A chance encounter with a group of women ignited the flagging fire of philanthropy that has since shot Lagos-based lawyer, Elvira Salleras, into the realm of a miracle worker who gives hope to children living under difficult circumstances. Vanessa Obioha reports
Elvira Salleras had no clue of what her family, friends and employees planned on her birthday. She was so preoccupied with work the previous night that she didn’t smell a rat when her sister urged her to retire early. She agreed it was a good idea and obeyed. But she didn’t sleep. Instead she stayed up till 2.30 in the wee hours of the morning, writing a legal opinion. When she was finally done, she gave herself a pat on the back. It was a brilliant piece and would no doubt receive positive reviews. With that lingering satisfaction, she went to bed. She woke up the next day, still reveling in the feat she accomplished the previous night. Then it struck her she just turned 50!
She embraced the day as another good day to be grateful for, went downstairs, only to be serenaded with screams and shouts of ‘Happy Birthday’, from her family and friends. She was speechless. The living room was decorated and champagnes were popped. How come she didn’t notice a thing, she wondered. She was more shocked when she got to her office. Her staff had decorated her office with balloons and a huge golden inscription of ‘50’ hung on her window, of course with the help of her younger sister, the founder of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), Chioma Ude, everything went smoothly. She was still reveling in all the beautiful surprises when she met this reporter. A brief introduction was done in her office.
Then her mother called, singing a ‘Happy Birthday’ song to her. She listened patiently and expressed surprise that her mother remembered her birthday this year. It would be difficult to convince anyone meeting Salleras for the first time that she just turned 50. It is even more difficult to believe she is the mother of six children. Tall, brown-skinned, with a lithe body, Salleras could pass for a lady in her 40s or less. Her hair is trimmed short in an afro-style. She used to have spectacularly long hair but always pictured herself in a low hair-cut at age 50. She revealed the playful part of her when we paid her a compliment on her enviable figure. She stood up gracefully, even unbuttoned her black suit to show the flatness of her stomach which was hidden under a white lace blouse. In all modesty, she claimed she inherited her graceful physique from her parents, particularly her late father.
Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone on March 13, 1967 to the late diplomat, Frank Joe-Adigwe, and his wife Bernadette, Salleras is the first daughter of her parents. Her birth coincided with the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, that led to the massive exit of the Ibos from major Nigerian cities to their homestead. Her father was forced to relinquish his diplomatic role in Sierra Leone, but he stayed back in Freetown. Salleras’ recollection of the civil war were in fragments, but she recalled a plaintive procession where everyone was dressed in black and singing ‘We shall Overcome’. Another image from that past was the news of her maternal uncle’s death in the war. She remembered her parents waiting at the table for the telegram in their sitting room. The moment the news was broken to her mother, she gave out a loud wail. The news visibly shattered her. Poor Salleras and her brother unable to comprehend their mother’s sorrow or console her, watched her sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ repeatedly in the doorway. Till date, Salleras still marvels at her memory of that tragic past for she was barely two years-old when it happened.
Ten years later, the Joe-Adigwes returned to Nigeria. They stayed in Enugu where Salleras was enrolled in Ekulu Primary school, where she got her first culture shock. “One thing that struck me was how cruel children were to fellow children. Because I fell down, and instead of people coming to help me up, they were laughing and saying weird things. I thought how mean could people be. Again, I grew up in a diplomatic community, even though my father was no longer in service, my parents tried to put me through schools we would not ordinarily have attended. So maybe we have a different set of people, probably in Sierra Leone. But I noticed that people were a bit too hard on children and children on each other.” Then, she was mocked for her inability to speak the Igbo language. “I couldn’t speak Igbo at the time and they used to laugh at me. I remember when I got up in class to read and the whole class was laughing at me.”
That humiliation inspired her to teach her children Igbo language. On her part, she speaks French, Igbo and English very fluently and has good appreciation of German and Italian languages. Today, Salleras is mostly known in the legal profession. She is the founder and managing partner of Elvira Salleras and Associates, a legal firm that specialises in investment, company and labour laws. She was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1989 and has acquired huge experience in mergers and acquisitions, international joint ventures, contract negotiations, debt recoveries, real estate brokerage, international adoption and family law. She is a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria . Salleras is also the legal adviser to the Consulate Generals of Italy and France. She represents several foreign and local clients in diverse matters touching on various aspects of the law including, joint ventures, technology transfer and distribution and representative agreements. She is also particularly involved in establishing legal structures and providing legal advice on establishment and regulatory compliance for multinational companies operating in various sectors of the Nigerian economy. However, beyond the courtroom lies a beautiful soul whose multi-layered humanity is worthy of emulation.
An encounter with a woman in the line of duty changed her perspective to life. “Twenty years ago, I was investigating a group of women on behalf of the French Embassy. I found out that what they had done was in accordance to the law. They were processing the adoption of an eight year-old boy. In those days, Motherless Babies Home would only take a child from age 0-4. After that, the child was sent to Children’s Centre at Idi-Araba from age 4-8. And after age 8, the child goes to a remand home or something, a place where you mix with criminals. These women have been following that boy. This group of women were married to expatriates, in their pastimes, they visited children in orphanages and they saw this boy and saw where he was headed. They were concerned that he should not go to a remand home because he didn’t commit any crime apart from being abandoned. So they decided to help him find a family in France. They had actually done it when I was invited to check if it was legal. The leader of the group, Rebecca, told me they needed a lawyer, and tried to persuade me to join them. I remember telling them that I would never have time for this. I was too busy. She said they only met once and won’t require much of my time. What I didn’t know at the time was that she was planning to leave that group and establish another organisation and she needed someone to assist her. I was completely sold on their objectives and ideals on helping a child who had no family find one in a society where people understand how to deal with such cases. The truth is that a child who has lived a certain number of years in an orphanage, definitely has some emotional scars, that needs special training and understanding to help him or her through life.
