Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Barefoot-Another Miracle of Love
In the soft afternoon light which filtered through the stained glass windows of a modest church in a village in Holland, we were witness to a miracle of love.
It all began 24 years earlier, in an orphanage in Karachi, Pakistan. An abandoned, severely malnourished baby girl was rescued by workers of an austere orphanage, run valiantly by a formidable but compassionate Dutch nun. They named her Raphaele. The doctors found that she had a hole in her heart, and needed early surgery and sophisticated healthcare if she was to survive. But this was beyond the resources of the orphanage. An appeal was circulated across Holland for parents who may wish to adopt the infant, who would otherwise die.
In Holland, a Dutch business consultant, Ferdinand van Koolwijk, and his wife Loes, a nurse, decided spontaneously to adopt the baby. They were on a plane to Karachi a few days later. They found a sickly thin baby, but she seemed immediately at peace in Loes' arms. It was love at first sight.
They had only a week to conclude the legal formalities to adopt Raphaele. She needed urgent medical attention to survive. But Pakistan's bureaucracy is no less daunting than in any other nation. People suggested they hire the services of a leading Parsi lawyer Rustam Kaikobad. The eccentric and somewhat dry attorney quizzed the Dutch couple, and then agreed to take up the case. He himself typed reams of paper on his noisy manual typewriter, took the couple to a whirlwind of court-rooms and peeling government offices, and finally even managed to persuade the authorities to let the baby travel without a passport. All in a week, and when they departed, he refused to accept even one rupee as fee.
In Holland, with love, good food and medical attention, Raphaele quickly healed, and blossomed. Before long, she was indistinguishable from other Dutch children, except for the colour of her skin and hair. She was spirited, ebullient and affectionate, and her parents were very proud of her.
Disaster hit them unexpectedly when she was twelve. She crashed her cycle into a tree, the first indication that she was losing her vision. The doctors discovered a large malignant tumour in her brain. In her six weeks in hospital, her mother never left her even for an hour. The operation took 10 hours. For her parents, it was the hardest vigil of their lives. The doctors had warned that they could not guarantee she would survive, and if she did, in what shape she would be. The surgeons saved her life, but she lost most of her eyesight and hearing.
The family was devastated. They begged her school to let her at least sit in her old class. But the teacher was crabby, and Raphaele was relegated to the back of the class, unable to see or hear. This left her even more dispirited. It was difficult for all three to finally accept that her best chances were in a blind school. Her parents shopped desperately for therapies across Europe, and located a neuro-stimulating therapy in Germany. Raphaele persevered with her strict schedule of tedious eye exercises, with a resolve well beyond her years, contributing to slowly improving her vision. The child rebelled against holding a stick, or adopting any symbol of being ‘disabled'.
She became lonelier and lonelier, as her childhood friends gradually slipped out of her life. She was angry with God, and refused to pray. But her blind school did teach her skills to handle life with greater autonomy. At 16, she slipped further into depression, and would speak to her parents about how life would pass her by. Her parents fiercely contradicted her. She was in no way less than anyone else. And she should not feel sorry for herself.
Gradually her natural optimism and resilience resurfaced. She returned to church, and to going out again, meeting other young people. She even insisted on cycling once more, despite her severely limited vision. She chose a vocation for herself: a nurse like her mother, specialising in the care of old persons. She completed her training, and was employed in a geriatric hospital. She took fine care of her often cantankerous clients, but never let them get out of hand. She developed a reputation as an efficient and caring but feisty and firm hospital attendant. She now owns a small company from which she provides services to the elderly who wish to stay in their residences as long as possible.
Three years after she lost her eyesight and hearing, in 2002, even as he suffered each day with his daughter, her father Ferdinand took a momentous decision, to establish a social enterprise called Partnership Foundation. It would raise money in Holland to establish 50 homes for 10,000 homeless girls like his daughter had been. Since it was difficult to work in Pakistan, he would establish these homes in India.
Around that time, in distant Kolkata, a four-year-old street girl was raped just outside the gates of the most elite girls' school in the city, Loreto Sealdah. The Principal of the school, a charismatic Irish nun, Sister Cyril, agonised why she ran a school for the city's elite, and not for children who were most in need. Like Ferdinand, she too took a decision that would change many lives. She would open the doors of her school also to homeless street girls. There was uproar and outrage, among the parents and the church establishment. But the redoubtable Sister held her ground, and admitted the first street girls.
Ferdinand was in search for a partner in India, and heard of Sister Cyril's audacious initiative. He flew to India, and offered to help. Together they constructed an additional floor to her school, where the ‘rainbow children', as they called them, would live. The children of the regular school would teach the rainbow girls. In a few months, they would be ready to join the regular school. Loreto today houses 700 street girls, and Sister Cyril was awarded a Padma Shri.
Ferdinand then searched for a new partnership in India. With some young friends, I had resolved to start residential schools for street children in Delhi and Hyderabad. Ferdinand found me, and in three years, together we established two girls' homes in Delhi and 14 in Hyderabad. For our boys, we have to look for money elsewhere. But for every street girl we take care of, Ferdinand's Foundation promises to provide until they grow into adults. Today the Foundation supports 1,700 girls in 22 homes.
Meanwhile, back in Holland, one day Raphaele announced to her delighted parents that she had found a boy-friend. They could not believe when she brought Bart home — tall, handsome blond, a medical technician. They took a liking to the quiet young man immediately. The couple had met at a gathering of young people, and he felt immediately drawn to Raphaele. Her impaired vision mattered little to him. A year later, they decided to move out and live together. In another two years, they resolved to marry.
It was the miracle of their union that we witnessed that spring afternoon on April 16, 2011, in the church in the Dutch village Driebergen. As Ferdinand proudly walked down the aisle of the church, his arm locked in Raphaele's, his daughter resplendent in her white gown and trail, there were lumps in many throats. The priest described Bart as deep and still waters, and Raphaele the manifest joy of his life. The young couple kept turning to each other throughout the service, each deeply dependent on and fulfilled by the other.
I am agnostic, so I could not at that moment thank God. But I felt profoundly grateful to humanity — that in our world, even amidst incredible suffering, there is love, and kindness, and goodness, and hope.