Skip to Main Content

Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Helping Prisoners of Ayucucho

Public health major Neena Qasba ’06 spent the summer after her sophomore year volunteering in a clinic in Ayacucho, an impoverished village and region high in the Andes mountains of Peru. What stands out most in her mind from that summer is a call she got about a woman in labor. The woman began hemorrhaging and died before she could travel the dirt road to the clinic. “I remember telling the doctors, and they just said, ‘It happens all the time,’ and went back to work,” says Qasba.

In the impoverished region of Ayacucho (cradle of the brutal Shining Path terrorist movement in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s), villagers lack clean water, education, and especially health care. Like the mother who died, most people don’t even have a mule to get them to a doctor in case of emergency.

Qasba returned to Ayacucho after her junior year, and the following year she encouraged her friend Narges Alipanah ’09, also a public health major, to volunteer as well. Alipanah was awarded a Second Decade Society (SDS) internship to pay her way. “We both worked in the same area, and realized there was a lot more we could do there than volunteer,” says Alipanah. Both she and Qasba wanted to establish a direct, ongoing relationship between Ayacucho and Hopkins. So they created an effort known as Help Ayacucho, and established it under the umbrella organization Programa Salud—a student group at Hopkins working to remove barriers to health care for Hispanics and Latinos.

Currently, there are seven Hopkins students involved in Help Ayacucho. In addition to raising money for medical equipment and to ship an ambulance there, they are working with the Yanamilla prison to sell earrings made by the women prisoners. “They are mainly prisoners of poverty, women who have gone into drug trafficking because they have no other way of supporting their families,” explains Alipanah.

The earrings are sold through a website called the Peace Project (www.peaceproj.org ) and on the Homewood campus. Some of the proceeds go directly into savings accounts for the women, to provide them with money when they are released and reunited with their children. The rest goes to fund medical equipment for Ayacucho.

Qasba, who is a medical student at the University of Connecticut, intends to return to Ayacucho to address the region’s high death rate from cervical cancer. Alipanah, who will graduate in May and also has plans for medical school, says she, too, aims to return.

“There are such huge income disparities and problems,” she says. “It makes the work we are doing all the more necessary.”