Sunday, October 24, 2010

East Meets West – an unforgettable ‘Indian summer’ party

Resident of Newman House, Catherine Anderson, reports on the launch party of the Amar Jyoti Trust

Indian Bollywood and Swing dancing may not be a likely combination but the launch party of the Amar Jyoti Trust on 30th September generated the unique magic that occurs when East meets West. Guests drank champagne and ate samosas in the contemporary surroundings of the 5* Hotel Rafayel while the night lights of London were spread out below through the panoramic windows. A highlight of the night was the exuberant Indian dancer in vibrant saffron dress who twirled and leaped like a bright flame. The serious aspect of the evening was ever present on the two large screens which detailed in text and pictures the aim of the new charity.

Jharkhand State in North-eastern India is one of the most economically depressed areas in the world. Poor sanitation and living conditions contribute to a high incidence of childhood blindness and disease. With a population of 27 million and no provision for blind children, those affected have almost no chance of providing for themselves or their families, and their future is bleak. Many are dumped on the roadside with a begging bowl or simply abandoned.

The Missionary Sisters of the Queen of Apostles (SRA sisters) were founded in Austria in the 1920s and have a long track record of working with India’s poorest. Most of their members are Indian and have a shared cultural background with the people they help. In the spring of 2009 I was able to spend three months living alongside the sisters, sharing in their simple meals and their work of teaching and nursing India’s poor.

Catherine with the sisters

People think of India as a nation on the brink of a boom, its cities offering good jobs and a higher living standard than ever before. Sadly, this does not apply to the rural areas where ignorance, poverty and disease are still widespread. The SRA sisters build cottage hospitals where local women can have their babies in safety, rather than on the dusty floor of a mud hut. They treat everything from malaria to worm infestation, and run classes in hygiene for local women. Another aspect of the sisters’ work is the education of blind children, giving them the basics – maths, English, Hindi and Braille, which they need in order to enter mainstream schooling. Most of the children have low vision and with a little help many of them can look forward to a bright future.

Due to the worldwide economic recession, Western aid to the SRA has dwindled and they are badly in need of new sources of giving. Traditionally, the German- speaking people have been their biggest donors, but the Amar Jyoti Trust seeks to raise money from the English-speaking world. We have ten projects of which the most ambitious is a new school for blind children. The sisters have a new convent set in several acres in Channho, a healthy rural area about 40 minutes from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. On the land is a school for local children, a new and beautiful church with resident priest and a cottage hospital, all landscaped with beautiful plants by Sister Laila. Around the whole is a high security fence, very necessary in an area where poverty drives many desperate people into crime. Christians have in the recent past suffered from persecution by Hindu militants, but the sisters continue their mission regardless.

Channho is ideal for a new blind school and a space has been set aside with planning permission for a school which would take in not just the fifteen blind children being taught in Ranchi, but many more. The need is great – I’m thinking of Deepak, for instance, a little boy of seven who was born with no eyes. He had been dumped at the side of the road and left to beg until the sisters took him in. He now runs around the convent grounds in Ranchi, hopping up and down steps like a sighted person and dreams of being a doctor. He has a brother with the same disability who the sisters long to help. The new school in Channho would mean that this dream can come true.

The building and equipment of the new school will cost about £100,000 and everything we can give will speed the construction. The sisters have a friend and supporter in a local builder, a Hindu man called Pappu, who cheerfully helps them out whenever he can. He helps because he admires the selflessness of the sisters and their mission of mercy to the poorest of the poor. Pappu has said he will start the first phase of building so that the children can be moved as soon as possible, and the sisters can pay him when they can.

The AJT was set up in the summer of 2009 by friends and family who donate their time and materials so that every donation goes directly to the neediest people in India and not on administration. We are committed personally to the work of the sisters. If you would like to know more about my time in India do ask me as I love to talk about the places I visited, the children that I fell in love with and the life changing experiences that I had. There’s also a website which shows pictures of the sisters and children, as well as explaining the work of the charity at

I’m glad to say that the launch party of the new charity was a huge success and among those who came, the comment I’ve heard most was: when will the next event be? We will definitely be having another and are already talking about a Christmas party 2010, summer party 2011 and a winter Ball 2011. If you’d like to help, please get in touch with me.

Residents of Newman House enjoying the party

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