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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

GLOBAL APPEAL 2015: A Meeting with Their Majesties

People affected by leprosy receive an invitation to visit Japan’s imperial couple.

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Addressing the media following the visit

Eight people affected by leprosy from six countries visited the private residence of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan on January 28 at the invitation of the imperial couple. They were accompanied by Goodwill Ambassador Yohei Sasakawa, who earlier in the month had called at the Imperial Palace to brief Their Majesties on the situation of leprosy in the world today.

Having visited all 13 of Japan’s national leprosy sanatoriums over the years, the emperor and empress are well informed about leprosy and take a great interest in the lives of those affected by the disease. After the Goodwill Ambassdor had explained to them during his January 13 visit that representatives of people affected would be coming to Japan from overseas for the launch of Global Appeal 2015, he received a call from the Imperial Household Agency at 9 a.m. the next morning to say that the emperor and empress would like to meet with them.

On the appointed day eight people affected by leprosy from Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and the United States, together with the Goodwill Ambassador, arrived at the private residence of the emperor and empress in the palace grounds. As Sasakawa looked on, the eight lined up in two rows of four to be presented to the Japanese imperial couple.

Separately, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko went down each row in turn, greeting each person individually, shaking them by the hand and asking them about their lives. The meeting had been scheduled for between 10 to 15 minutes, but ended up lasting for 40 minutes.

THRILLED AND DELIGHTED

At a press conference afterward, the participants were understandably ecstatic. Kristie Lane Ibaldarosa, who works as a nurse in the Philippines, said, “I’m pretty sure the president of my country has not met the emperor and empress. I was extremely nervous beforehand, but when the emperor and then the empress came to talk with me, my nervousness disappeared. They were both so kind and listened to me from their hearts. I’m just so thrilled and delighted.”

Jose Ramirez, Jr., a social worker from the United States, said: “When I left the palace, my eyes were filled with tears. I felt something really special, something inspiring. When I was diagnosed with leprosy, it was as good as being dead. Now, as a living human being who has recovered from leprosy, I am inspired to go out and create a new world with my brothers and sisters. That is what I have gained from today’s experience. I offer my heartfelt thanks to Their Majesties and to Mr. Sasakawa.”

“When I left the palace, my eyes were filled with tears. I felt something really special.”

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A beaming Vagavathali Narsappa in front of the Imperial Palace

Paulus Manek, the chairman of PerMaTa, an organization of people affected by leprosy in Indonesia, said he felt honored to have been given such a rare opportunity. “The empress told me she had twice been to Indonesia and feels very close to the Indonesian people. Hearing that gave me real confidence. I will take that confidence back to Indonesia and face the future with renewed strength.”

Vagavathali Narsappa, the president of India’s Association of People Affected by Leprosy (APAL), said: “It is hard for me to believe that I have met the emperor and empress and shaken them by the hand. I told them how I developed the disease, how I recovered and about the work I do now. The emperor listened very closely and praised me for what I am doing, saying he hoped I would redouble my efforts for all people affected by leprosy in India.”

“Mr. Narsappa,” Sasakawa asked, “Your own family won’t shake your hand, but Japan’s emperor and empress will. How does that make you feel?” APAL’s president replied: “In that instant, I forgot everything I had been through as a person affected by leprosy. The suffering just evaporated. This is an experience I shall never forget.”