There is a letter, quite a long one, in fact. Since I can’t show it to you, I shall describe it. It is handwritten, in ballpoint pen, in a sprawling, unfamiliar script, covering both sides of a sheet of graph paper, probably ripped from a child’s exercise book. You can see it was written in a hurry, perhaps in the dark, possibly in secret. I say “in secret” because, in places, words have extended over the edge of the page. Tear stains smudge occasional words into illegible scallops of fading blue ink.
The letter was given to me by a girl named Ruggia. She handed it to me the other day while I was having tea with her. As her mother left the room to brew another pot, Ruggia leaned over and whispered to me, “I wrote something for you last night.”
And with a swift glance toward her mother’s retreating figure, she pulled the crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket, twisted it hesitantly between her fingers before pressing it into the palm of my hand. All the while, Ruggia’s gaze remained fixed on the silhouette of her mother’s back through the open door. Silently she made a pleading gesture for me to say nothing, and I slipped the letter, unread, into my bag. I wondered then what secret thoughts it concealed, what questions it might ask, what despair it was about to share with me. But the answers would have to wait until I was safely away from Ruggia’s house.
Ruggia is twenty-one and lives with her parents and sister in Saatli, in southern Azerbaijan. Her brother is a soldier, currently serving on the frontline, helping to maintain the fragile peace with neighbouring Armenia. Another, older sister has married and moved out. In other words, hers is a fairly typical Azerbaijani family.
Even now I can’t tell you the full text of the letter for the simple reason that no one has, as yet, successfully translated it for me. So far, each person I have asked to explain its meaning has halted abruptly halfway, attempted to compose themselves, and then given up the unequal struggle. Fighting back tears, even the grown men have apologized and handed it back to me saying, “I’m really sorry, I can’t go on. It’s just too sad.”
So I only know what the first half says. It begins:
“My name is Ruggia. In our language, Ruggia means happy, smiling. And that is how I was until one day, eight years ago, when I was thirteen, happiness and smiling ended for me. Crossing the railway line in the early morning on my way to school, I was run over by a train. Both my legs were taken from me that day. Since then, my name no longer holds its meaning. . . .”
My reaction to these words was not one of shock, because I already knew the story too well. But my reaction to the readers and to the effect it had on them reminded me of my own sense of helplessness the first time I had met Ruggia a year earlier.
I’d visited her on that occasion to deliver a new wheelchair. Her old one had all but collapsed and, despite ingenious methods to repair it over the years, it had finally been relegated to the corner of the room, where it sat dilapidated, stripped of any reusable parts and abandoned. Now, with a new chair, Ruggia’s mobility and independence, I hoped, would be greatly improved. In fact, sitting up at the family table, her disability hidden from view by a voluminous hand-crocheted shawl, she appeared no different from any other girl of her age. She made good friends with my daughter, Jasmine. The same age, the two girls chatted ceaselessly as they baked cakes together. Ruggia was also a good seamstress and made Jasmine a beautiful red blouse.
In a way, Ruggia is, in fact, more fortunate than most disabled people I have encountered in Azerbaijan. First, she is not a refugee and, therefore, has not been uprooted and still lives in her family home. Second, unlike the vast majority of Azerbaijani people-who traditionally have a hostile, embarrassed, or uncaring attitude toward anyone with a disability-Ruggia’s family, it was obvious to me from our first meeting, love and support her, and treat her as normally as her condition allows.
After one of my visits, her mother followed me to the gate. “Is there nothing you can do for my daughter to give her legs back to her?” she asked, “Are there no prosthetics you could bring to help her walk again?”
It was a question to which she already knew the answer. She was clutching at straws, hoping for a miracle. It was understandable. What mother wouldn’t want to believe that her disabled daughter would one day walk? What mother in her situation would not move mountains to make it happen, would ever take no for an answer? It was hard to disguise my own sadness as I tried to explain that, for Ruggia, artificial limbs would never work. How could I describe the many months of humiliation she would endure, the hurt she would suffer just to succeed in standing upright, the many years of physical pain? No, there was no prosthetic that could help Ruggia right now. Barring a true miracle, it was unlikely Ruggia would ever walk again.
