A terrible mark which leaves an indelible sign on the existence of the patients and that of their families. Ignorance and superstition are interwoven in the villages of east Asia and affect the lives of thousands of people. We are not in the Middle Ages, but in Third-Millennium Bangladesh. In spite of the awareness campaigns promoted by the state and by the NGOs operating on the territory, fear and prejudices are still reigning in the country. In those areas disease is something one has to be afraid of. The few families which choose not to abandon their children seek help from healers, fakirs, sorcerers, and magicians. Mothers who want to take care, with love and strength, of their disabled children, are often forced to abandon them by their husbands or family members.
In Bangladesh, people with disabilities are relegated to the margins of society. They spend entire days on the floors of poor mud huts, in very precarious hygienic conditions. Their limited possibilities of social reintegration are accompanied by denial of their civil and political rights. In this dramatic scenario operates Franca Mencarelli, a volunteer for the John XXIII Community since 1999 in the Chalna village, situated in the south-west of the country. To understand the local context, in which she was called to operate, upon her arrival, the volunteer visited some institutes which sheltered orphans and abandoned children: 8 Out of 10 were disabled.
From that moment on she understood who were the poor she had to bind herself to. With the missionaries, she engaged in taking care of children with serious disabilities, helping the local population to understand that those creatures are not a curse, but a gift from God. A slap in the face of prejudices. “Visiting villages, we noticed that there were countless children with serious disabilities – recalls the Italian volunteer -. Researching the causes, we have found that marriages between blood relatives are very common there, and that there are many women who give birth alone, at home, with no adequate medical support”.
To avoid those children being left on their own, in 2000 the volunteers of the Community decided to start a physiotherapy center where at present work qualified young people who received special training. “Thanks to this project we provide free rehabilitative therapies. Our great daily satisfaction is to see those children who had remained motionless take their first steps. It is an immense joy to see their mothers happy as they embrace their children who have gained autonomy, because in Bangladesh autonomy is synonymous with survival”.
Bangladeshi culture is permeated by major fears also against mental disabilities. “Mad people are embarrassing”. A few years ago, Franca was at a hospital in Dhaka together with Fatema, a girl suffering from cerebral tuberculosis who did not speak nor see. “One morning a senior executive of the state and his wife, came to visit his mother who was hospitalized in the same room. He was very surprised to see me, a foreigner, take care of a little girl who was so seriously ill. I explained that for me Fatma was a gift because she was able awaken my maternal instinct. He looked at his wife. Only after they had left, I found out that they had a disabled child whom they hid at home”.
Currently, the mission takes care of many people, such as Lorenz, an autistic boy, and his mother. After the death of her husband, she rented a more modest house. Her former landlord decided to send them out. His daughter was pregnant, and he feared, simply because he saw Lorenz, that she could give birth to a child suffering from same disease. At present the child is fine and goes to school. Whereas his mother collaborates with the teachers who work in classes for children with disabilities. Lorenz is happy because here the disabled are loved and, thanks to this love, they are being born again into a new life. “This is precisely what our task is here, in Bangladesh, – concludes Franca. And the smile of so many children regenerated by love is our greatest reward”.
Freely based on the monthly Sempre