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Snehonir, the ‘house of tenderness’ for the disabled (photos)

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Rajshahi (AsiaNews) – Snehonir or ‘house of tenderness’ is a facility where the disable can find comfort and rehabilitation, where guests “work hard in a spirit of mutual help”.

Located in Rajshahi in northern Bangladesh, the centre is run by the nuns of a local congregation, the Sisters of Shanti Rani (Queen of Peace), and priests from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).

The house caters to children and young people with mental and physical disabilities, deaf, blind and little girls scarred with acid. But it does more. It takes care of children without disabilities, orphans or from very poor families who are unable to raise them.

Speaking to AsiaNews, PIME missionary Fr Franco Cagnasso has been co-director of the centre for six years. “The shared goal is mutual help, joyous and complex coexistence, a commitment to give the best to build a future that is as independent as possible.”

“The facility,” the clergyman explains, “was set up by chance 25 years ago in (the now closed) Rohanpur Mission”, in the diocese of Rajshahi, “by Sister Gertrude, Fr Gianantonio Baio and Fr Mariano Ponzinibbi when a desperate father handed his four-month-old son Robi to the parish after his mother’s death.”

“At that time there was no assistance programme for children, but the three decided to keep the baby and find an adoptive mother. At nine months, Robi contracted polio and was paralysed. Today, thanks to Sr Gertrude’s physiotherapy and the loving care of the nuns and the woman who accepted to be his mother, he can move on his own in a wheelchair. He has also graduated from school and can play cricket.”

After such a start, the facility is now home to 43 children and young people, Fr Cagnasso noted. The youngest is five and the oldest, Robi, is 26. In all, ten people work at the centre.

“Mutual help between the disabled and the able-bodied is the principle that inspires coexistence in the centre,” the clergyman notes. “Over the years, the family-oriented approach has been maintained.”

“There is no division between those who serve and those who are served. There are only children with different abilities who make themselves available to others and do what they can – such as helping with homework or pushing the wheelchair. The older ones help the little ones.”

Sister Dipika Palma inherited Sister Gertrude’s mission. The centre, she explains, offers “an elementary education based on the principles of Christianity. We welcome everyone, Catholics, Hindus and Muslims.”

As time went by, the centre hired Braille and sign language teachers “to allow deaf and blind children to learn,” she said. “There are also no time limits on the sick and the poor for staying. They can remain with us as long as they need to.”

Still, “as soon as possible, children are encouraged to attend local schools, because we do not want to create a sort of ghetto. All our work has a specific purpose: to start them in life, to integrate them into society, to find them a job.”

“It is a pleasure to know that those who leave can find a fulfilling life. For example, Flora, the second child welcomed by the sisters, had never been accepted by her father because she was ill with polio. Today she works with Caritas and it is she who takes care of her sick father. Together with other people she is thinking of creating an alumni association, the ‘Friends of Snehonir’.”

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