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The Power of Self-Advocacy

The Power of Self-Advocacy

Published by Joy McBrien on Jan 14th 2021

I was robbed and quarantined in Peru. Here’s what I learned about the power of self-advocacy.

Right before my scheduled 2-week work trip to Peru, my dad stopped by to drop off a couple of N95 masks to use at the airport. When my dad asked if I was prepared to spend a lengthened amount of time in Peru due to the virus, I laughed at him, saying “I’ll be fine-- I’m only going for two weeks.”

I did not anticipate when just two weeks later, Peru was the 2nd country (after Morocco) to suddenly and completely close its borders, both in and out, to stop the spread of coronavirus, with 71 confirmed cases across the country. When I left the United States for Peru on February 28th, there were just 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and just 1 confirmed case in all of Latin America, in Brazil.

To complicate matters, while walking to catch a bus to the airport, I was violently robbed, physically dragged behind a taxi until the crossbody strap on my purse broke, and the thieves got away with my passport + money. Yes, I know, never keep your passport on you-- but I was headed to the bus station + airport, where you need it ready.

So, I did what you’re told to do in the case of a stolen passport: call the embassy. I was advised that no one at the embassy could help me over the weekend “unless I was dying,” and when the National Emergency and border closures were announced on Sunday evening, they seemed to suddenly close to the American public, their constituents. I was told that until the National Emergency passed, which was scheduled for two weeks, I had no way to get an emergency passport, no way to get home.

Quarantined in Peru

Over the coming weeks, I spent my time fully quarantined about 8 hours north of Peru’s capital in Chimbote, Peru, a city of about 400,000 with around 60% of the population living in “extreme poverty.” I witnessed the pandemic as an American in this space; watching as friends who live on their daily earnings started to go hungry, not have enough to purchase their medications, not have access to water when the only guidelines we were being given was to “wash our hands.”

Every day was filled with disappointment: I followed the steps given by the embassy, and you were supposed to sit and wait for a phone call, saying you received a spot on a repatriation flight home. If you missed the call, you missed the flight, so I went everywhere (well, within my quarantined bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom) with that phone. I was unable to even step outside because I didn’t have my passport, and identification was required during the lockdown

Day after day, writing to senators, asking friends to help me email key people, calling the embassy: nothing. I was sitting around waiting for the embassy to do their job, but every night would go to bed disheartened that yet another day had gone by and I had no good news.

After Peru’s quarantine got extended and all future commercial flights were canceled, the embassy announced their last official repatriation flight would be on Monday, April 6th: just 6 days away. I was faced with a truth that I hadn’t allowed myself to believe all along: no one is coming for me.

It was clear that if I were going to get out of Peru, I was going to need to make this happen for myself. No one else understood my situation or felt the same urgency. I had been waiting for the embassy to do what they were expected to do, and while I was paralyzed by fear and trauma and feelings of helplessness, I didn’t consider what actions I could be taking myself.

Taking action

Three weeks into being quarantined, I started to take action. I first started by organizing everyone in my same region of Peru. To my surprise, there were 35 Americans stuck in my same town. A few other volunteers, led by Ainsley Katz, recruited me into organizing other regions of Peru as well, so we started getting lists together of Americans that were stuck in the far north of Peru. I started contacting bus companies and police stations and even the national department of defense, trying to get the necessary permissions for groups of Americans to travel across Peruvian state borders to get to Lima, where repatriation flights were departing from. We figured if we had the buses organized and filled with Americans and headed towards the embassy, they’d have to put us on a repatriation flight (many which were departing the country only about 25% full). I was in direct communication with about 200 Americans, who while they were surprised to learn I wasn’t affiliated with the embassy, were thrilled that they were being contacted by someone with some amount of a plan.

Once I started advocating for myself, taking the situation into my own hands (as much as was legally allowed!), I could feel a *complete* change in my mental health. I had newfound feelings of purpose, motivation, challenge, and thrill: I could tell I was making a difference, not just for myself, but for other Americans, too. Advocating for myself totally changed my mindset about my quarantine: I was feeling like a powerful changemaker, rather than a helpless passport-less American-stuck-in-Peru.

These feelings felt familiar to me, as I started my own social enterprise Fair Anita following my history of sexual violence, and I know that taking matters into my own hands, creating something I could be proud of, and advocating for the issues that matter to me played a huge role in my healing journey.

Ultimately, after a few more roadblocks and finally receiving the infamous call from the embassy (mind you, at 10:15pm on a Friday!), my hard work paid off: I was able to get an emergency passport and flew home on the second-to-last embassy-sponsored flight from Peru. My parents, who had been tirelessly doing all they could from home, drove the 17-hours from Minnesota to pick me up at the DC airport.

Power of self-advocacy

I think of the quote “If not me, who? If not now, when?” as I’m reflecting back on this crazy experience. It’s so easy to want others to do things for you (especially when it’s their job or the expectation!), but sometimes, you need to take action yourself. No one knows your full situation but you. No one is feeling the exact same things as you. At the end of the day, we all need to be our own biggest advocates. There is no one who will be a greater champion for our cause.

So, what are you, today, waiting for others to fix for you? What is a challenge that feels too big, but you could take some sort of action, no matter how small, to change the outcome? I promise, you’ll not only feel happier with the result, but you’ll be empowered through the process, too.