Current Concerns: What prompted you to register with the Humanitarian Aid Uniton your own accord?
Catherine Leutenegger: Basically, I am a helpful person. This is certainly connected with the fact that I am a trained nurse. Here it is the set task to help others, to alleviate suffering. In my later occupation as a flight attendant I was also always in touch with people and it was my job to help them.
Was there a trigger event?
Yes, that was Saddam Hussein’s invasion in Kuwait. I was living there at that time. After the Iraqi invasion, I returned to Switzerland and was unable to return to Kuwait for 10 months, until the war was over. In addition, I was out of work. I had worked for Swissair as a temporary-flight attendant, but now they had no means of employing me. So now I was there, it was winter, I had no clothes, no possessions, I felt like a refugee in affluent Switzerland. That was a very difficult time for me. Jobwise, there was the fact that I had no job, and in my private life, things were not going well, either. Every day I walked past the “Platzspitz” park (“Needle Park”), which was near my pied-à-terre, which I had in Zurich. In this initially hopeless situation, I thought to myself, if I could help out there, I might be able to earn a little pocket money. They actually took me and so I was at the Platzspitz park from November 1990 until February 1991, and I tried to help the addicts.
What did you do after February 1991?
I knew a doctor who worked for the Institute for Social and Preventive Medicine and was a co-worker of Felix Gutzwiller. Through him, I got a job at the vaccination centre. Here, various people were vaccinated who worked for humanitarian aid. So I came into contact with Toni Frisch, who later came to lead the humanitarian-aid section at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and others who were vaccinated before they went on international missions. And so I had the wish to help with humanitarian missions of this sort as well.
How does one get to work for the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit?
Since my field of work brought me into contact with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), I applied to them for a stint. I was accepted and assigned to the medical sector. After that, I attended training courses. Motivated by a patient in the vaccination centre and to better prepare myself for the job and to test whether in case of emergency I would be able to cope in an earthquake mission, I decided to travel to Pakistan and work in a leprosy hospital. I quit my job at the Institute for Social and Preventive Medicine and travelled to Pakistan. First I worked in the provinces. That was depressing: Being surrounded by great poverty, filth and disease, and all that at temperatures around 40° C, of course without air conditioning but with a lot of mosquitoes, was a major challenge.
Did you stay there for a longer time?
No, I asked for a transfer to a hospital in the city of Karachi. So then I came to the leprosy hospital. That was in September, and it was extremely hot there as well. There I met the doctor and catholic nun Ruth Pfau; she is comparable to Mother Teresa, but in Pakistan. She established the leprosy hospital and committed herself to field work, i.e. she travelled to the valleys of Pakistan as far away as Afghanistan and trained young assistants who accompanied her when she did this work. She has been doing this for nearly 50 years. She was born in 1929.
So you came to Karachi. Did this suit you better?
I had a room in one of the departments of the hospital. The problem in Pakistan is that women are not allowed to work, so they have to rely on helpers from abroad. I then visited the slums of Karachi together with the leprosy assistants, and we looked out to see whether there were any women who already showed symptoms of this disease. I saw the slums there, and this has left a lasting impression on me.
How did you communicate with the people?
Since I do not speak Urdu, but only English, and the people there speak only Urdu, I could not speak to them in detail myself. So I measured their blood pressure and pulse rate. But these people were not seriously ill. They get very cheap anti-tuberculosis drugs and are quite well provided for. As a well-trained nurse I felt a bit under-challenged. After a while I got the impression that I could not do what I would have liked to accomplish there. So I decided to travel around all Pakistan quite alone in my salwar kameez (robe), to Islamabad, to Peshawar, right up to Chitral on the Afghan border. I only took a toilet case, a book and a pillow with me. I travelled alone, which would be impossible today.
Could you apply later what you had learned?
