Stopping for the one: my journey in India

Vicki Davison, Partnership Advisor, reflects on her recent visit to India.

My first time in India

“I never knew that a job could give me family around the world. I’ve been working at The Leprosy Mission for nearly two years now and, with my family here, I’ve laughed, cried, learned, and been both humbled and deeply moved. These people are the reason I get out of bed at 7.30 every morning when my alarm goes off…well, if I’m being honest, it’s more like 8am – I’m not a morning person! But it’s my brothers and sisters who are affected by leprosy, and our wonderful team overseas, who challenge, motivate, and inspire me to do what I do every day.

I recently had the privilege of meeting a few members of our worldwide family in person, during my first trip to India. Along with ten of our supporters from the UK, I had an incredible week visiting our projects in Andhra Pradesh. I wanted to share some of my experience with you…

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I’m still processing everything I heard, saw and experienced, but not for the reasons I expected. I’d been told about the vibrant aroma of spice stalls in the market, the vivid blend of colours as women dressed in sarees pass by, and the cacophony of engines revving and horns beeping as motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars and lorries veer across the road, all vying for space across several lanes of unordered traffic.

I will probably never forget the scenic landscapes of lush rice paddies and tea plantations interspersed with small village communities.

But the images that are truly burned into my mind are the faces of the people I met; it is them and their stories that will have a lasting impact on me.

Rainbow Children’s Home

Our first visit was to Rainbow Children’s Home in Vizianagaram. Many children living in this area are orphaned or abandoned because of leprosy or HIV and have nowhere to go but the railways; they shelter in the stations and scavenge on the tracks. Staying in a station may sound safe, but the conditions there are unimaginable. Human faeces litter the floor and rats infest the platforms. Noise is constant as announcements blare and trains speed past, their carriages banging and clattering. Night time is the worst. As darkness sets in, the children are left vulnerable and unprotected as they try to sleep.

No child should be left in such danger, but for these children there is simply no other choice.

Brighter Future, one of The Leprosy Mission’s partners, responded to the needs of these children by setting up the Rainbow Children’s Home in 2004. There, the team care for 80 children, around 50 of whom are leprosy-affected.

I’d heard stories about the home and seen countless pictures of the children, but nothing compared to being there in person. Although some were shy at first, it wasn’t long before I was surrounded by little ones grasping for my hands, and older girls, still in their uniforms, introducing themselves and telling me about their day at St Ann’s school.

We sat together in their new dining area – a beautifully clean, tiled room – and listened to stories from some of the older children. Many explained how they had first come to the home more than ten years ago and were now studying at college, hoping to one day become teachers, nurses and engineers. As I glanced from the wide-eyed, curious faces of the little ones – some no more than five-years-old – to the young people standing confidently in front of us, it was impossible not to feel inspired.

I was surrounded by so many little lives that had once been written-off and cast aside, but were now filled with hope and potential because of the commitment of the team here, and the incredible generosity of supporters like you.

One boy who stood out to me was six-year-old Raju. Last year, our team found him and his older brother Prashant starving and alone on the streets, abandoned by their family.

A few years ago, their dad was diagnosed with leprosy. When Raju’s mother found out, she deserted her family; none of them have seen her since.

Despite struggling with a disabled foot caused by leprosy, Raju’s father worked as a labourer in the local fields to try and provide for his sons. Tragically, in his sadness he became an alcoholic, spending anything he earned on alcohol and sleeping wherever he fell. Raju and Prashant were left to fend for themselves, wandering naked in the streets and begging for food.

Thankfully, one of our team found them and brought them to the home.

My heart felt heavy listening to Raju’s story. I couldn’t imagine the confusion and heartbreak these two young boys must have felt as their mother disappeared and they watched their father become consumed by alcohol. I could hardly bear to think about their fear as they wandered the streets desperately searching for food, and slept unprotected in the darkness.

Little Raju’s beautiful smile hides a story filled with suffering that no child should ever face, but when we met I saw a sparkle in his eyes. He played confidently with the other kids at the home, and he is regularly attending school with his brother Prashant; they have become inseparable.

Raju told us how he loves school and dreams of one day becoming a pilot.

Thanks to support from people like you, Raju’s next big challenge is not to search for food or try to survive a night on the streets; it is to learn to ride a bike!”

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Raju (left) with his brother Prashant
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Success for leprosy champion Sharidah as village gains a water pipeline

Sharidah is a leprosy champion for her community and has recently played an important role in securing a big change for their lives.
Sharidah is a leprosy champion for her community and has recently played an important role in securing a big change for their lives. Photo: Hassan Nezamian

Your gifts to the CREATE appeal are training people affected by leprosy to become ‘champions’ in their communities who can effectively challenge discrimination and fight for change. Read on to learn more about Sharidah, one of our first leprosy champions, already making a difference in her village.

60-year-old Sharidah lives in a leprosy community in Chhattisgarh state, close to The Leprosy Mission’s Champa Hospital. She’s been living there since she felt forced out of village where she grew up, when her husband rejected her because of her leprosy. Sharidah had been suffering the effects of the disease for some time, but it was when they became visible, with damage to her hands and feet, that he threw her out and kept her from seeing their children.

