A 10-year-old girl sits at her desk, concentrating hard on the page of the book that she has open. She is wearing a red silk dress, bangles, a bit of eyeliner and kohl on her eyelids, having been initiated recently into the joys of makeup, as with most girls her age. She looks up and smiles. Then she gets up to walk away. Meet Anupriya Rajesh Kumar.
Anupriya lives at Home of Faith, a home for boys and girls with physical challenges. Located in Kakkanad, a suburb of the city of Kochi, it is an area known as the Silicon Valley of the southwestern Indian state of Kerala as it is a hub of IT companies and call centers.
Anupriya is the younger of two sisters. Her mother is speech- and hearing-challenged. When she was pregnant with Anupriya, her husband was abusive and would kick her in the stomach. The child was born with physical irregularities in her hands, arms and feet that doctors said were brought about by the abuse her mother had suffered. After the child was born, he abandoned his wife and daughters and went off to live in another city. He does not have contact with them anymore.
Anupriya has been at Home of Faith for four years. The home is administered by the Preshitharam Sisters, a religious community of the Syro-Malabar Church, whose charism is “to serve the poor in Christ.”
The activities of the Preshitharam Sisters include going on family visits, teaching catechism, administrating residences for seniors and orphans, caring for people with physical and intellectual challenges, and educating the poor in the remotest parts of India. The sisters are mainly based in Kerala, but they have houses in Austria, Germany and Italy, too.
“There are 10 sisters here who help look after the children,” says Sister Dennis, who directs the Home of Faith. “We house 17 to 20 children usually, but quite a few of them are back with their families because of COVID.”
Sister Dennis entered religious life 34 years ago. It was her calling.
“Some of my cousins are sisters; I went to a Christian school. I always felt this life was for me,” she says. “I don’t think I could have done anything else with my life.”
Home of Faith usually takes children ages 5 to 17. They come from different parts of Kerala and belong to different faith communities.
“We don’t just admit children from Christian families. There are Hindu and Muslim children here, too. Most of them are from very poor families and their parents can’t afford to take care of them,” Sister Dennis says.
Sebin Jose is 10 years old. He has a big smile and bright eyes. Sebin’s father works on a spices and coffee plantation in the high ranges of Pandupara. He has been at Home of Faith for four years. Sebin was born with a spinal defect and as a result is severely physically and intellectually challenged. He had surgery when younger to try to ease his condition, but it was to no avail. Doctors have told his family he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
“When you see such suffering, especially in children, it breaks your heart,” Sister Dennis says. “But you realize that Jesus is showing you the way. No matter how difficult the road ahead, his hand always leads you on the right path.”
Sister Dennis says without Jesus in her life, she would be lost.
“Jesus is my friend, my guide. The Son of God is always there to help us, forgive us and give us everlasting life,” she says. “He has chosen this life of service for me and I count on him to be there for me.”
Home of Faith was founded in 1989. Since then, at least 200 children have benefited from its care. Lijo Joseph came to the home in its inaugural year. She cannot walk and is paralyzed from the waist down. When her mother passed away, she asked to remain at the Home of Faith.
“I had nowhere to go. My family was just me and my mother,” Lijo says.
The home also offers lessons in tailoring, where its female residents are trained in sewing, stitching and embroidery to help them earn a living. Members of the public can also benefit for a small tuition fee.
“I asked the sisters if I could stay and work at the center. They agreed and I haven’t left,” Lijo says. She is now a tailoring instructor and has taught hundreds of girls and women since it opened in 2012.
Other than tailoring, all residents at the home go to a government-run school for children with special needs.
“Education is important,” Sister Dennis says. “It gives [the children] routine and discipline. Some of the sisters accompany them to school.”
Routine is important for the Johny sisters, Johncy, 14, and Josmi, 9. Both girls are physically and intellectually challenged. Their mother is a daily wage worker and cannot afford to support her two children.
“Johncy and Josmi rely on us for everything,” Sister Dennis says. “Their education, boarding, singing and dancing classes, medication, food — we take care of everything. If it wasn’t for a place like this home, they wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. That’s the sad state of affairs.”
Sona Sunny wants to be a model. She is 14, bubbly, bright and kind. She loves singing and dancing. But Sona was diagnosed with a heart problem when a baby. One minute she is active, and the next, she faints. Sona had attended a public school in the community, but she “had difficulty settling in,” says Sister Dennis.
“The teachers didn’t know what to do when she fainted, sometimes many times a day,” she adds. Sona is being treated for her heart condition at a hospital nearby. Home of Faith helps pay her medical bills. Sona’s father is a farmer in the nearby town of Thodupuzzha.
