Breaking down the barriers

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Media and Publications Officer Charlotte Walker blogs from Crete, where she has been spending the week with supporters undertaking the Samaria Gorge Challenge and visit to Spinalonga.

‘Community cohesion’ are buzzwords used by PM David Cameron when addressing tensions between the diverse groups of people making up British society in the 21st century.  Undoubtedly where there are people there are divisions between groups who are seemingly ‘different’ and, crucially, misunderstandings.

Never has a truth been so apparent as when crossing the strait of cobalt-blue water between the upmarket tourist resort of Elounda and Spinalonga island, Greece’s leprosy colony until 1953.

I was fortunate enough to visit Alcatraz island, home to the former US jail for the country’s most notorious offenders off the coast of San Francisco, a few years ago.  There I was beguiled by stories of intricate escape efforts and the mysterious fate of those prisoners who successfully escaped into the treacherous seas encapsulating the prison.

Although many of the inhabitants of Spinalonga were devastatingly disabled, some in the earlier stages of leprosy were more than capable of swimming the calm sea to Plaka, a stone throw’s away on the mainland.  Yet, tellingly, there is no record of any escape effort from Spinalonga.  Τhe truth is that the people of Spinalonga were already life-long captives of one of the world’s most stigmatised diseases.

A newly-unveiled plaque in the former cemetery at Spinalonga reads that it is the resting place of those who already had buried their hopes and dreams, painting a particularly gloomy picture.

But contrastingly, a stroll around the faithfully-preserved community gives rise to a sense of peace, love and acceptance.  On the wall of one of the former shops hangs a grainy black and white photograph depicting women in starched white uniforms.  They had taken it upon themselves to care for the sickest inhabitants at the island’s hospital which witnessed scenes of great suffering and grief.

Leprosy may have robbed these people of their health, freedom and dreams but God did not leave these people, who undoubtedly endured more than their fair share of suffering and heartbreak, without hope.  There is a sense, heightened by a story of the island’s priest who remained on Spinalonga for five years following the final death knell despite its evacuation, that people pinned their hopes on what is higher and yet unseen.

They cared for another, supporting each other through trials and tribulations, nursing one another through the toughest of times.  They showed great love for one another at a time when they were outcast from society.

It is a timely reminder of the great strides The Leprosy Mission has yet to make in breaking down the boundaries between leprosy-affected communities and ‘uninfected’ people.

In India I had the privilege of visiting a leprosy-affected community on a project designed to inform residents of their human rights and to empower them to stand up to the driver throwing them off the bus after clocking their leprosy-affected hands.  But despite valiant efforts, the community requested for higher walls to be built around the colony.  The concept of breaking down barriers remained alien.

Tackling attitudes and putting right misunderstandings is our toughest battle yet in the fight against leprosy – now an easily-treatable disease.  But not until we crack this will we win our fight.

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