The Prophecy of the Discarded
The Rainbow Team from one of the houses for disabled persons in Bangladesh poses for a picture during an outing.
By Emanuela Citterio
They are those who have been turned down by many and, thus, have kept people from meeting God. “To support this statement is Jean Vanier, 90, founder of The Ark, a community in which people with and without mental disability live together.
Born in Geneva in 1928, son of the 19th Governor General of Canada, Vanier decided in 1950 to leave his career in the navy; he studied philosophy and theology and in 1964 he went to live in a little house in Trosly, France with a Dominican monk and two inmates from a psychiatric hospital. Today, there are 150 Ark Family homes in 38 countries. They are small communities where people with mental disabilities and those who care for them, called “assistants”, live together, work and share everyday life. Also around 3,000 “Faith and light” groups, in which parents and friends of people with mental problems support each other, were established all over the world.
According to Jean Vanier, weakness is a gift and an opportunity, which leads people to give their best; a community based on love in which fragility is welcomed, allows a person to overcome divisions, even religious and cultural ones, to build a more humane world. In 1997 in Bangladesh, a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority, an Ark Community was born in the city of Mymensingh just north of the capital Dhaka. Today it is a small, prophetic sign in a context where stigma and prejudice towards the disabled, and even more so for the mentally ill, is strong. Fr. Franco Cagnasso, long-time PIME missionary in Bangladesh, has been following this experience for a while: “The birth of the Ark here in Bangladesh is linked to the dynamism and dedication of a Japanese volunteer: Naomi Iwamoto. Born into a Buddhist family, now 50 years old, she received her baptism as a young girl in a small evangelical church in her native country.” Fr. Franco explains, “She came to Bangladesh in 1993 as a nurse through the Japan Overseas Christian medical cooperative service, an organization of volunteers.”
In those years, a consecrated member of the Taizé community in Bangladesh Brother Frank, a Dutchman, had begun collecting disabled people whom he found on the streets; they had been abandoned to fend for themselves. He housed them in a small community center. He gave them some therapy, valued the skills of those who were able to work, and sought, wherever possible, to put them in touch with their families. When Naomi met Bro. Frank, she decided to help him. In 1997 he moved to Mymensingh, and opened the first house where mentally disabled and their caregivers live together. He named it Asha Nir, “House of Hope”. In 2004, at the insistence of Bro. Frank, Naomi decided to take a break to spend a few months in India, in a community of the Little Sisters of Charles de Foucauld. When she returned to Bangladesh, she decided to dedicate her life to the mentally disabled. She founded two other family houses: Shopno Nir (“House of Dreams”) for boys and Pushpo Nir (“House of Flowers”) for girls. The model for these homes was readily inspired by that of the Ark, which Bro. Frank had seen in Calcutta. Today the Bengali association is part of the international Ark federation.
“In the spirit of the Ark experience, the houses display a full sharing between the disabled and their caregivers as it is rooted in the Gospel; yet it is also an inter-religious presence” underlines Fr. Franco. “Here in Bangladesh it is a small but significant [step] in this direction. The 21 disabled people housed in the three family houses, 7 in each house, are all Muslims. The 18 assistants are almost all Christians. The board is made up of three Christians, three Muslims and two Hindus. In the family houses the religious aspect is lived in all its fullness: prayer is scheduled twice a day and each time it features the recitation of passages from the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred text of Hinduism. The assistants pray each according to their own religion. So far there have been no difficulties. The only thorn in the side for Naomi, who is still in charge, is not having found a local director. Although she has tried for years, that time has yet to come.”
After the death of Bro. Frank, Fr. Franco became a “spiritual father” for Naomi and the Ark of Mymensingh. PIME, which in the north of the country, in Rohanpur, runs a small center for people with physical disabilities: “Snehonir” or “House of Tenderness” is collaborating with the Ark. “Naomi sends us some cases that need special care in Dhaka” says Father Franco, “and to the young people who are contacting PIME as part of their discernment process, we propose a voluntary service with the Ark among a variety of possible experiences.”
About seven to eight percent of the population is disabled in Bangladesh; and cultural and religious traditions weigh heavily on the way in which these people are perceived by society. Government support is extremely limited. Those who can afford to pay seize the few opportunities that are given. There are several non-governmental organizations that have programs for the disabled, but are mostly focused on vocational training. “Donors” push for concrete and quantifiable results, and simply sharing life is hardly “measurable”.
“In our first meeting, on a very hot day, before a cup of tea, Naomi told me of her immense joy when, after four years of trying, one of her ‘disabled’, for the first time, succeeded in drinking a glass of water by himself. The family homes do not have programs and projects that change society: can you perhaps come up with a project that involves four years to learn to drink by yourself? The proposal is to love in the simplest and most immediate way; and to look at reality with this set of eyes and with this type of heart, capable of not considering it a waste of time the full-time dedicated to only one person.”
The Ark Family homes mean not only to change the hearts and minds of the disabled, as well as their family members, but also that of those who still misundertand them.
Meanwhile, the Ark activity in Bangladesh has grown. In addition to the 21 mentally disabled residents, another 20 come to the family homes daily to share some activities, and another 20 are still reached at home. “In the houses of the Ark ample room is left for celebrations,” continues Fr. Franco. “At the beginning it seemed strange, but then I realized that a celebration is perceived by everyone, even by seriously disabled people, in an immediate way: singing, dancing are absorbed ‘by the skin’ and immediately create a festive reaction. So the members of the community celebrate all the recurrences of the various religious traditions, they rejoice, they see positively the differences in each. When we go to visit with them they throw themselves in our arms, kiss and hug us. The only language they understand is that of love, which is why they lead us to God.”
Thanks to these experiences, progress is being made in Bangladesh regarding the perception of disabled people. Fr. Franco tells of a small, significant episode: “Our boys from the Rohanpur home attend public school. At the beginning it was difficult. With a girl in a wheelchair, we visited several high schools before finding one that would accept her. In the end one said ‘yes’, but the principal and some teachers were against it. On the first day, the girl and the accompanying nun were told that the classroom was on the third floor of a building without a lift. The nun tried to ask for a change of classroom on the ground floor, but was told that the situation was not modifiable. The first few days of school, this stubborn girl began to climb three flights of stairs, sitting on a step at a time, until she arrived in the classroom. After a short time her classmates began to compete for the opportunity to carry her in their arms. The following year, her class was moved to the first floor. And when she graduated, she was asked to send some other persons like her, because her presence had been positive and had caused a change of mentality throughout the school.”
Naomi Iwamoto, the administrator of the Ark, has decided to become Catholic after a long spiritual journey. “She returned to Japan and explained to the leaders of her Evangelical Church the reasons for her decision, and they gave her their blessing,” says Fr. Franco. “It was a very beautiful ecumenical sign. Naomi entered formally in a Catholic Church in Japan, run by the Jesuits, and at the ceremony there were also some Evangelicals present.” Meanwhile in Bangladesh a “Faith and Light” group was also born, from a local merchant with a disabled child. “His name is Dominique Rosario, and he is a Christian. He told me that he had been angry with God for years, because he wanted to do many things for the Church, but the daily assistance to his son prevented him. In 1993, Vanier came to Bangladesh and his words triggered a kind of electric shock in Dominique. He has converted, has been reconciled with himself and with God, and gradually his house has become a point of reference for other families.”