“His resources are limited,” Sister Dennis explains. “He has two other children to take care of.”
Home of Faith is funded by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and other private donors. This aid gives children and young people, who do not have much, something to look forward to, young people such as 18-year-old Dev Sunil.
Dev is unable to use his legs. Up until two years ago, Dev lived at home with his parents. His father is an auto rickshaw driver, who leaves home early and gets back late. His mother is home, and cares for the other children.
“Dev had nothing to do at home. His siblings would go to school, father to work and mother had so much to do around the house,” Sister Dennis says. “He was frustrated being at home. Here, he has made friends. He loves music and watching films and is happier now.”
The pandemic has made things difficult. In these times, donations are few and far between.
“We’ve been struggling,” Sister Dennis says. “Usually, people donate money or send over food for the children when they have a baptism or wedding over at the church. But, because of COVID, people haven’t been organizing events or gatherings.”
An official report in 2018 counted more than 9,000 child care homes in India. Of these, 91 percent are run by nongovernmental organizations (N.G.O.’s); only 9 percent are government-run. Many are operated by Christian communities.
Since the multi-step process of receiving funding from the Indian government can be tenuous and tedious, most of these organizations operate with foreign funds. However, their work has come under increased pressure in recent years, as the Indian government has sought to regulate foreign funding entering the country.
In 2010, the Indian government passed the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (F.C.R.A.), which regulates how N.G.O.’s, trusts, societies, charitable institutions and nonprofits can receive foreign funding, including dollars from U.S.-based foundations and corporations. The Indian government amended the law in September 2020, making it even more difficult for some N.G.O.’s, depending on their method of operation, to receive foreign funds.
The government says the amendments were necessary to avoid the foreign funding of political activities that could destabilize the country. But critics say placing every organization under an umbrella of suspicion puts well-meaning groups and associations on the back foot and could force them to close, simply because of the complexity of the new rules.
The amendments make it mandatory now for all nonprofits to register under the act in order to receive foreign funds. Registration is valid for five years and is only renewable if the organizations comply with all the government regulations, which include having an account with an Indian bank and filing tax returns annually.
The new rules require foreign funds to go directly to a beneficiary, rather than to a sub-granting agency that works to submit grant applications and manage the funds on a beneficiary’s behalf or through the Indian office of an international organization.
“Many of the social service institutions of the Catholic churches working in India do not have the capacity to raise money or write financial or programmatic reports,” says M.L. Thomas, who directs CNEWA’s activities in India. “They do the real work on the ground,” he says, adding that a number of these initiatives rely on CNEWA to take care of these matters.
Mr. Thomas says the amendments target the poor — who are already “struggling to find their livelihood” — more than any other segment of the Indian population.
“For the poor in India, the small contributions that were donated by common people in foreign countries were used to help in the basic education, higher education and job-oriented training for the poor, the Dalits, and the slum children, and to provide daily living needs,” he continues. “The new F.C.R.A. rules have imposed at least a long halt and a break in these activities, if not fully blocked them. This is like burning the house to smoke out the rat.”
Despite the challenges of the new law, CNEWA’s president Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari has expressed CNEWA’s enduring commitment to the work of the churches in India.
“We are adjusting our program in India to abide by Indian law,” he says, but emphasizes that CNEWA remains “steadfast in its dedication to the process to continue its work on behalf of the marginalized, the seminaries and houses of formation, and all our activities in India.”
Mr. Thomas adds that the new rules will inevitably impact the Indian economy in the long run. “Many international agencies will withdraw their support because of the stringent regulations,” he predicts.
Mr. Thomas underlines that the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches, through their social service organizations, have for generations been at the forefront of aid, during and after the country’s numerous natural calamities, and of much-needed care for the poorest and most marginalized of populations.
Elsie Jose sits at a table talking to Sister Stella Maria at Sneha Sadan in Kizhakkambalam, a small town about 30 miles from Kochi. Her 33-year-old daughter, Elsmi, has been a resident at this home for women with physical and intellectual challenges for the past 20 years.
“I had three daughters — two of them were born with severe autism. One of them died a few years back. The other is Elsmi and she’s here,” Elsie says, wiping away tears as she speaks of her family. “My eldest daughter is married, but her 11-year-old son also suffers with a disability.”
Elsie is a daily wage worker. Her husband is retired.
“It is impossible to look after Elsmi at home because of her challenges,” she says. “When she was at home, she’d keep running away. She’s doing much better at Sneha Sadan.”
