ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Place to Call Home

Sisters in southern India instill pride and hope

Arya Raghavan is a 12-year-old girl with a big grin and sparkling eyes. Athletic, she loves to climb trees, pick fruit and toss them to her friends waiting below. Arya lives with her younger sister, Athira, and 40 other girls at an orphanage founded by a Catholic community of sisters in Chamal, a village in India’s southwestern state of Kerala.

The future for both Arya and Athira looks bright, but that was not always the case.

Four years ago, the girls’ father committed suicide, leaving their mother, Mini, homeless and destitute, unable to support herself and her four children. Eventually, Mini found a job working as a live-in caregiver for the sick and elderly. Though she manages to support herself, she cannot provide for her children – nor can they move in with her.

Mini would have preferred to keep her family together, but she reasoned her girls would be better off in a nearby child care institution. A Hindu, she had no doubts that her girls would be well cared for by the sisters at Mother Mary Home for Girls.

In a state where the rate of suicide is two and a half times the national average, Arya and Athira’s story is all too familiar. Many correlate Kerala’s high suicide rate with the state’s unemployment rate – a staggering 20 percent – which ranks among the highest in India. Underemployment is significant as well. Families largely get by with funds from family members who work abroad; foreign remittances account for more than 20 percent of Kerala’s gross domestic product. And though the economy in India has been booming, radically transforming this incredibly diverse and complex nation of a billion people, poverty is widespread among Kerala’s 31.8 million people.

Mother Mary Home for Girls lies in the remote and beautiful valley of Wayanad, nestled between hills covered in dense tropical vegetation. To Arya, Athira and the other girls, all of whom were born to poor, broken families, the orphanage must have first appeared as an oasis. Coconut and fruit trees abound. Milk cows and chickens wander the home’s four acres, donated by a local parish of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

Mother Mary Home opened its doors on 30 May 2004, initially welcoming just seven girls, including Arya and Athira. It has since grown rapidly. Three Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate, a religious community of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, run the home. Founded in 1962 by Father C.J. Varkey to share “the redeeming love of Jesus irrespective of caste, race and religion,” the community includes more than 700 professed sisters in more than a 100 communities throughout India, Italy, Germany and the United States.

The sisters administer not only orphanages and schools, but run and staff health care facilities, homes for the elderly, a rehabilitation center for people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) and function in a number of pastoral and social apostolates, including family counseling and prison ministry.

Sister Jane Thennattil, a retired teacher with 30 years experience, directs Mother Mary Home. Beaming with pride, she explained that most of the girls, who range from 5 to 16 years of age, were referred by local priests, though, she added, some were brought by their parents. Regardless, all of the children are interviewed. “We cannot take all,” Sister Jane said.

Child care providers in India define the word “orphan” liberally: A child may be considered an orphan even if he or she has one or both parents living. Typically, however, parents must be too sick or too poor to care for their child and they must live at least eight miles from the nearest school and have no available public transportation.

In most cases, said assistant director Sister Jean Mary Koottuemkal, the girls are from the most dysfunctional of families, families with a history of domestic abuse, murders and suicides. She recalled one situation where two sisters saved their mother from being murdered by the father. Both parents are unstable and unable to rear their children. Some girls, she continued, cannot return to their village. In one such case, a girl was born out of wedlock. Another girl’s mother committed suicide. In India – especially its traditional south – many ostracize families with circumstances such as these.

Sister Jean Mary emphasized that Kerala, while largely rural, is densely populated, as much as three times the rest of India. And up to a third of the state’s population live below the poverty level.

Most of the parents of the girls at Mother Mary Home work as day laborers at local quarries, brick factories or large rubber estates. Wages are abysmally low, the work, seasonal and hunger, common. Parents often find it necessary, Sister Jean Mary said, to send their children out to work to supplement their meager incomes. The parents of these girls are so socially and economically marginalized that they never bothered to obtain birth certificates for their children.

As its stated mission, the orphanage offers the children the chance to lead a “fulfilling and self-reliant life in close relation with other people.” To this end, the sisters do their best to create a homey atmosphere, prepare healthy meals, nurture the girls’ spiritual growth and faith in God and encourage them in their academic work so they may find gainful employment as adults.

