the family and warding off evil. On Wednesday 28th September, MEDLIFE patient Delia Martín brought out the skull which had been protecting her home and presented it to a group of MEDLIFE staff and interns. She told us that she wanted us to take it as she felt she had reached a stage where she no longer needed the protection.
Delia has been suffering from Caroli syndrome since she was a young girl. This is a rare congenital disorder of the intrahepatic bile ducts that can lead to high blood pressure and, in severe cases, liver failure. Delia is a mother of five and her symptoms have left her unable to hold down a stable job. Her husband works long hours running a workshop from the house. However, this means Delia is left to care for the children alone and has no way to get money in to support her family.
Over the past few years, MEDLIFE have been supporting Delia though her treatment and helping to make sure she has access to all the medication she needs. Recently, the MED Programs department started a project to fundraise to bring a sandwich cart to Delia to help her to have a more stable employment. Thanks to the money raised by North Oconee High School we were able to go to Delia’s house to deliver the cart on Wednesday 28th September.
A group of MEDLIFE staff and interns got in a truck with the cart decorated in balloons and drove it up to Delia’s house. Delia was so grateful for the cart and explained to us how it felt. “First (MEDLIFE nurse) Ruth arrived telling me to come outside, saying ‘we have a surprise for you’. So I went outside and suddenly out in the street I saw the car with everyone in it and the sandwich cart. In that moment I was so excited, I don’t know how to describe it. It was a very strong feeling.”
Delia welcomed us all into her house and started using her new cart immediately. We were lucky enough to be her first ever customers, receiving delicious hamburgers stuffed with lettuce, cheese and chips! Before we all left, Delia addressed us as a group, she said “I don’t know how to thank you all for what you have done for me. I want to thank everyone from the NGO MEDLIFE from the bottom of my heart for helping me through every stage of my illness. I have no other words except that I am so grateful to everyone that has helped me and I hope that you all continue to help people like me.”
En route to Nueva Esperanza this foggy morning, I’m filled with a feeling of anticipation: I get to see Soledad and her son today. Looking out the bus window on our morning commute, I watch people heading off to work. I see children with brightly colored backpacks skipping on the sidewalks with small lunch boxes waving in the air with every swing of their arms. I see street vendors cooking an assortment of quail egg dishes and various styles of chicken sandwiches. Although I only get the most infinitesimal glimpse into all of their lives, I feel like I’m a part of it.
When we visit communities and speak with the people, the word I hear the most is ‘apoyar,’ which means to support. This morning, I spent time thinking about what that means. Apoyar is an action where anyone can participate. In Spanish, this is its infinitive form, allowing it to be conjugated to reflect who is conducting it. The word is both flexible and inclusive. After spending a moment impressed by how much Spanish I actually do remember from high school, I think about all the support MEDLIFE has brought to our patient, Soledad. A woman that has experienced so much adversity still manages to smile when we arrived the last time our group came to visit. Several nights before, Carlos brought us to see Soledad’s home. I remember being overwhelmed with sadness seeing how she lived with her son in this home constructed of plywood and I wondered how this building was still even standing. Carlos then told our group that MEDLIFE had agreed to build her a new home and the following month, we were to build it. Oh boy.
At first, I was scared. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to lift concrete, or throw these unassumingly heavy bricks several meters in the air, let alone catch one being hurled right at me. In those early mornings, Carlos believed in us and said ‘!Eres fuerte!’ along with Janet shouting in the background ‘!Sí, se puede!’ Halfway through, I was so exhausted. I felt like my body had been pushed to its limit and there would be no way I could continue. During our water break, a young boy sat next to me and asked what my name was. I found out he was Soledad’s son, José. We spoke about everything. Minutes felt like hours as we shared our lives and the things we had seen, the Spanish phrases we both knew, even the jokes we thought were funny. For a brief moment, I forgot all the physical pain I had felt earlier and was captivated by our conversation. On that day, I gained a new friend.
When our bus reached its final stop, we disembarked and continued to walk up to Soledad’s house. I was anxious because it had been a few weeks since I’d seen Soledad and Jose and I was eager to continue the conversations we had last time.
I knew that I’d learn a lot on this internship, but it’s impossible to describe in words the compassion and empathy felt when working on projects or conducting follow-up patient visits. At some point, you realize that everyone is a person trying to do the best they can with the resources they have, to make a better future for themselves and their family. I feel that being a MEDLIFE intern has given me the opportunity to work alongside others and learn how to truly serve, so I can be a better source of apoyo (support) for my friends and loved ones back home.
Finally, we reached the base of the staircase to Soledad’s project site. Bricks lay at the base of where her new, two-story home will be built in the coming weeks. I’m incredibly happy seeing how much progress has been made and am eager to continue working on it. I look over my shoulder and I see Soledad and Jose with smiles on their face as if they were seeing old friends again. At this moment, I think: somos vecinos.
MEDLIFE was introduced to the community of Union Santa Fe in 2012 by the leader of a neighboring community, located in the heart of Pamplona Alta, one of the most impoverished areas of Lima. Union Santa Fe may not have any public spaces, road, electricity nor water access, but they did have one very important thing, the desire to work together to move forward as a community. As soon as Director of Projects Carlos Benavides saw this, he immediately began working with them on a staircase in 2012.
“Before having the staircases, pregnant women, the elderly and children of the community struggled to walk up the dusty hill which became especially dangerous in the rain,” Casani said, a Union Santa Fe community leader. This first project was the beginning of a close and productive relationship between MEDLIFE and Union Santa Fe.
