Thirty years ago, Sister Gertrude Costa was moved by the plight of a poor indigenous boy struggling to recover from polio at a state-run orthopedic hospital in the capital Dhaka. Eight-year-old Robi Hasdak received physiotherapy at the facility for two years that helped him regain partial control of his limbs. But he longed to return to his hometown in Rajshahi, some 280 kilometers northwest of Dhaka. "He wanted to go back home, but there was nobody to help him. So, I felt I must lend a hand," said Sister Costa, 66, from the Catechist Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation, popularly known as Shanti Rani (Queen of Peace) sisters. As a nurse trained in treating leprosy and physiotherapy in neighboring India, Sister Costa had a wealth of experience running a leprosy project in Rajshahi Diocese between 1984 and 1994. As there was no facility for disabled people, she decided to look after the boy in her home. Within a few months, Hasdak was joined by a disabled boy and a girl. The nun then realized it was her "duty" to do something important for disabled children.
"It's our duty to help them prosper in life, to become self-reliant and to help them feel self-worth," she said. Consequently, with permission from her congregation and the local bishop, Sister Costa left all her pastoral duties and devoted herself to the care of disabled children. In her devotion to people with disabilities, Sister Costa paired with Italian Father Mariano Ponzinibbi from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions who secured the necessary funding to move forward. The duo worked together set up Snehanir, or Home of Compassion, a residential center for handicapped children in Baganpara, in Rajshahi city that opened in 1992. Sister Gertrude Costa, 66, from the Catechist Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation seen in Dhaka on July 13.
Supported by other Shanti Rani, Sister Costa served the center until 2002 with funding from her own congregation, PIME, Caritas, Holy Childhood Association and occasionally from foreign donors. Today, the facility hosts 42 disabled children and orphans, offering them education, vocational training and health services. Intentionally, the center housed a limited number of residents so it could offer them complete physical and psychological support, said Sister Dipika Palma, the center's current director. "We wanted to offer the best opportunities to all the children we house — despite pressure from parishes to take more. We have chosen children who are from the most needy and poor families," said Sister Palma, who has been working in the facility for 15 years. Over the years, at least five disabled children whose education and vocational training were supported by the center, have become self-reliant and six girls are training to be nurses after completing their schooling, the nun added. Martin Tudu entered the center back in 1995. Born to poor parents in northern Dinajpur district, Tudu broke both legs while playing football at the age of 12. In the aftermath, treatment failed to mend his legs and they slowly became paralyzed. "Doctors said I wouldn't be able to walk again, but the nuns helped me tremendously. So, even if I cannot walk again they have paved the way for a life of dignity for me," said wheelchair-bound Tudu, now 35. "I am grateful to God that I met the nuns whose acts of mercy and compassion have change my life," he said. Tudu was a resident up until 2011. He was educated, finished schooling and completed a course in computers. Today, he works as an accountant in a church-run assistance center for the sick and runs a computer education center in Rajshahi. After paying for family expenses, he can save 12,000 taka (US$150) per month. Tudu says having a disability in Bangladesh is like being "cursed" as few people have sympathy for disabled people. Father Franco Cognasso, an Italian missionary and regional superior of PIME in Bangladesh says his society is pleased to support the center. "The center is the brainchild of two great people and we feel lucky we have been part of this journey to help needy people for the past 25 years," said Father Cognasso. The priest says a change in mindset in society is needed with regards to disabled people. "Often, family and society consider them as worthless and a burden. Either they stay home or go begging, but don't get an education or training. If this negative attitude changes, the suffering of disable people will decline," he said. Hearing-impaired children study at Snehanir (Home of Compassion) in northern Rajshahi city.
At least 15 percent of the world's population — 80 percent of them in developing nations — live with a disability, according to the United Nations. The Bangladesh government says there are around 8 million disabled people in the country, while development groups put the figure higher at more than 10 million. Besides 103 state-run centers for disable people, various development groups offer education, health services, handicraft training and small business training to people with disabilities. Bangladesh ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 and passed the Persons with Disability Welfare Act in 2013. But above all, the church in Bangladesh has a home for children with disabilities because Sister Costa thought it her duty to help those with disabilities — despite that not being the primary charism of her congregation. Though Sister Costa left the Snehanir 15 years ago, she has consistently offered health services to people wherever she has worked ever since. At the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Bhadun, Gazipur district, she helped set up a non-residential health care center for poor and needy people. Currently, she looks after the elderly and sick nuns of her congregation at Monipuripara in Dhaka. Sister Costa says she wants to set up a center in Dhaka similar to the one in Rajshahi. "I see many disabled people in Dhaka and feel that if there were such a center many could get help to excel in life," said Sister Costa. "I don't know if I can continue for an entire lifetime," but I believe there are many who are doing good work to advance the cause," she said. "All I want is to see disabled people given the chance to be self-reliant so they can make their own fortune and don't need to rely on the mercy of others," the nun added.
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