Sangsay village in West Bengal, India, is remote and beautiful. The Earth’s highest peaks tower in the backdrop as you move around the area at 4,000 feet above sea level. Traveling here is described by Deena Vazhaparampil, SCN, as “a real risk-filled experience.”
To minister in the 22 villages surrounding Nazareth Health Center in Sangsay, India, Sisters must ascend a mountain, walking two hours. It takes another one and half hours to walk down and return home. Once each month, Sisters make a seven-hour journey to the nearest city to retrieve the supplies they need.
Sister Deena sees the main challenges of her geographic location as transportation and the lack of hospitals.
Sangsay in West Bengal, India, is remote and beautiful. Also “a real risk-filled experience,” says Sister Deena due to the 🏔️ terrain. pic.twitter.com/jWF4OMDKGA
— Sisters of Charity (@scnfamily) April 19, 2017
For 30 years, 15,000 people in this area have come to depend on the Sisters for their support in education, health, pastoral, and social ministries.
Sister Deena has been here for seven years. “I was drawn to the area by the pioneer spirit of Catherine Spalding, the needs of the people, and our charism, to take risks in life.”
Five Sisters in all, Anila Monippallikalayil, Francisca Kindo, Helen Tirkey, Tarcisia Hembrom, and Deena minister in this mountainous northeastern region of India.
“These are not rich people. They only live with what they have. They are happy and they teach me a lot,” explains Sister Deena.
In one small room
Before the Sisters came to Sangsay, many people died from their diseases because they couldn’t reach hospitals in time. It was common for women to become widows at the young age of 30. Their husbands often died from diabetes and hypertension due to a poor diet, alcoholism, and taxing labor.
Sister Deena takes the lead in providing primary health care. Since maternal and infant mortality rates at one time were high in Sangsay, Sister has also been trained in conducting deliveries. The Sisters set up the medical facility in a small two-room building. One side is the pharmacy and dispensary, the other, Sister Deena’s clinic.
“Because I have only a single room to admit the patients and deliver babies, I change the tables in the room according to the need,” says Sister Deena. When she admits an expecting mother to give birth, Sister Deena has them stay with her in the clinic for observation until the baby is ready to be born. This way she is able to attend both to the care of other patients and perform deliveries.
Attending to the needs of mothers brings her joy. “I feel so satisfied in this job,” says Sister Deena.
Sister Deena also encounters frequent reminders of the harsh geography. Many patients come to the clinic suffering from cuts and head injuries, usually from falling during their walks up and down the mountain. Some have lost their lives because they couldn’t get to a hospital in time.
Exploitation of women
Sister Deena reports that girls in the area have become pregnant as young as 10-years-old. Outside of the clinic, Sisters are working diligently to educate and empower women and girls through programs.
One time while retrieving supplies in the city, Sister Deena overheard five girls from her village talking about meeting a man at the Nepal border for work. Worried, Sister Deena stopped them and told them to call this man to come and meet with her. He wouldn’t come. She took the five girls home to their parents and warned them of the dangers of being trafficked.
Sister Deena has met many women from this area who have been trafficked. Two years ago, a woman from her village was trafficked and taken to Nepal. She was held captive for nearly 15 days. Her family came to Sister Deena for help.
Sister Deena explains, “She is the mother of two children. It was her daughter who came to me. ‘Sister please bring my mother back,’ she pleaded with me.” She decided right then that she had to help. Sister Deena said she was scared, she wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed, “I knew it was going to be a drastic change for me and that it was out of my ministry.”
She went to the police. When they couldn’t help, she went to the newspapers. During this time, the woman being held nearly escaped. She took her captor’s cell phone. As her husband’s mobile phone rang, her captor found her and took the phone.
Sister Deena continued the search for her. She reached out to a group of local men from the nearby town. They were able to locate her and arrange for the kidnapped woman’s return. When she came back to India, Sister Deena helped her regain freedom.
“She was promised work and then drugged. While she was held captive she was raped multiple times,” says Sister Deena.
After everything, an outcast
After everything the woman had been through, she was not welcomed home by her community. She was outcast because she was viewed as a prostitute. She was not accepted in her parish church. She lost her government job as a cook.
“When most people were against us in helping this trafficked women, I knew we still had to help, and that my Congregation would support me.” With trust in God and her Congregation, Sister Deena decided to take action.
Sister Deena met with the bishop. She waited at his office for two days, persistent for his help on the matter. She went to the victim’s employer and told them, “she is just like any of us. She was trafficked, she had no choice.”
The woman was allowed back into her church and after four months, she returned to her place of employment.
An enduring spirit
Though the challenges are great, so are the rewards. One day Sister Deena missed Mass because she was delivering a baby. The next day, the bishop of Darjeeling, realizing how busy Sister Deena is with delivering babies, asked during their feast day Mass, “How many children here were delivered by Sister Deena?” Nearly all raised their hands.
“I was embarrassed and shocked by seeing the number of people I have delivered,” says Sister Deena. When asked just how many babies she has delivered her eyes light up, “Well, that is an interesting question to ask … in the past year, I may have delivered nearly 400 babies.”
Almost every day she delivers a child, or two. In her seven years, Sister Deena has never lost a baby or a mother during delivery.
Sister Deena has seen so much from her small clinic tucked away in the mountains. Every day presents a new set of challenges. “I will face difficulties, but I also really experience the power of prayer and support of people,” she says.