A line of women and children stretches along the veranda of the Holy Cross Health Education Center in Lokhipur, Bangladesh. The women hold their children close, but a few smile at us as we make our way inside. There, Holy Cross Sisters Thecla Dinila Nokrek and Tina Moury Ritchil are passing out bags of rice to the women, who walked all morning to get here.
The center, started in 1989, is surrounded by tea gardens and makeshift structures where tea pickers live with their families. The facility specializes in providing basic health education and preventative health care to area residents. Sister Thecla was instrumental in establishing a strong foundation of health education, awareness and outreach at the center.
Building on that, Sister Tina regularly offers up new treatment and care activities to address the people’s needs. This morning, the women attended a health class led by Sister Tina. Together, the sisters are expanding health care in this remote area of Bangladesh.The sisters also run a primary school and sewing center in this community. These three facilities help support the needs of villagers and the Punjee tribal people who live in the nearby hills.
A legacy of health services
Sister Tina, a registered nurse, sees us arrive and steps away to show us around the center. The simplicity is stark. An examination room with one table, a storage room with two cabinets, a classroom with a fan and a tarp for seating. While proud of what they have, Sister Tina stresses that more supplies and services are required to meet the tremendous needs of the people.Sister Tina is Punjee herself, growing up “just six-hours walk from the center.” She remembers sisters walking up into the hills to her village to take care of her ill mother and other individuals. Growing up, she says, the only medical professionals she knew were the sisters that came to care for her community. It wasn’t until a decade later that she learned many of those sisters were not nurses or doctors at all. They were religious women responding to the needs around them.
A dream realized
Recalling those sisters, Sister Tina determined that she also wanted to provide medical care for her mother and village. She joined the sisters in 2005. Then came her own winding journey of formation, education, practicums and nursing positions in Bangladesh hospitals and clinics. At last, she arrived at Holy Cross Health Education Center. For Sister Tina, it was a homecoming. These are her people; this was her dream since she was 7 years old.
With Sister Tina’s presence, and the expanded health care she brings to this corner of Bangladesh, the center can treat more advanced injuries and sicknesses. Many of the local people have diagnosed health problems. But distance and financial issues prohibit their travel to larger hospitals.The average tea garden worker makes about 30 taka a day, or about 28 cents. They eat mostly rice, with very little fruit, vegetables or protein in their diets. In addition, access to clean drinking water is minimal. Sister Tina helps patients navigate their diseases, educates them on proper nutrition and treatment plans, and directs them to a doctor or hospital if necessary.
Milk program among successes
Addressing the need for good nutrition, the center began a milk program for young children in 2016. Parents can come every week to get free milk for their 6-month to 2-year-olds to ensure brain development, strong bones and healthy weight. Looking around at the families lined up for these services, I better understand the demand and needs of the people. I also recognize the profound impact of the sisters’ expanded health care in this small area of Bangladesh.“I love all the programs we offer, and I am very qualified and confident in my abilities,” says Sister Tina. “And I know our clinic could do more.” While a hospital may not be possible, Sister Tina hopes that one day this community will have a place where its people can get ongoing treatments and the care they need and deserve.
Impacts of climate devastation
Throughout our visit, I am amazed at our sisters’ commitment, compassion and creativity in their ministries. Especially knowing how badly this country is suffering from natural disasters and extreme temperatures. Bangladesh contributes minimally to our global emissions problem. Yet its people and biodiversity are severely impacted by climate devastation. Many parts of Bangladesh are less than 7 feet above sea level, making it severely vulnerable to cyclones, flooding, erosion and crop loss. And those feeling the impacts most acutely are those who have so little to fall back on.
“It’s very challenging here right now in Bangladesh,” Sister Tina tells me. “Even though we are not directly affected by the recent cyclones and terrible flooding compared to other areas of this country, our food comes from those areas. If we are able to find the food we need, it is generally way more expensive than it used to be. And when the temperatures get excessively high or the natural disasters happen, we have to take our health center out into the villages. People won’t come here during the trying times, so we must go to them.” Sister Tina smiles and says, “Just like I remember happening when I was a child.”In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si', Pope Francis addresses the inequality of the global effects of climate devastation. Here in the village, we see plainly how the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor intersect. We also see how Bangladesh suffers substantially from climate devastation despite contributing less than 1% to the world’s carbon emissions. This disproportionate reality makes the sisters commitment to tread the path of environmental and social justice simultaneously that much more valuable.
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