I still remember the day I met Lorena in Kabul. It was a warm sunny day at the end of May 2016. We met on the veranda of the house at the ICRC compound where I was living. Even though she had just landed after a 24-hour journey, she walked toward me with a big smile and open arms, hugging me like she was reuniting with an old friend. From that moment on we became “twin sisters”. We were two women of the same age, with Mediterranean features and accents, who had been working passionately as physiotherapists in the humanitarian field for quite a few years. We were also both daughters of parents who didn’t always understand our choice of wanting to help the most vulnerable, but who were proud of us and always loved and supported us.
Lorena was a committed, passionate, enthusiastic, tireless and emphatic physiotherapist, specialized in children’s rehabilitation. In Afghanistan, children with cerebral palsy account for many of the people coming to the ICRC physical rehabilitation centres. The limited resources available in the country make it difficult to provide quality services for these patients and their families. Lorena immediately became fully engaged in this complex setting. She helped identify some major issues in the rehabilitation service, working consistently and patiently to improve the quality of our services.
– Verbena Bottini, ICRC
“Seeing her work with children was magical”
Together we developed a training course for our Afghan colleagues, to enhance their technical skills. Lorena always found creative ways of engaging everyone in the learning process, such as inventing games and building toys with recycled materials to play with the children, or singing Spanish songs to get them involved in the treatment sessions. Seeing her work with children was magical; the children trusted her and opened up to her. I always felt that her innate ability to connect with children was due to her pure nature.
When we trained parents in stimulating their children’s development through daily activities, Lorena always had a kind word for them. She showed them respect for their daily struggle and their commitment to keeping their children alive and healthy.
She was always in a good mood, and this constant positive attitude and her smile touched the hearts of many. I would often sit silently at my desk at the end of the strenuous working day, exhausted, grumpy and frustrated, in search of solutions to the challenges we faced every day. Lorena would sit on the opposite side of the office, spinning around in her swivel chair, playing some lively Spanish music on her laptop while listing all the ideas she could possibly think of to help solve the problems and boost my morale.
– Verbena Bottini, ICRC
“Lorena was a role model – always considerate, always present, always supportive”
As well as being generous with her smiles and her words, Lorena would always share her emotional presence when it was most needed. I often cried in her arms throughout our assignment, as the environment we faced in Afghanistan was tough to deal with at times. Interacting with people in pain, hearing stories of abuse and loss on a daily basis and dealing with emotionally vulnerable people requires a lot of strength, compassion and empathy. Lorena was a role model to me in this regard – always considerate, always present, always supportive.
One of the most difficult moments we shared was the incident in Jowzjan province in February 2017 in which six of our ICRC colleagues were killed during a field trip and two others were kidnapped. I will never forget Lorena’s silent, loving presence during this hard time. She maintained an inner strength while encouraging others to safely express their emotions and not to give up hope. This healthy attitude is the only way humanitarian aid workers can stay motivated and focused on their mission without repressing their humanity.
With her values, work and professionalism, Lorena improved the lives of many patients and colleagues, who remember her with gratitude. She believed, and proved, that the only way to change the world is to lead by example. As a human being, she exemplified compassion and unconditional love, and she continues to inspire me every day.
Lorena died on 11 September 2017. She was shot, at the rehabilitation centre where she had given so much, by a patient in a wheelchair. That is a fact and it still grieves us. But it is not how we remember her. A tribute from some of her colleagues put it like this: “Every time I saw her, that first reaction on her face, the loud voice she had, the very strong hug, and the smile – she just engulfed you with her presence. Engulfed you with love. And that will be my lasting memory of Lorena.”
Globally, women are currently 118 years away from closing the gender gap.