The letter continues:
“Please help me. Please, please arrange for me to go to a home for disabled people where I can join a community of other disabled people. At home I just sit in my room day after day. I know that I am, and will always be, a burden on the rest of the family. I don’t want to be this burden. Please take me away. Please help me. Only you can do this for me. I ask you as my friend.”
I understood then that Ruggia’s letter was an appeal from the heart. I had to consider very carefully how to respond to it. Little doubt remained in my mind that Ruggia had been disguising her pain and her fear about her future all along so as not to alarm or upset her family. She must have realized that, now that she was twenty-one, she would have to make some hard decisions.
I had already visited what was considered the best homes for people with disabilities in the country, the Romani Home, outside the capital, Baku. There was no way I would admit her there. In Azerbaijan, as in many developing countries, severely mentally disturbed people are kept in the same rooms as those with even minor physical disabilities. Even though the staff seemed caring and the accommodations adequate, to the unprepared the resulting scene resembles an old-fashioned lunatic asylum – pure bedlam. No, I was resolved to not take Ruggia there. She would be frightened, miserable and alone.
Although I did not want to betray Ruggia’s trust, at the same time I felt that her parents should be made aware of their daughter’s fears and misgivings. I decided to seek the advice of a mutual friend, a neighbour of hers in Saatli. He had grown up with Ruggia and their families had been close for many years. He, too, agreed with me. Ruggia should not, at all costs, be admitted to a home for the disabled. He suggested he discuss the contents of the letter with her parents but make them promise not to reveal any knowledge of it until I’d had the opportunity to discuss it with her myself. Meanwhile, I prayed for a miracle.
By chance, later the same day, a refugee father came to my room asking for a wheelchair for his disabled daughter, Shahla. This was not so unusual. In the past year, I had given away almost 100 wheelchairs to disabled men and women in the local refugee camps. The father told me that Shahla, then thirty-seven years old, had been unable to use her legs since suffering a severe attack of polio at age eight. I accompanied him to visit Shahla, and during our conversation, she told me she loved sewing. She said she had once owned a sewing machine but that during the war, when her family was forced to flee the invading Armenians, it had been left behind along with her wheelchair.
It dawned on me then that this quiet, shy girl, Shahla, might be the miracle I’d been praying for. I asked her if she might be interested in meeting another girl with a similar interest to hers, sewing. She took a while to answer. It was, after all, a big decision. It would mean leaving, for the first time in five years, the cramped little room she had shared with her family. But, after some hesitation, she finally agreed.
Later that evening, Ruggia’s father generously offered to convert a large storehouse in his garden into a sewing workshop for disabled women. I couldn’t believe my luck but had to disguise my excitement. Though it was the perfect solution, I was not convinced I could I get the project off the ground.
I knew if I could raise enough funds for the project, I could convince other disabled women to participate in it. I knew, too, that I could find local volunteers willing to scour the markets for me in the capital, Baku, for secondhand sewing machines. I was confident I could arrange a regular transportation rota to get the girls to and from Ruggia’s house. And I would research what products the workshop could produce and where they could be sold.
The next day I picked up Shahla and her parents to bring them to Ruggia’s house. After making the introductions and explaining what we hoped to achieve, I left. I did not want the girls or their families to feel pressured, imposed upon, or intimidated. Nor did I want to promise anything I could not deliver.
During my visits with both girls the next day, I heard that the meeting had been a huge success. Shahla and her family had stayed on at least two hours after I’d left. Both girls were thrilled at the prospect of meeting regularly and sewing together, and perhaps over the next year, becoming part of a new income-generating project. For the time being, Ruggia seemed to have pushed all thoughts of transferring to a disabled home to the back of her mind. Her family was happy she had decided to remain at home. Shahla’s family was delighted she was going to have a renewed interest in life. And I was relieved that both Ruggia and Shahla faced a future in which they felt they could make a contribution.
As for the second half of the letter, the part that no one could translate for me, I decided to let it remain unread for the time being. Thanks to Ruggia’s and Shahla’s resolve, both girls now felt hopeful and useful, and their futures looked promising. And Ruggia, reclaiming the meaning of her name, was once again happy and smiling.