Thankfully now they’re grown up, her children ignore the negative attitudes surrounding leprosy and often come to visit, making sure Sharidah is part of her grandchildren’s lives. For some years now she’s been part of a self-help group that has enabled her to set up a small grocery store and earn a regular income, but sadly, the stigma of leprosy still remains. Sometimes people don’t want to shop there because of her disabled hands and feet, so her customers are mainly other people affected by leprosy.

Sharidah in her shop
Sharidah in her shop. Photo: Hassan Nezamian

When we first met Sharidah, we soon realised she had a real passion for creating change in her community. She was keen to improve life for other people affected by leprosy because, as she told us, she wants to ‘give something back’ when The Leprosy Mission has done so much to help her in the past.

Sharidah was excited to learn about the ways the CREATE project would be working in her local area. The aim of CREATE is to combat stigma and discrimination and improve life chances for people affected by leprosy. Part of this involves training up people to become ‘leprosy champions’ who can become advocates for those around them. It was clear from talking to Sharidah that she would be an ideal leprosy champion for the village – and she was more than happy to help.

When we visited the village again recently, it was amazing to see first-hand the difference Sharidah has been helping to make. Her enthusiasm to see change happen means that this year, the community will have a piped water supply for the first time.

Around nine years ago, a new water tower was built on the edge of the community. It was built to supply the whole of the surrounding area, but the leprosy village was not included in this, leaving residents without a pipeline. Sharidah’s self-help group wrote to different local government offices seeking answers but received no reply.

Eventually, they were promised that work on a connecting pipeline would soon start, but once the work had started it was soon put on hold. Sharidah – now trained as a leprosy champion – and her friends organised protests at the water tower and got in contact with authorities once more to explain why clean water is something everyone should have access to and why leprosy communities should not be forgotten about.

Before long, they saw success. Work on the pipeline started up again and Sharidah told us she was confident that it would be completed this time. If not, she already has plans for a new campaign! When finished, the pipeline will bring water to a communal tap in the village and eventually, will pipe water into individual homes.

Sharidah’s success in making change for people affected by leprosy shows just how much of a difference leprosy champions have the potential to make – and what can be achieved by people standing on behalf of their communities against discrimination. Thanks to you, many more people like Sharidah will be trained as leprosy champions – and many more lives will change as a result.

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Sharidah with CREATE project staff

 

Jutlen’s transformation

Some of the postcards you sent to Jutlen last summer
Some of the postcards you sent to Jutlen last summer

Helen Walton reflects on a very special reunion.

Do you remember Jutlen? Last summer, our appeal focused on Premananda Hospital in Kolkata, India, sharing his story. Jutlen was a 16-year-old boy alone in hospital, fearful for his future, in need of surgery on his hands and feet and deeply upset by the stigma he had suffered because of leprosy.

I, too, remember the day I met Jutlen, because it changed my life forever.

Jutlen, on the day I met him at Premananda Hospital in Kolkata.
Jutlen, on the day I met him at Premananda Hospital in Kolkata.

As I sat on Jutlen’s hospital bed, looking at the harrowed expression on his face as he told me his story, I saw such pain and hopelessness that it has haunted my heart ever since. I wept for this young man, for the injustice he has suffered and for his pain.

His parents had died and his best friend had refused to have anything to do with him once Jutlen told him he had leprosy. Although he was cured of the disease, he was alone, disabled and scared for his future. I left his bedside that day full of sadness for him and for his situation.

As part of last summer’s appeal, we asked you to send Jutlen and others like him your prayers and messages of support. It was wonderful to see the outpouring of love for this young man. Your good wishes for his future meant so much.

Returning to Kolkata recently, with a couple of hours to spare before my onward flight, I returned to Premananda Hospital. I was overwhelmed with curiosity as to Jutlen’s whereabouts. Where was he? How was he? As I was escorted to the men’s ward, I saw him. One of his legs was in plaster, indicating that he had recently had an operation – the reconstructive surgery he so badly needed to help him walk properly again.

Jutlen was completely transformed
Jutlen was completely transformed

What I hadn’t expected was the complete transformation that I saw. It wasn’t just the physical transformation – Jutlen’s smile was infectious; he was animated and excited to see me. Slowly he got off his bed, then knelt and touched my feet and knees, a gesture of thanks and gratitude.

Through the loving care he has received, all thanks to you, Jutlen has found hope again. In just a few short months his life has been turned around. He is healing from the effects of the rejection he felt and was looking forward to returning to education on leaving hospital.

It made my day to be able to spend time with Jutlen.
It made my day to be able to spend time with Jutlen.

When you supported Jutlen and others like him at Premananda Hospital, you helped turn a young man’s life around. Because of your kindness, Jutlen has found new hope. I’m so thankful that I got the chance to meet him again and see this for myself – and I couldn’t wait to share the news. As he rebuilds his life, please continue to remember Jutlen – as well as the other patients and staff at Premananda Hospital in your prayers.