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The second (and final) of two parts of a piece of Literary Journalism written for a class on Creative Nonfiction. The first part can be found here.

The Story of Helena:

Helena was a devout Christian and one of the friendliest people I had met at Dar-ul-Sukun. Orphaned and disturbed since the age of five by seeing her parents being murdered in front of her, she was still trying to recover from the shock even after more than twenty years. At first glance, she appeared to be different from the rest – different in how normal she was. She was easy to talk to and had picked up the rules of cricket, which she had developed a fondness for. Evening cricket matches with Helena were a must, as was the Christmas card she used to carry.

This Christmas card was the sole remainder of her parents that Helena clung to. It was a ritual for her to show this card to every volunteer, regardless of how many times they had seen it before. The card dated back to December 1987 and was addressed to Helena by her parents – the customary Christmas greeting. Once Helena had gotten assurance from the person viewing her card that they liked it, she used to tell them ‘Yeh kal aya hai.’ From what I gauged of her behaviour, this experience had made her lose all track of time; it’s almost like she was expecting her parents to show up at any time.

Helena was dropped off at Dar-ul-Sukun by frustrated relatives who did not know how to get through to her that the year 1987 had long gone. She was beaten up when she would get the years wrong, and her relatives eventually gave up and disposed of her. What happened to Helena was that she never fully came to terms with her parents’ murder. Society tried to politely tell, and then coerce her into accepting it, but when that didn’t work, a good beating seemed to be the answer.

Because, of course, physical mauling is the way to get the facts across a disoriented mind, right?

The Story of Sara:

As volunteers, we were supposed to spare equal time for everybody. However, we soon found our personal favourites, and mine was an eight-year-old named Sara. People often looked at Sara prancing to and fro between Dar-ul-Sukun and the park opposite and wondered what was wrong with her. Visibly, nothing, but they still chose to keep their kids away from her.

What was wrong with Sara? Fate. She had no father and a wheelchair-bound mother who needed regular sedation. So Sara, with her mother, was brought to Dar-ul-Sukun, where they continue to live to this day. Fate sure was cruel to her, depriving her of a normal childhood – she didn’t have any friends, she didn’t go to school and she didn’t have any toys to play with. But crueler than fate was society, which saw her as a disturbed child.

I have yet to understand what basis society had for labeling Sara as ‘disturbed’. All society saw was that she used to go in and out of the Dar-ul-Sukun gates, and that was evidence enough for them to label her. What society saw was where Sara lived, but what they failed to see was her energy and her ambition. She was an eight-year-old with energy that would put the Energizer Bunny to shame, and was the child who became the self-proclaimed waitress for residents who were unable to move much. She was the daughter who would wheel her mother in the lawn every evening, and who would help her handicapped mother change and get tucked in bed every night. She was the little girl who shared my love for swings and would usually accompany me to those, and who would bring books of alphabets to fulfill her dreams of learning English. An unfortunate turn of events had forced Sara to presume the role of an adult, but there was still a childish whim about her – seen in her frolics on the swings and her escapades with the Dar-ul-Sukun pet dog – that was much adored. Perhaps it was her immaturity only that got her by; it made her ignorant of how society perceived her.

Sara was just a little girl like most girls her age, but she had been stigmatized by society for something she was not even afflicted with.

Then again, why would society not judge her based solely on the fact that she lived at such an institution?

***

A project started more than forty years ago has grown much larger today. Other than the Dar-ul-Sukun head office in Karachi (described through my personal experiences here), there are also a number of other projects running in Karachi, Lahore and Quetta. These include Lemmens Home, The Dugout, JaniVille, Peace Heaven, Dar-ul-Sukun Lahore and Dar-ul-Sukun Quetta. While the last two are quite similar to Dar-ul-Sukun Karachi, the other homes are quite specialized. Lemmens Home caters to handicapped girls and JaniVille to socially displaced girls. The Dugout is the residence for handicapped boys whereas Peace Heaven is an old age home for senior citizens.

With this multi-faceted structure, Dar-ul-Sukun has succeeded in providing handicapped boys and girls with opportunities to complete their education and find lucrative jobs. For instance, around thirty girls from JaniVille attend the Christ the King School in Karachi, a very optimistic statistic, because the number of residents at JaniVille fluctuates between thrity-five and forty. The girls at JaniVille are not handicapped but are simply socially displaced, and hence Dar-ul-Sukun provides them with the opportunity to complete their education. Sara’s face is one that can be expected to surface at JaniVille in a few years and hence, at the Christ the King School, thus allowing her the access to an education that she was robbed off by her cruel fate.

While the institution is not up to par with finding a cure for the mentally disabled, it does create for them a peaceful environment to live in – a shelter from the society that stigmatizes them. Psychiatrists and counselors are called in from time to time for therapy sessions to help build the esteem of the handicapped. Medical confidentiality dictates counseling to be a topic that is not discussed with volunteers or widely publicized, but its effects can, nevertheless, be seen. Some Dar-ul-Sukun residents who were suffering from various kinds of depression are now teaching at different Christian schools on decent salary packages. When I last left Karachi, there was talk of ‘taming’ Rose via her counseling enough to find her a permanent position as a hairdresser. Peace Heaven aims at keeping senior citizens busy at their age by arranging different activities for them, even if within the confines of their old age home. These people get involved in activities such as gardening, sports, indoor board games and arranging picnics for their fellow residents. Had things not changed in lieu of his unexpected death, Mr. André would have been a resident of Peace Heaven soon, spending his days with perhaps helping with preparations for a picnic.

Other than sisters and visiting counselors, Dar-ul-Sukun has staff ranging from management personnel to nurses to maids to janitors. Only after that do volunteers fit into the hierarchy. In some ways, a volunteer’s job was similar to that of a counselor. While we were not made privy to much knowledge about a resident’s disorders (if any), we were motivating them to get back on their feet by extending a friendly hand to them. For people who have been shunned by society, a friendly hand is needed to hold in order to move on. Ultimately, all that is expected from a volunteer is to ‘help people overcome the human sufferings’, which is also the mission statement of Dar-ul-Sukun. A volunteer cannot make a huge difference, but he can help bring a little peace into the chaotic mind of a person afflicted with a mental illness. Of course, it is utopian to think of a handful of Dar-ul-Sukun volunteers revamping societal thinking.

Rose, Mr. André, Helena and Sara are just four of the two hundred faces at Dar-ul-Sukun; they are just four of the many similar stories heard. These two hundred are a very small section of the disabled population in Pakistan, which was calculated to be close to eleven percent in the last census conducted. This number can easily be considered irrelevant now, because the last census was conducted in the year 1998! Since then, there have been no concrete records of the number of disabled people in Pakistan, because the census set to be conducted in 2008 was indefinitely postponed due to political reasons. In a society where such figures are hazy, there is little hope for redress. How does one go about correcting a problem when the extent of it has been ambiguous for thirteen years and counting? Projects like Dar-ul-Sukun are micro-level initiatives to help bring about a change. While it is true that these small changes make way for bigger ones, some governmental intervention will only help this cause. However, for a government which has failed to document the magnitude of the problem, is hoping for such a macro-level change nothing short of mere folly?

Does the problem lie with our society, or with our government as a whole? Where does this problem of stigmatizing lie? Society only seems to see these people as physically and mentally retarded. However, perhaps what is different about these people is that they’re special.

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