Wednesday 22 Mar 2017

Smiling in the Face of Adversity

When she was only 12 years old, author and journalist Irene Villa lost both her legs and three of her fingers. “That day, we’d heard the sound of explosions far away,” she explained to her audience of Spanish-speaking Ecolint students, teachers and parents. “When my mother and I got in the car to go to school, little did we know that, in addition to my school bags, sports bag and lunch box, we were transporting one carefully hidden bomb”. Planted there by the Basque separatist group ETA, it was destined to go off when Irene’s mother reached work, at a nearby police station. 

That terrible day changed Irene’s life in an instant. Yet while she lay in hospital recovering, she realised that two roads now lay before her: “to live embittered and suffering, or to start again from scratch, with optimism and happiness, and fight to regain my life”. Without hesitating a second, Irene chose the second option, deciding to concentrate on living her life rather than on her disability. For her bravery and determination to keep smiling in the face of adversity, she was even awarded the Children of Europe prize by Diana, Princess of Wales. 

No matter how many times you fall, the important thing is getting back up

But her resolve was once again put to the test when she moved away from her parents and, suddenly, had to face reality alone. “When you find yourself at rock bottom, you need someone to believe in you,” continued Irene. For her, that someone was Rafael Alberti, the famous Spanish artist, considered one of the greatest figures of Spanish literature, who pushed her to look for possibilities rather than focus on barriers, reminding her that “the world is how you choose to see it”. 

Determined to move past her disability, Irene travelled to Sweden to have implants set in order to get prosthetic legs. After four years of multiple surgeries, long-lasting infections, as well as countless hours of physiotherapy and re-education work, Irene walked again for the first time. Standing tall in front of her audience at La Châtaigneraie, Irene jokingly said that “with a Spanish femur, a Swedish implant, a German knee and English prosthetic feet, I have become an all-in-one ambassador of Europe”. 

Moving past the victim

Thanks to her prostheses, Irene’s quality of life vastly improved, so much so that she was able to start practising sport again. “One of my proudest moments was when I was chosen to represent Spain in my first world para-alpine ski championships,” she said. Following on shortly came another moment of intense pride and joy, when she gave birth to her first child. This was a momentous occasion not just for Irene, but for all survivors of terrorist attacks in Spain as “the girl who had been presumed dead all those years ago was now, herself, giving life,” she explained. 

Irene’s visit to Ecolint brought with it a strong message of hope. Acknowledging that pain is inevitable, Irene reminded students that there is always a choice between continuing to endure the pain, or deciding that suffering is optional. “If you want to be happy, you must learn to forgive. When you become resentful, that’s when you stop living.” To this very important lesson, she added her set of fundamental values: self-esteem, friendship, activity, desire, determination, discipline, patience, prudence and perseverance – a set of principles strongly aligned with Ecolint’s.

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