On my return, I worked as a flight attendant again and was also on hand for the Swiss Humanitarian Aid. Unfortunately, I was not sent to a mission by them. A restructuring was being implemented at that time. The areas of responsibility had become more complex. Today, if you are deployed to an earthquake mission, you need a wealth of expertise about drugs and their effects. Working in that field you have to prepare and put together the infusions. That’s a very challenging task. Later, when Toni Frisch was the head of humanitarian aid, he was often a Swissair or Swiss passenger and I served him and told him I would like to be further involved.
Later you worked with a Swiss Care Team, as well.
Yes, the Care Team was formed after the Luxor massacre in 1997. In 1998 I was directly called into action when the Swiss-air plane crashed near Halifax. And a year later, in 1999, I flew again to Halifax as a crew member. In 2000 there was the crash in Nassenwil. I was also in action then. Since then I have not been called up. If I spoke Spanish, I would probably be in action in Barcelona at the moment. In any case I am on call.
What was your task after the tragic crash of the MD-11?
I speak Italian well, so I was allowed to attend to an Italian couple: They had lost their only son, who had wanted to travel from the US to Switzerland by plane. At the same time you always give human aid to your colleagues as well, since we were all badly affected because the crew of the MD11 had been colleagues of ours, whom we had lost. There was also a huge sea of flowers for the victims at the airport. I did not want them to wilt so quickly, and so I collected vases all over the airport in order to preserve this splendour of flowers for a long time. Also we were in action all the time at the care centre, so we were there if someone felt the need to turn to us.
Why did you fly to Halifax again in 1999?
After a year there was a big mourning ceremony there with all the family members and the entire Swiss Air management. The relatives and I as a crew member flew to Halifax in a jumbo. There was a big memorial. We, the flight attendants, formed a sort of guard of honour. When the couple from Italy discovered me – they had taken another aircraft to Halifax – they came to me spontaneously and hugged me and would not let me go. This touched me very deeply. It was a moving experience, and it was hard for all of us to keep our composure. It was not until much later that I could afford to recognize my own need to grieve, when a relative died who had been very close to me. That is also the reason why the crash in the French Alps three weeks ago affected me very deeply.
You have always sought challenges whereby you can give something to others, where you can help or support them.
Yes, of course you have to ask yourself time and time again, what is my motivation, why am I doing this? Maybe it has – consciously or unconsciously – something to do with personal recognition.
Why should it not be so?
Yes, why not? On the one hand, there is the recognition that we give to ourselves inwardly, no one knows that about me. That runs in our family. Each of us siblings has a very active personality. This is particularly evident in the case of my brother who first worked for television, then was a member of the National Council and is now in the Zurich City Council. I have the know-how on a humanitarian footing. I have no family and in a sense I am free. Why should I then not involve myself actively with helping others?
After all, this gives quality to life. Another person who is in a similar situation in life opts for something else: he does a lot of travelling, he does this or she does that, but he has not made the decision to support others who are in distress.
This surely has to do with the fact that I have travelled all over the world as a flight attendant. Although you mostly keep to the big cities when you work in this job, but you also see the poverty and misery of the people in Karachi.
Other people see this poverty too, but then they tell themselves, how lucky they are to be able to live in Switzerland.
These people may be afraid, but it’s different with me. I do not know fear in this sense. For example, I got my glider license at a young age. I told myself, when I work at a hospital, because of my training I understand some things about medicine. When I travel as a flight attendant, I need to understand something about flying. I could not afford a pilot license for a motorised aeroplane. At the time, my gross monthly salary was Fr. 2800.--. I only just managed to afford the glider license.
Is helping others also something that was alive in your family, as well?
It originated from the time when I came to Switzerland. My father worked with the FAO [Food And Agricultural Organisation]. Maybe, without my realising it, this has a little rubbed off on me. That is quite possible. My father died relatively early, he had multiple sclerosis, and I regret very much that I could not talk with him about all these things. It has always been an incentive in my life to help other people, and this is also an important part of Swiss tradition.
Mrs Leutenegger, thank you very much for this interview! •
(Interview Thomas Kaiser)
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