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‘My Great Hope Is the Sisters’

text by Jose Kavi with photographs by John Mathew

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At 10 years old, Amrita Kumari has made up her mind: She wants to become a doctor. Her road will not be easy; Amrita is in the first grade, whereas most children her age have attended school for at least five years. But such obstacles have not stopped her from dreaming.

“I want to treat people and make them healthy,” says Amrita. Her father, Amit Kumar, looks on with pride from the kiosk attached to their hut, from which he sells toffee, chips and other snacks.

Amrita lives with her three siblings and parents in a slum east of the Indian capital of Delhi. Her tiny hut — consisting of one room with a tarpaulin roof and walls lined with torn clothing — sits on the edge of a sewer. Children in tattered, dirty clothes with unkempt hair and distended bellies play around three dozen such huts that constitute the area called Reti Mandi — “sand market,” perhaps referencing the heaps of sand opposite the sewer.

Pigs and dogs walk in and out of the huts as women cook outdoors on charcoal ovens made of mud. Men wrapped in shawls, bent with age, sit in corners, idle. Youngsters huddle around in an open space playing cards or watching games on mobile phones.

Reti Mandi is located in the Ghaziabad district, home to many who work in the capital, and functions as a bedroom community to Delhi. However, those who support themselves as day laborers — including Mr. Kumar and his neighbors — often have only meager shanty dwellings to their name.

These poor Dalit groups — members of the lowest caste, also known as “untouchables” — contain the majority of illiterate people in the district. Yet, out of its 3.32 million people, about 78 percent of Ghaziabad’s population is literate — slightly better than the national average of 74 percent.

Surrounded by his two daughters and two sons, Mr. Kumar shares his dream: Find an escape for his children from the squalor in which he has spent 25 years. Poverty had kept him away from school, but he is determined to go to any length to ensure his children enjoy a higher quality of life.

“I do not want them to be like me — eking out a living collecting scraps or garbage. The only option is to educate them,” the 35-year-old Hindu says.

“My great hope is the sisters,” he adds, referring to the Sisters of Destitute, a Syro-Malabar Catholic congregation of women that has worked among the underserved people of Ghaziabad for the past 23 years.

Sister Sumitha Puthenchakkalackal, who heads the sisters’ social service wing in the region, says the district’s slums put their charism to the ultimate test. Founded in 1927 by the Rev. Varghese Payyappilly, a priest of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the community is charged to work and witness the Gospel among the sick and destitute.

“Our aim is to help the integral growth of people, especially the destitute, through human development activities,” Sister Sumitha explains.

In this work, she says — offering services, creating opportunities and bolstering the hopes and dreams of people such as Mr. Kumar and Amrita — the sisters find their greatest joy.

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