When Lisbeth Añez was introduced to Ricardo Arteaga, and asked to help him, she was aimless, like a ship lost in an unknown sea. It was September 2017. She couldn't imagine that this young man - sore from bone cancer that had metastasized to different parts of his body - could be a compass for her. Ricardo would be the reason why she would later create an organization - the Mamá Lis Foundation - that would become her greatest motivation to continue living in Venezuela.
That fall, Lisbeth Añez, a 40-year-old administrator, had just been released from prison. She had spent 118 days in the Helicoide, the jail she was taken to by the Venezuenal National Guard on May 12, 2017. They had stopped her at the airport when she was about to board a plane to the United States. Añez was accused of military rebellion and treason.
She was going to the United States with the plan to denounce the violations of human rights that occurred in Venezuela. She had witnessed them up close. In those days, the country was a whirlwind of street protests against the regime of president Nicolás Maduro, repressed by state security forces, leaving many dead, wounded and detained.
Añez attended these demonstrations to help the young people who were in the line of fire: she brought them water, clothes, food, She gave them money to pay for taxis. She gave them a place to stay at her house. And when they were taken prisoner for protesting, she visited them in jail and brought them water, clothes, food, books. "If those kids are fighting for the country, we have to help them," she thought.
"Can I call you Mamá Lis?" A young woman once asked her, moved by the warm support she provided.
"Yes, of course," Añez replied. Then everyone started calling her Mamá Lis. And with that nickname she gained followers on social media: everyone knew her as the one who helped young people.
Añez was released after almost four months in prison. It became risky for her to continue to visit young protestors still held in the prison.
"What are we going to do with Mamá Lis now?", "How do we ask a woman so active to do nothing?" asked her lawyers from the Criminal Forum, a civil society organization that supports political prisoners.
They introduced her to Ricardo Arteaga. Her lawyer supposed that, being so kind, she would be interested in his story. Arteaga had been arrested for protesting against Maduro. He had bone cancer since he was 14 years old and now, at 18, he had metastases in different parts of the body. He was released from prison because his condition became so bad he had to be taken to a hospital.
When they met, Añez smiled at him. He, of course, called her Mamá Lis. He asked for her blessing. She met his mother and they became friends. If Arteaga had to be taken to the doctor, Añez took him in her car and waited for him to take him back home. If he had to go to pharmacies looking for medicines, she went instead. She created a Gofundme campaign to raise funds for his medical expenses.
She prayed for him.
“I said to God: if you are putting Ricardo in my way, it is to teach me that miracles exist. But I learned that the things of God don't work that way, ” she says now, two years later.
Añez is in the Plaza Los Palos Grandes, in eastern Caracas. It is a rainy Saturday afternoon in November. The Mamá Lis Foundation is collecting toys today for hospitalized children with cancer that will be distributed on Christmas Day.
"Maybe what I had to learn with Ricardo was the way I should go," she says.
Arteaga died in 2018 in tremendous pain.
And Añez cried for him like a mother cries for her son.
After everything that she had gone through with Arteaga in devastated public hospitals, Añez knew that there were many more who needed support. And, in the middle of her grief, she began using her social networks to help those who were looking for medicines or supplies that were not available in health centers. Many contacted her to make donations; she received them and took them to the hospitals.
“Many people told me to create a foundation, since I was so well known for being a former political prisoner,” she said.
“So at the end of 2018 I decided to do it. I created a group on WhatsApp with everyone who had offered to help me. And little by little they have joined, many more: look at all those who are here with vests today, ” she says and smiles again.
Añez with her team of volunteers began to frequent different hospitals. They felt overwhelmed because they did not know how to focus the work of the foundation. How to choose who to help, when there is so much need? Remembering Arteaga, they decided to focus on children with cancer. They went to the Luis Razetti Oncology Hospital, one of the two specialized cancer centers in Caracas. They met the 28 children and teenagers who are treated there. And since then they have not stopped frequenting it.
The Mamá Lis Foundation created a Gofundme campaign and with the money they have collected, and with what they receive from donations from individuals, they pay for what the hospital cannot provide to children: laboratory tests, tomography, chemotherapies, radiotherapy. They also bring clothes and toys. She dreams of having a house where children who travel to Caracas to receive treatment can stay.
“Last week a doctor told me: 'Mamá Lis, we are going to have to ask you for the blessing; We are very grateful for what you do’. I am learning to channel this emotionally. Because it's hard when they die. Recently Gisela passed away, a teenager with whom I became very fond of. She had cancer, her legs were amputated and we had got her a $6,000 prosthetics, thanks to someone who donated $5 thousand that we were missing. When she died she had hardly used them. I asked God: ‘How do I do so that this does not affect me?´ But I do this because despite the suffering, one feels the love of the people, their gratitude. That is very beautiful,” she said.