Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Angel from America

I have a friend living in what are possibly the most difficult conditions for an expat to be in here in Albania. Her and her husband live in the remote northern town of Kukes. There aren't many cars there, nor even bicycles. People walk in Kukes. It's a poor town, still affected by the influx of Kosovar refugees back in 1999. There are a couple of bars, exclusively filled with males. It's not an easy place to be a woman, let alone a foreign woman from America.

My friend and her husband have been there almost a year now, with two more to go. He's working on a big project and they've rented a large villa just outside town. There's a beautiful view of the lake and the mountains, and in the summer the grape vines are lush and heavy with ripe fruit.

Sounds idyllic, doesn't it?

Think again. Most of the year there's no electricity. Maybe an hour or two a day. And no water. The villa is large, but my friends live in one small room. The room with the tiny wood stove. They sleep with their coats, mitts, and boots on. She told me that most days it is too cold to go into any other room, even the kitchen. It's so cold, it's painful.

But my friend has found a purpose, a reason for getting up every day. You see, in this isolated town not far from the Kosovo border, many people still suffer from the atrocities of the last war. The problem is landmines. They were scattered everywhere. Thousands of acres were covered with mines and explosive remnants of war. Of course, many people died from these mines, but many more are living with the after effects of exploded mines.

Imagine living in a country where there is little or no support available for the physically handicapped. Hospitals in rural areas have no electricity, no medication, no running water. Your wounds fester, become infested, grow mouldy, and painful. And it's not just a problem for people with old wounds- no- there are still acres and acres of land not cleared and certified safe. Children and animals continue to be victims of these old landmines.

Here's where my friend becomes an angel. A year ago she knew she would have to find a way to fill her days so far away from all the other expat ladies in Tirana. And so she courageously walked into town one day and knocked on the door of an NGO that works with victims of landmines, and made herself available as a volunteer. The two Albanian men who worked there took up her offer and started taking her with them as they made their rounds to visit the often lonely and isolated victims in the area. She's not a doctor, but a nurse from Los Angeles, where she worked in dermatology, caring for movie stars and wealthy clients. Now she cleans wounds, teaches good hygiene, and wraps stumps where hands and legs should be.

I spent a couple of hours with her yesterday, drinking coffee and listening to her stories. In less than a year, she already has enough material to write a book- and I hope she does. She told me softly that an Albanian newspaper recently ran an article about her, calling her "The Angel From America". I couldn't agree more. And I couldn't be prouder to know her.

10 comments:

Maria said...

Wow! Your friend sounds absolutely amazing, and it is encouraging to see someone turn an otherwise less than ideal situation in to something positive!

Simon Varwell said...

How amazing - I remember the landmines, and Kukes as typical of the stoic, run-down but spectacular north.

Inspiring that your friend is doing such an incredible job.

lorjan said...

It is an amazing story. I can not imagine someone living in Kukes besides the locals. And on top of that your friend is doing the noblest thing one can do, helping to save other people lives! As an Albanian I feel the embarrassed for myself and my countrymen not doing enough to help ourselves, considering how much other people do for us. Wish your friend all the best, and my admiration for her!

traveller one said...

maria... yes, amazing for sure, and inspiring!

simon... the north is as you say spectacularly beautiful country. Rugged and immense- completely awesome.

lorjan... Thank you for your wishes- I will share them with her as soon as I can :)

Lynda said...

This is an excellent post - I have been thinking about it all day. Such an example to people that whinge and moan about 'not having' - your friend sounds terrific.

Sarah said...

This definitely puts things in perspective. Whew...what an amazing person.

cani said...

It really gave me the shivers. There surely is no other word to describe your friend, except 'angel'!

traveller one said...

Lynda... thank you! Yes she's definitely terrific!

sarah... uh huh... and amazing!

cani... she's an angel no doubt about it, and one who's story should be told :)

Di Mackey said...

So brave ... it's a book I would love to hear about when it comes out.

susanna said...

Your friend really is an angel. Funny where Life will take us...where we can find a new purpose. I bet your friend didn't think she'd be helping land mine victims when she worked in L.A. I'm glad there are people like her in our world.

And I'm grateful for all the amenities I have in the States.