“ On July 28, 2006, Salleras founded the Literacy, Integration and Formal Education (LIFE), a non-governmental, non-profit organization to promote formal education and social integration among orphans and vulnerable children. This goal is achieved by employing various measures including education sponsorships and support programmes, advocacy and coordination of inter-country adoptions. Through LIFE, Salleras and her team were able to save the life of a young girl who was left to die due to a huge tumour that covered the better part of her face.
“My very good friend, Nnenna Obiejesi, of Nestoil does so much for charity, very discreetly. We help children with profound medical issues living in institutions and orphanages to get medical care abroad. So Nnenna told me about a child she found in an orphanage where she is a patron. This little child was born with a deformity, like a tumour growing out of her head and the worst ever palate you have ever saw. She was literarily left to die. What they told us in that orphanage was that they give her water from time-to-time. She was starved and given barely minimum so that she could die a peaceful death. So Nnenna said to herself, if that was her child, would she have left her to die. Because she had recently lost a child and she knew how much she fought to keep that child alive. So she told me about her, they had taken the child to a teaching hospital but nothing was happening. She felt they were using the child for some experiment.
“I contacted one of our partner agents in Spain. She is an atheist but I have never seen such a wonderful soul. I told her about the child and she immediately started making all forms of arrangements. We sent her the pictures and flew over to Spain with that little baby. And we were received at Clinica Diagonal, it was one of the poshest clinics I have ever been to, like a five-star hotel. They received us as if we were VIPs. Ushers lined up for this little girl who had been abandoned to die. At the end of the day, she took responsibility of the child because everyone was staring. People don’t usually stare abroad but they did at the airport when we carried that child. She said to me later that I should look at the side of the child’s face, that she is pretty. The doctors said that she would not be able to work, she got lesions on her brain and some of it had gone into her tumour that was removed, that she will not be able to have reactions of a child beyond nine months old. But this family believed in her. When she was doing the fourth operation, I flew to Spain, the daughter who was staying in the university also came. They stayed all through in the hospital. They did not eat. Even when I went to eat, they stood right outside the operating room, waiting for four hours. In a matter of four days, this girl was running. Peti can run; because of her left palate, she can’t really talk but she can make sounds. If she had her palate, she would be talking. She is now in school, dancing. This is the miracle of love. There is no way such a child would have been anything but what they call a mentally and physically challenged individual living in an institution in Nigeria.”
There are many families in France, Denmark and Italy adopting these children. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not rank high on the list. According to Salleras, there are many factors responsible for this.
“There is a lot of superstitions surrounding children that have been abandoned. Moreover, we don’t know their roots, maybe the child is from one evil person. Some say they are like that because they are possessed with snake spirit, and so on. The second factor is that we don’t have the financial resources to take care of these children. There’s a baby who was adopted recently, she has hepatitis-C. I was told it cost about €40,000 for the treatment. And Nigerian families don’t have the love to care for a child, whatever the condition. They will adopt and return if he or she is ill, claiming they didn’t ask for a sick baby. Lack of information also contributes. If people understood, they will do better. My friend Nnenna just adopted a child, a paraplegic-very malformed physically. They love that child so much so Nigerians can do it, if they knew better.”
Out of Salleras’ six children only four are her biological children. Her husband, a French, is the Chairman of the organisation and ensures that the families adopting these children are also capable of taking care of them. Salleras is currently embarking on a community project where 1000 sandals will be provided for 1000 children in Makoko. It is not her first philanthropic work in the impoverished community. Not too long ago, Salleras and her LIFE team built a school for the children. The legal practitioner is well celebrated for her charity works. In her hometown, Umuduru, Iheala in Anambra State, she was given a chieftaincy title ‘Adapuruife’ (an exceptional daughter) in 2011. Other notable recognitions include L’Ordre National du Merit, given to her by the French government in 1999 and the Rotary Club of New Haven, Community Service Award in recognition of outstanding services to the community. But if you ask the cheerful woman with an infectious aura how she garnered all these accolades, she will tell you she has no idea. To her, the feathers in her cap came in the course of living her life. Her employees say otherwise. Bernadette, her oldest staff at the legal firm described her as a mother, friend and sister, while Chinasa Aroh, who joined the LIFE project at inception described her as a woman with a large heart. Salleras, however, attributed her philanthropic nature to her parents.
“My parents were very charitable. I remember when my father died 21 years ago. And one of the aunties that lived with us in Sierra Leone came and I asked my mother how we were related to her, she said my daddy met them at the airport, perhaps they were on a scholarship or something, but they had nowhere to go and no money. So he brought them home to live with us throughout. Mummy also took in a Liberian refugee, a man and his family.”