The girls attend local Catholic elementary schools, which are within walking distance from the orphanage. Classes for kindergartners and students through fourth grade are held at a school half a mile away. Junior high school classes are conducted at a Catholic school two miles away.

“Those who secure high marks will pursue higher studies and may be sent for job-oriented courses,” said Sister Jane. “Three girls are already attending a high school in Thamarasserry.” At the orphanage, academic standards are high and all the girls receive additional instruction evenings and weekends.

The girls also excel in many extracurricular activities such as singing, dancing and elocution, winning prizes at district-level competitions. Every Friday, they put on a cultural event to rehearse their song and dance routines and perform skits based on the Bible or the lives of saints. The girls also set aside time each day to reflect and pray. On special occasions, the girls take a break from their schedules and watch cartoons and Bollywood movies on DVD.

“We try to provide a family atmosphere,” said Sister Jane. “The girls are free to pick and eat the fruit that grows here and learn how to look after their home and keep it clean. We have a couple of women who come to cook, and most of the vegetables we eat are grown in our garden.”

The girls help out in many ways around the orphanage. A different girl is chosen each month as leader to assign chores to the others. They water and weed the gardens, gather grass to feed the cows and collect eggs. They also take care of about 20 rabbits, which, Sister Jane pointed out, are “not for eating, only for loving!”

The sisters see to it that the needs of all are met. In addition to the clean but used clothes they receive year-round, each girl gets a new dress every year. New sandals are also provided whenever necessary. While most of the girls go home for the six-week vacation during the hot season in April and May, a few of the very poorest girls have only the orphanage to call home. The sisters unconditionally welcome these girls to stay throughout the year.

Bincy Shaji, age 9, lives at the orphanage with her two sisters, Jincy and Sneha. Both her parents are alive, but disabled. Her mother suffers from a serious back problem, which leaves her unable to stand or walk for long periods much less work. Bincy’s father, a rubber tree tapper by trade, broke his leg in an accident and has been unable to work ever since. With no other source of income, the family plunged into abject poverty.

“I am happy living here with the sisters,” said Bincy. “I eat nice fruits and play with my friends and get lots of loving care. I enjoy school. My favorite subjects are Malayalam [Kerala’s language] and science.” Both she and her older sister, Jincy, hope to enter religious life when they are old enough.

The prevailing concern for the sisters is what will happen to the girls once they leave their care. In socially conservative India, tradition requires parents or guardians of young women to offer hefty dowries to families of eligible men in exchange for marriage. The practice can be ruinous for those who have too many daughters and little income. The same tradition applies to girls living in orphanages, but the sisters simply do not have the assets.

As an alternative, the sisters prepare the girls for careers that will enable them to support themselves as adults and perhaps pay their own dowries if they choose to marry.

“We would like every girl to get a good education and then a good career,” said Sister Jean Mary. “We seek sponsorship for the girls; God will help us find them work.”

The sisters expressed reluctance about applying for government grants, which would disqualify them from obtaining grants from other sources. The orphanage receives much of its revenue from local benefactors. The main building, for instance, was paid for with a soft loan offered by a local donor. Thus far, only one international social service agency has made a significant contribution to the orphanage: CNEWA, whose donors financed a newly constructed wing, which includes a dormitory, kitchen and dining hall.

Notwithstanding the generosity of its supporters, Mother Mary Home needs further assistance. At the moment, the girls sleep on the floor since the sisters have not yet raised the money needed to purchase 50 new beds. For their part, the girls have contributed to the sisters’ fund-raising efforts by working small, part-time jobs. For example, the girls recently assembled 1,000 notebooks, putting the money they earned toward buying their beds. While they have not yet raised the money needed, the sisters and the girls are optimistic that they will soon have enough.

For a new facility, Mother Mary Home for Girls has achieved a great deal in such a short time despite shortfalls. What strikes the visitor most is the genuine love the sisters have for the girls. Shrieks of laughter can be heard throughout the orphanage from the happy girls who live there. From the most disadvantaged backgrounds imaginable, these girls are growing up to be healthy, responsible and educated young women ready and proud to stand on their own two feet.

Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor. Jomi Thomas is a staff writer for CNEWA’s office in Ernakulam, Kerala.

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