Dubai - The girl was mistakenly identified by the name Gabriela.
By Kelly Clarke and Oscar Yanez
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Published: Fri 8 Feb 2019, 4:09 PM
Last updated: Sun 17 Feb 2019, 9:40 PM
Remember the powerful image of the courageous young girl who broke through the crowd and ran towards Pope Francis at the historic Papal mass in Abu Dhabi? Her name is not Gabriela. The picture is that of 8-year-old Valery Sanchez. Contrary to several media reports that followed when the image went viral this week, the brave Colombian girl has in fact been living in the UAE for more than two years. She is the daughter of Andres Sanchez Rios, a prisoner at the Al Aweer Central Jail. Her friend, 6-year-old Gabriela Atehortua - the girl mistakenly identified in the viral picture - made the dash towards the Pope with her. Like Valery, she was blessed by His Holiness, who, during the Papal mass, ordered security to stop the popemobile so he could greet the girls. And like Valery, her father Jason Atehortua is an inmate in Dubai too. The duo's spur-of-the-moment dart towards the Pope was a desperate plea to beg for their fathers' forgiveness. And their hope is that they'll be reunited with them one day. "We tried to reach out to the Pope because in some of the countries he visits, an amnesty for the release of non-violent prisoners sometimes happens. We saw it as our only hope," Andrea Sanchez and Jessica Atehortua (mothers of the girls) told Khaleej Times in a full interview at their home in Dubai. Valery Sanchez (left) and Gabriela Atehortua (right). (KT photo: Kelly Clarke) Now, they are hoping to get another letter, which has been translated into Arabic, to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. "We have written to him, telling of our story. He is kind. We hope he will receive it."
Valery and Gabriela, the two girls who ran to meet Pope Francis during the Papal mass in Abu Dhabi. (KT Video: Kelly Clarke)
Run for the pope In the heartwarming encounter caught on camera on Tuesday, Valerie and Gabriela slipped underneath the security fencing, which separated the crowd from the Pope. Against the backdrop of cheers from onlookers within Zayed Sports Stadium, they made a beeline for his moving car; both girls in tears. While the emotional dash was not planned, they did enter the stadium with the hopes of getting two pieces of paper to the Pope: the first, an image hand-drawn by the girls depicting each of them walking hand-in-hand with their fathers under the Colombian, Argentinian and UAE flags.
Valery, the real girl from viral Pope Francis picture in UAE speaks to Khaleej Times about her iconic photo. She was joined by Gabriela, who made the dash towards the Pope with her. (KT photo: Abhishek Sengupta)
The second, a letter penned by the girls and their mothers back in December. It said "we are three women, with two little girls" and spoke of their fathers sorrow for their crime, saying they have "learned their lesson and have deep regrets". In documents shared with Khaleej Times, it showed both men were arrested in July 2015 for house robbery. They were subsequently sentenced to 13 years in prison in February 2016. "This country is beautiful but we are suffering here without our husbands. They deeply regret what they have done, they are asking for forgiveness. They want to apologise to their complainants too. For us, we just want our daughters to be reunited with their fathers for good." Due to financial issues, Valery is studying in Dubai but Gabriela is not in school. However, the fivesome, along with Andres' mother, do not want to leave the UAE for Colombia. "If we do, the girls will be far from their fathers. That will bring them great pain so we are torn between staying and going," they said. Following their encounter with the Pope on Tuesday, the mothers said both children are praying it won't be long until they can travel home to Colombia, each with their father in tow. "The kids are thinking a release will happen soon. They're not sleeping, only talking about the moment they will see their fathers again," Andrea said. firstname.lastname@example.org
Timeline: How the viral moment unfolded January 18 - Applied online via www.uaepapalvisit.org for tickets to the Papal mass. February 3 - Registration confirmed and physical tickets received. February 4 5pm - Set off from home in Dubai. Took metro to Noor Bank station and walked 45-minutes to bus stop to catch bus to Abu Dhabi. 8pm - Arrived in Abu Dhabi outside Zayed Sports Stadium. Took cardboard boxes to sit on. February 5 2.30am - Got access to outer stadium. Doors were due to open at 5.30am but they were let in early. 5.30am - Checked ticket number for seats: Entrance 26, Section 26, Row M, Seats 35-39. Realised they were seated up high, far away from the main altar and no way near where Pope would be passing by the crowd. 5.30am-7.30am - Launched plan to get better access to seats. Walked around the outside of the stadium to see if they could get closer to the area where the Pope would be passing by. Security checked tickets several times and rejected them, pointing them in direction of original seating area in Entrance 26. Looked around for others ways in but could not find any. 7.45am - Spotted a small door near a nearby entrance. Started speaking to a Spanish lady seated in the area. They explained that Gabriela and Valery wanted to hand a letter to the Pope. Lady offered to take letter and try and hand it to him during drive around stadium. Andrea and Jessica refused. 7.50am - They noticed people coming from toilet area with children and returning back to stadium floor seats without tickets being checked. They followed, each holding Gabriela and Valery's hand. They got through. 8am - Got to seating area positioned in front of stadium and stood at the back row, sitting down in someone's seat every time they left to go to the toilet. They didn't want to be spotted standing the whole time, so changed seat positions three times. 9am - Spotted one woman sitting in the back row with empty seats by her. The lady saw the children and ushered the women and girls to sit down. 10.15am - Pope Francis arrives in car. Jessica and Andrea plan to lift the young girls up on their shoulders and extend them out to His Holiness so they can hand him letter. Gabriela and Valery slip from their hands, move under the fencing and dash towards the Pope. He orders car to stop and security lift the girls up towards him where he blesses them. Noon onwards - Picture of Valery crying with joy as Pope blesses her (taken by Vatican photographer) goes viral.
We've seen Valery before Kelly Clarke and Oscar Yanez It was only last year that another image of Valery made the news headlines in the UAE. Only that time, the picture didn't go viral. In a Khaleej Times report on November 2, 2018 ('Prisoner gets heartwarming surprise from Dubai cops'), Valery's father was granted a surprise visit by prison authorities on the occasion of his daughter's 8th birthday. The gesture came on the occasion of UAE's Flag Day. At that time, Lieutenant Colonel Jamila Al Za'abi, head of the activities committee at the prison intimated that Andres, a recent convert to Islam along with Jason, was a model citizen at the facility; one who follows all rules. As converts, the men now go by their Muslim names, Idris and Saud. Each has had five years reduced from their sentence following their conversion to Islam. "That was the first time Valery hugged her father in three years since his arrest. It was a moment she still talks about. We thank the UAE authorities for that chance for her to meet with him again. We hope the next time will be a permanent reunion." Though the two families are granted multiple visits per week to the prison, on Sundays and Wednesdays, they find it difficult to travel there due to a lack of transport and finances. In an emotional plea by Andres's mother, Marie, she said she prays one day soon her son will be free. "They are good men. They made a mistake. They are sorry. Never did we think they would get a sentence like 13 years. They are being treated well in prison, but we want them to come home. They have wives, children to love and take care of. He is my only son and I want him back." email@example.com
Excerpts from the family's pardon request letter to Sheikh Mohammed: "As a mother, I cannot deny the pain that I have endured over these years, seeing my only son in prison, not able to help his parents, support his wife, or educate and raise his only daughter who dreams of seeing her dad free, with an honest and normal activity."
8-year old Valery Sanchez and 6-year old Gabriela Atehortua.
(Left to right) Jessica Atehortua, Gabriela Atehortua, Marie Sanchez, Valery Sanchez and Andrea Sanchez.