Four years later in September of 2016, we have completed 15 projects with them, and brought two Mobile Clinics and two educational workshops to the community. We are currently planning a project that the community has long needed; road access to the community.
The road will take these sections of road and pathway, turn them into driveable roads, and connect them to another road that leads to the bottom of the hills.
The new road will be connected to the road seen in the bottom of this photo, and allow easy access to main roads nearby.
The benefits of a road go far beyond the obvious; the ability to drive or take public transit to your home. Many of the shanty towns like Union Santa Fe are not recognized as legitimate communities by the local government, and are thus cut out of access to public utilies. If the community is accessible by road, then Luz Sur, the public utility that provides electricity in that area of Lima, will be obligated to install electricity as well as public lighting in the streets of the community. This will also make the electricity in their homes cheaper. Sedepal, another public utility, will also obligated to install a drainage system that will drain excell water runoff and can be used to install plumbing.
In this part of Lima, many communities get their water from privatized water trucks that drive around and sell water. With the new road, the trucks will drive into Union Santa Fe up in the hills, and residents will no longer have to walk down the hill and climb back up with heavy jugs of water.
Like many of Lima’s informal shantytowns, getting and keeping land titles has been extremely difficult for Union Santa Fe. “15 years ago everything was just dirt paths, a few houses and the pig farm,” Carlos said. “The people here built all of this in fainas (community work days.)” As urban areas became increasingly crowded, the people who now live in Union Santa Fe and other settlements like it throughout Lima, decided to climb the hills and stake out a plot of land to build a home of their own on.
However just because someone built a home doesn’t mean they own the land its on. Entire communities sprang up on land for which they lacked land titles. There was a legal process to aquire land titles, but for that the community needed infrastructure.
The staircases had helped move Union Santa Fe closer to their goal of getting land titles, but it wasn’t enough. When Casani, a community leader in Pamplona Alta, asked MEDLIFE founder and CEO Nick Ellis for a road, Ellis quickly agreed because the community signed a document promising to finish construction by the end of the month and because of the dedication and commitment he had seen from Casani and the whole community in the past.
Once the road is constructed community of Union Santa Fe will have land titles, access to electricity, plumbing, and easy access to their homes. Perhaps most importantly, all future projects will be much cheaper and easier to complete because construction materials and equipment can be easily transported to the construction site by motorized vehicles.
Casani and the people of Union Santa Fe were very grateful, “ [MEDLIFE] is the only organization that we have encountered that consistently brings rapid and immediate social help,” said Casani.
Neither Marica Bacillio Lozano nor her Mother have ever lived somewhere they owned. They have always had to rent small homes in poor districts in Lima, Peru. Despite barely scraping by most of the time, Marica said that “we were always moving forward.”
Marica married and had two kids, eventually moving into her own rented home in Manzana A, Via El Salvador. Her family was poor, but they scraped by with the informal work they did as cobradors, collecting fares from people of public transit. Then Marica had her third child, Isaic, and things changed forever; “the way isaic was born. Things are more complicated now,” Marica said.
Isai was born with a cleft palate, webbed feet and hands as well as mental retardation. When Marica first found out, all she could do was cry in the hospital. Fortunately, Isai has developed better than was expected. At age 5 he recently began sitting, walking, and speaking. He has even been able to join a normal kindergarten classroom. “Thank god he started walking,” Marica said. “He can be a little independent now. I can leave him alone for a little and he can play.” Before, someone had to have their eye on him constantly.
Although she still sometimes has to excuse herself and cry in the bathroom while she is on a hospital visit with Isai, she loves her son and has dedicated herself completely to trying to provide a good life for Isai and her other two children.
But it hasn’t been easy, and now her family has been stretched to the breaking point. With Isai came a litany of other expenses; medicine, diapers, trips to the hospital, and of course the huge amount of time required to care for him properly. The families’ budget was always tight, they made money for food day to day, if there was no work avaible one day, the family often could not eat that day.
Isai needs more foods than a normal child, when there is not enough to go around, Marica has to give more to him than her other kids. Sometimes they cry because they don’t get enough food. But even with the extra food, Isai was still diagnosed with Anemia 7.5, a condition caused by malnutrition, specifically a lack of iron. With his webbed hands many tasks are difficult, he cannot pick up small objects well, he has trouble pulling up his pants.
With all of this, the family could not keep up with rent anymore. They had to move into a house with family members, and split the rent. There are now 3 families and a total of 14 people living in the house with 4 rooms. To make matters worse, the landlords of the home are now carrying out a repossession, and everyone has to be out in two weeks. “We don’t know where to go,” Marica said.
Marica has had trouble getting Isai the treatment he needs. “I’m embarrassed I missed an appointment,” Marica said. “But what can I say, I have three kids.” When she managed to get Isai to the hospital, she said she often faces discrimination- even in emergencies. Once she brought Isai to the hospital because had a high fever that was causing convulsions, she was forced to wait much longer than anyone else. When she complained, one nurse told her that “all kids are not the same.”
After struggling for years and making little progress getting Isai treatment in the public health system, she jumped at the opportunity to take her son to a Mobile Clinic in 2015. MEDLIFE is now helping her navigate the hospital system and get Isai the treatment he needs. MEDLIFE is also helping with the costs of caring for Isai, like buying diapers, so Marica does not need to choose between paying for Isai’s expenes and feeding her family. Our nurses will continue visiting and supporting the family until Isai has gotten the treatment he needs.