x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pakistan's outcasts find shelter in hospice

The paralysed, the elderly and the mentally disabled abandoned by their families are all cared for behind the garrison walls of Rawalpindi.

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN // Sheltered behind the colonial-era garrison walls of Rawalpindi lies a sanctuary for some of Pakistan's most destitute people. St Joseph's Hospice is a Christian facility that cares for Muslims as well as those of its own faith. Indeed, 90 per cent of its outpatients and 60 per cent of its in-patients are Muslim.

Unlike a traditional hospice, St Joseph's does not only provide special care for people who are near the end of life. It looks after people with long-term illnesses, those who are too sick to care for themselves, have been abandoned or whose families cannot afford their upkeep. "We don't want people just to come here to die. People want to live. We want people to rehabilitate, to go home to their families," said Sister Mairead Walsh, 68, a nun from Dublin, who runs the hospice.

Pakistan, a country with a population of 180 million, has few properly functioning social welfare institutions for the sick and the poor. "Pakistan is good. It has good, simple people like at home. But there is a lot of injustice. The rich are very rich and the poor are very poor," Ms Walsh said. The hospice was built in 1964 and is situated next to the 19th century Church of the Sacred Heart, opposite a rundown complex of British-period military storehouses.

An Irish priest, Francis O'Leary, was inspired to set up the hospice when a woman, who had been left in the street to die of cancer, was brought to him. Fr O'Leary, who belonged to the Roman Catholic Mill Hill missionaries, named the hospice after his society's "motherhouse", St Joseph's College in London. Most of the patients are paralysed and so need constant care, therapy and attention. They range in age from the elderly to newborn babies.

Ms Walsh referred to an elderly patient sitting in a wheelchair and said: "He was found in the road." The hospice, which has 60 beds and treats 80 to 90 outpatients daily, is entirely supported by voluntary contributions. "People come here everyday and we have to turn them away as we don't have the beds," Ms Walsh said. The hospice has a well-tended garden with small shrubs, roses and hedges. Trees provide shade under which plump geese and a peacock roam.

Sister Nazarene, one of St Joseph's six resident nuns, who come from as far away as the Philippines and Spain, introduced a group of patients sitting in wheelchairs in the shade of one of the trees. Their stories underscored that in Pakistan, despite its being a country famed for its hospitality and strong family bonds, many of the sick are abandoned to their fate. Michael, 65, a former mathematics teacher, was left paralysed and uncared for at home. Ghani, from Faisalabad, had an equally tough life.

"We had to persuade his family to come to visit him. They were scared we were going to send him home," Ms Nazarene said. One patient was crippled when he was shot by thieves on his way to work. Babar, 19, was blown up in the same bomb explosion that killed the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, on Dec 27 2007. Some of the female patients have been in the hospice for more than 20 years, while others are newcomers. Shamsa, in her late teen, said she was paralysed when she fell down a well.

Ayesha Gul, 20, from Swat, was hit by a stray bullet in the spine when she was six months old. "She's a favourite. She's very much alive," Ms Walsh said. Ms Walsh brushed off questions about people's religion with a dismissive wave of the hand. "We don't ask people's religion and we don't care," she said. Dr Munawar Khan, a glamorous Muslim woman married to a retired army officer, is the hospice's treasurer. She also treats patients.

"These people are the poorest of the poor. But we even get the better-off people because they have heard about the care," she said. Like many well-heeled Pakistanis, Dr Khan was educated by nuns and went on to become a director of health with the Red Cross. The outpatients department charges patients according to their means. "We run on a wing and prayer. Somehow it just works. Some months we break even and other months we are in the red," she said.

The task of looking after life's scorned and rejected is particularly poignant in the children's ward. Mariam, eight, was left on the hospice's doorstep with her name on a card pinned to her chest five years ago. She is mentally disabled. Tehmina and Talha, baby sisters, were taken to the hospice by their blind father after their mother died. St Joseph's is short of funds, staff and resources. The hospice is particularly in need of newspapers, which are used under the patients.

The redoubtable, down-to-earth nun, who speaks a vibrant mix of Urdu and Punjabi, is a model of perseverance. Ms Walsh, who first arrived in Pakistan in 1977, only gets to see her family in Dublin once every four years when she is allowed a two-month break. How does she cope? "We pray. At first I thought, 'My God, I won't survive this', but then you see the patients smile and improve and survive," she said.

iwilkinson@thenational.ae