Salesian Sister Zita Rema (right) joins a group of indigenous Catholic dancers during a Chittagong Archdiocese pastoral assembly on Jan. 20. The 59-year-old nun has been a devout pastoral worker serving the spiritual, pastoral and social needs of poor Christian migrant workers in capital Dhaka and southeastern Chittagong since 2007. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
After traveling an hour by bus, Sister Zita Rema from the Salesian Sisters of Mary Immaculate trekked on a muddy road through the Shitalpur industrial area of southeast Bangladesh. The 59-year-old nun was going to call on some of the Catholic migrant workers who eked out a living there, often in challenging conditions.
There she visited family after another, all of them indigenous peoples from the Garo and Tripura groups. She is a familiar face to all of them.
Among those she visited was Niten Mankin, 40, a Garo Catholic who is the head of a family. Mankin moved to Chittagong 18 years ago in search of a job and got married in 2002. He has three sons, aged seven, four and two years respectively.
Mankin used to work in an oxygen cylinder factory before an accident changed everything last year.
"My job was to load and unload trucks. Some cylinders fell on me and I fractured my right leg," he said.
Doctors plastered his injured leg and told him he required surgery to fully recover but he could not afford the 100,000 taka (US$1,176) cost and his employer refused to cover it. After eight days, he left the hospital. The stay cost 23,000 taka from his own pocket.
Sister Rema said that after Mankin returned home from hospital, he was offered financial assistance from the local church for his treatment, but he declined.
"He was determined to get herbal treatment, which he thinks is a better option for him, so we didn't insist," she said.
Back at his village in the country's northeast, Mankin was treated by a village doctor who told him to rub a herbal ointment into his leg. Despite still not being able to walk properly, he returned to Shitalpur and only recently began doing casual work.
In his two-room thatched hut, Sister Rema massaged his leg and advised him how he could do physical exercise to help his leg get better.
Sister Rema wished she was able to do more for Mankin and his family who remain in his home village because he couldn't afford to look after them. It was another situation that added to the nun's conviction that religious orders and congregations could do more to help migrant workers.
"They need to realize they can offer something for migrant workers. If we all work together, the church can better serve them," she said.
"We need to reach out to them, listen to their problems and help them. We can achieve nothing by merely holding seminars and meetings."
Over the past decade, many Christians have migrated to large urban centers like Dhaka and Chittagong searching for work. According to the Bangladesh Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission about 60,000-70,000 migrant Christians are employed in industrial zones of Dhaka alone.
Sister Rema's time with Mankin was just one visit of many made that day in Shitalpur which also included her calling on a primary school and a church-supported sewing center that assists both Christian and Hindu women.
Sister Rema likewise met with family members of Sajib Tripura, an indigenous Tripura Catholic. Tripura worked at an oxygen factory until he was jailed in 2011 over allegations he was selling liquor illegally. With the support of local church authorities, Sister Rema has offered legal support to the family.
"Police framed and arrested him, and sent him to the court," the nun said.
"Hearings on the case takes place in every two months. It has been prolonged and remains unresolved," she said.
Sister Zita Rema joins a Mass with fellow Catholics at Bandarban district during a pastoral assembly for Chittagong Archdiocese on Jan. 19. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
A catechist and a teacher
It has been a long journey for the nun. She is the second of three children of a Garo Catholic farmer family at St. Teresa's Church at Bhalukapara, in northeastern Mymensingh Diocese.
Her father always wanted her to become a nun.
"He tried to form me with religiosity from an early age. He sent me to church programs and Holy Masses regularly," she said.
In 1977, after she finished school, a local parish priest gave her the job of a schoolteacher-cum-catechist.
Two years later she was assisting local nuns run a medical center where an incident altered the course of her life.
"A pregnant woman had complications and we were unable to perform the delivery despite trying the whole night," said Sister Rema. "Both the mother and the child died at the end. I was sad and made up my mind that I would devote my life in service of the poor and needy."
In 1986, she joined the Salesian sisters. From 1990 to 2006 Sister Rema worked in various roles — including being a schoolteacher, catechist and pastoral worker — at parishes across Bangladesh. As part of this she offered pastoral care to indigenous Catholics in Mymensingh Diocese by teaching catechism, administering liturgy and training seminars.
From 2006 to 2009, Sister Rema was based in the capital Dhaka where she was the office secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Youth. During this time she visited garment factories and beauty parlors where many Christians are employed. Besides offering them spiritual and pastoral care, she helped them with any problems they faced.
As part of that, Sister Rema dealt with abuse cases of Christian workers at garment factories and beauty parlors. She also helped resolve several cases where Christian girls mysteriously died, presumably suicides at their workplaces.
"I developed relations with some good police officers and lawyers, and they helped in resolving some cases. Sometimes, I worked from behind [the scenes] and they were able to solve their problems,'" she added.
From 2009 to 2014, Sister Rema worked for her congregation and a year later she moved to Chittagong Archdiocese where she was appointed coordinator of a three-member Desk for Migrants and Itinerant People.
The Catholic Church in Bangladesh has about 350,000 members spread over eight dioceses. There are about 500,000 Christians in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has a total population of about 160 million.