The Preshitharam Sisters also administer Sneha Sadan; Sister Stella Maria is its superior.
“We house girls, ages 9 to 50,” she says. “After that, they move on to our senior care facilities. The women we have here are severely physically and mentally challenged. Most are autistic, have Down syndrome or hyperactivity disorder. They are unable to understand or make sense of anything,” she says. At any given time, Sneha Sadan takes on 25 residents.
Sneha Sadan, which is served by four sisters and two support staff, is primarily funded by CNEWA.
Sister Stella Maria says she is worried about the new rules for foreign aid that have come in.
“I hope this doesn’t make things difficult for us,” she says. “We also get donations from parishioners and sometimes parents of our residents give us whatever they can,” the nun adds, but most of the women at the home come from poor families.
Although most of the residents are Christian, the facility cares for girls and women of other faiths, too, such as those from Hindu and Muslim families.
“I believe it was my calling to work in homes like these,” Sister Stella Maria says. “I have a sort of sixth sense when it comes to the women I look after. That is God’s gift to me, a miracle,” she says.
Serving her faith and community for 21 years, Sister Stella Maria tells of an incident that occurred in the early hours of the morning. While she was sleeping soundly, she had a feeling one of the women had come to some harm. She woke up and walked into the room to find one of them had actually fallen off her bed and was in pain.
“I can’t explain it really. All I can say is that this is the way I serve Jesus. I know and trust he is working through me,” she says.
Kumari Babu’s 29-year-old daughter, Parvathy, was born premature and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Kumari works for her village panchayat, or village council, which ensures her 100 days of employment every year. She is a widow.
“I have two other children whom I look after and support,” Kumari says. “Parvathy’s been at Sneha Sadan for 16 years now. The way our society is, people don’t like having mentally and physically challenged women around.” Kumari visits her daughter once a month.
Women such as 33-year-old Jo Mol Johny depend on facilities, such as Sneha Sadan, to have a decent life. Jo Mol, who has been a resident at Sneha Sadan for the past two years, was sexually abused by a neighbor when she was 15; it has scarred her since. Her phobia began with a fear of snakes, which she imagined were everywhere. Then it got progressively worse, until she started fearing people.
“I question God sometimes why this had to happen to my family,” says her father, Johny P.D. “But what can be done? We take whatever God gives. We are fortunate she’s in a safe place like Sneha Sadan, where she’s being looked after well.”
Sister Stella Maria says all the residents attend the nearby government-run school for people with special needs.
“We accompany them there,” she says. “When they get back, we have other activities for them, such as listening to music or we take them on a walk outside.”
Other times, when there is a birthday, wedding or baptism in the parish, food is sent over to the home where the residents enjoy the feast.
“The kindness of parishioners means a lot to us. It adds value to the life of the residents here,” Sister Stella Maria says.
One of the girls who enjoys these feasts is 14-year-old Malavika S. Nair. Her father, Saju Kumar, visits with her. She showers him with kisses and is very affectionate. But Malavika can only communicate through sounds. The lack of amniotic fluid while her mother was pregnant meant Malavika was born with developmental challenges. She was also diagnosed with epilepsy as a child. Saju is himself epileptic and life at home is difficult.
“My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and has had chemotherapy and radiation therapy. She’s recovering from that,” he says. As a waiter in a hotel, “I can’t work all hours any more since things at home are difficult. We also have a son, who’s younger than Malavika.”
He visits Malavika once every two months or so.
“We can’t look after her at home,” he says. “When she gets angry, she starts to bite herself,” pointing to deep bite marks on her wrists and arms.
“But she has a routine here along with the other girls,” he says. “And she’s happy.”
Anubha George is a former BBC editor. She’s a columnist and writer for various publications. She’s based in Kerala, India.
The CNEWA Connection
Combatting fear of the other — particularly the Untouchables, India’s poorest peoples, as well as the sick, the lame and the diseased — is a hallmark of the works of India’s dynamic Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches. Whether taking on the challenges of leprosy, abject poverty, illiteracy, alcoholism, H.I.V. and AIDS, or special needs, as illustrated in this article, the men and women who proudly consider themselves the heirs of St. Thomas the Apostle have helped transform the subcontinent into a modern state.
Since its earliest years, CNEWA has partnered with these witnesses of the Gospel as they tend to the lowliest, regardless of religious, ethnic or national identity. This is what Christians are called to do out of love for their neighbor.
Help CNEWA continue its works of love in India. Call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada), 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or use our contact page.