Haven of peace for sick threatened in Pakistan

Ayesha Gul Rehman was wounded by a bullet in Swat, Pakistan, but that’s not the only thing she has in common with teen education activist Malala Yousafzai.

The inspirational story of Yousafzai is well known. The Nobel Prize nominee became a global icon after a gunman shot her in the head in October 2012 for promoting education for girls.

But Gul Rehman, 24, did not know about Yousafzai until she visited her home in the Taliban-infested valley of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last year.

“All my cousins were talking about her, and then I became interested,” she said. “There are not enough teachers in our village. I will become a teacher to educate pathan (or pashtun — people of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan) girls and help others.”

Gul Rehman is one of the more than 40 patients, ages 1 to 80, who live at St. Joseph’s Hospice, located at the edge of a heavily fortified army area in Rawalpindi near Islamabad. The charitable hospice, opened in 1964, is the only Catholic institute with a physiotherapy department in the northern Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi. Equipped with both residential wards and an outpatient clinic, it also serves as an attached teaching hospital of Islamabad Medical and Dental College.

Security threats

Gul Rehman
Gul Rehman

Although vigilant armed soldiers are at the check post right in front of its outdoor entrance, they do little to alleviate security concerns of the six Franciscan Missionaries of Mary nuns — all foreigners — running the hospice.  

“Patients had trouble arriving this weekend because the area was cordoned off after soldiers defused five bombs in the morning,” said Irish sister Margaret Walsh, the chief administrator and a trained nurse.

“In a way, we are safest; but on the other way, this area attracts militants who generally target army and police. We are also vulnerable being Christian.”

Fair-skinned foreign religious generally avoid shopping or traveling alone in Pakistan, where Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group of various militant outfits, have been waging a jihadist insurgency for a decade.

Financial woes

Terrorism is not the only challenge for this small group of nuns. The hospice staff had to take a 20 percent pay cut last year after funds started drying up. New admissions also were refused for four consecutive months, and media reported stories about the hospice closing.

The coverage triggered reaction from donors, according to Dr. Munawar Sher Khan, who has been involved with the hospice for more than four decades. A few adjustments were then made, which included doubling the charges for outpatient checkups to 20 rupees (20 cents) and increasing the X-ray cost from 100 to 300 rupees. 

“The nuns were against milking the poor, but we have to spend at least 30,000 rupees on each patient every month,” she said. “We were never self-sufficient, and people had been encouraging us to go on. If all goes accordingly, we can still continue till next February.”

Changing lives

Three patients returned home last year after complete recoveries, inspiring hope in others like Gul Rehman, who came here eight years ago for the treatment of scissor gait, an abnormality of legs and arms.

While attending a family wedding when she was a child, Gul Rehman was hit by a stray bullet.

“At first everybody thought it’s high fever. They took me to several clinics ... The bullet was found several years later,” she said.

Now, Gul Rehman can eat by herself and is a regular student of the free classes held in the colorful nursery ward. “I can read and write now,” she said with a smile. “They call me our Malala, and I like it.”

Besides providing primary education, the hospice has arranged crocheting jobs in the winters for two of its paralyzed female patients at a local nongovernmental organization running an industrial home. The money they earn is their own.

In addition to that, the schooling of at least three minor patients is being supported, and a tutor comes in the evening for Sahil Nobel and his friends.

Sahil arrived at the age of 3 and had to undergo two operations to treat rickets. Now he is the opening batsman on the cricket team of the adjacent Sacred Heart School.

His four roommates are now his closest family, as he waits for his mother, married twice to drug addicts.

“I don’t like holidays. My mother hardly visits,” the second-grader said sadly, opening his cupboard showing an ironed uniform neatly hung as the three-month summer vacation continues.

But these struggles do not hold back Sahil from being a standout in the classroom.

“I want to become a doctor,” he said.

A place like home

As opposed to the bustling nursery ward on the first floor, the lower residential area of St. Joseph’s Hospice mostly remains quiet, with 90 percent of its patients in wheelchairs. Most are victims of paraplegia, strokes and accidents.

While the men spend afternoons confined to their rooms thinking of life and families, women cannot resist conversation, and preparing lunch turns into a social activity.

Bringing smiles to the patients’ faces is a constant struggle for the hospice staff, along with their physical work, devotion and patience.

“Some have been here for 20 years; coping both with their disability and rejection either by wife or daughter-in-law,” said Khan, who noted that the tradition of joint families in the Pakistani culture is slowly fading away. “Still, the old ones are happier than new arrivals, (who) mostly sob and cry.”

Another key element of the hospice is that, in a part of the world dominated by religious violence, it’s a place of peace, and open to people of all faiths. It’s estimated that 80 percent of patients at the Catholic institution are Christians, but all are welcome.

Now, without proper funding, even this place of peace is threatened.

“The hospice is like a second home for all of them,” Khan said. “God has been good to us, but it is our social responsibility to help them. Without donations, it’s all over.”

Kamran Chaudhry writes from Pakistan.