“When I arrived, the hospital was a Red Cross’ tent”
That was almost 40 years ago, why did you stay?
Because this is my home. All I have from Switzerland is the passport. I am not Peruvian, I am from San Juan de Lurigancho.
The death of a 4-year-old girl from diphtheria made you organise vaccination campaigns.
I said, “No way”. That shouldn’t have happened to us, much less when the Ministry of Health had announced that disease was already solved. We built a small doctor’s surgery and undernourished children started coming. So, we built some more to treat malnutrition and give talks on nutritional education; that is how we grew step by step. We insisted on mothers’ education to guarantee changes on children’s eating habits.
You would do it without imposing anything.
We would look for the way to complement their diet at home, considering it was a hard time and there was almost no money. They understood they had to prioritise: if there was only one chicken leg, the child had to eat it, not the father.
There are dangerous areas around here. Did something happen to you during these years?
I have felt in danger, I have been afraid, but nothing has ever happened to me.
How can you explain that?
We are careful and people also take care of us.
“They used to call me ‘the nun’ until I had my first daughter in 1980. Mothers saw me as one of them from that moment on.”
What was the reality back then? Were there many single mothers?
Yes, there were. Many mothers were alone as they had been abandoned. One morning, a lady across the street called us to tell us she was on labour and was not going to make it to the Lima’s Maternity Hospital. The doctor and I went to see her and realised the baby was not in a good position and it was necessary to go to the hospital. As the lady’s husband had a tuck tuck, we told him to go look for a taxi. The hours passed by and he did not come back. That man appeared two months later. He had run away! However, Peruvian women are very brave and strong and they never stop fighting.
Increasingly, fathers started to come in order to receive training.
They came to accompany their wives. We insisted on the need of training them as they are part of couples and there is no way to build families without them.
Did you receive children without charging?
There was some price to pay. For example, in 1978, when we started the association, the enrolment fee was three metres of stone wall (which parents had to build) to protect children. They had to come with stones and delimit the plot.
How did you face the presence of Shining Path in the 80s?
We obeyed. If there was an order, we would stop. The butcher was killed for secretly selling at his house. It was not a game.
Of the NGOs in the area, only yours continued working. How was that possible?
We drew back, we stopped going out to protect our staff and we got used to that way of living. We realised that after Shining Path killed many criminals one night in 1990. Three of them were hanged in front of our doors. The psychologist and the paediatrician lost their minds. They had to be treated by a psychiatrist, who later asked to talk to me. He asked me if it was true that sometimes terrorists shot bullets in the air through our facilities when running away from the police. All of that was true, so he concluded that the only ones who were healthy were those two who had exploded and the rest of us were crazy. It was then when we realised we had adapted to those conditions! In spite of that, the idea of leaving did not occur to me.
You did not have to take so much! You could go back to your country and live peacefully.
People said I should wait everything to calm down and then come back. But I could not imagine leaving everybody here.
Instead of leaving, you opened a kindergarten, built bathrooms and created workshops for both mothers and fathers. Your answer was to continue doing.
The answer was to listen to people, identify what they needed and try to solve problems.
The State did not support you.
“One night, Shining Path killed many criminals. Three of them were hanged in front of our doors”
This has always been funded by European donations.
That is right. I belong to a Swiss association to which I report.
In 2016, you realised that only one of ten adolescent mothers finishes school, so you created a school for them.
In 2009, given the quantity of adolescent mothers we were assisting, we focused on them and made sure they came back to school after having their babies. There is a law that supports those teenagers, but directors do not comply with it, as they believe they are bad examples. So, I got tired of discussing with directors and we created a school.
You started with 46 students.
Now we have 64 students and almost 70 have finished secondary school. They are all working or studying; they are restarting their life plans.
Otherwise, they could even blame their children for their fate.
It is proved that these children will also abandon school. Their possibilities to improve economically only become worse.
That trend must be stopped.
We have to do it. At least after finishing secondary school, they can restart their life plans; and if they dreamed of becoming doctors, they will not be able to achieve it, but perhaps they can become nurses or nurse technicians. They have to focus on that.
What is the best reward for doing this?
Feeling alive, feeling happy when new parents bring us their children, when our former students introduce themselves as professionals. There is still a lot to do! A lot to do for the benefit of people. I do not think I could ask for a better job than working in favour of people.