Sixteen-year-old Renuka works twelve hours a day in a garbage dump in southern India, sorting cans, bottles, and glass. Each day she earns about 80 cents, enough to bring a few pounds of rice home to her family’s house in a slum area of the city of Adoni. Her parents don’t work, so she and her sister support the family by working at the dump.She sifts through a lot of trash, but says the needles don’t poke her.
Renuka works every day, including Sunday, because she needs the money. She took the day off on Tuesday this week, however, to travel two and a half hours to receive a package of aid items from Catholic Relief Services (CRS – an American member of the Caritas confederation). Most of the beneficiaries live closer to the CRS distribution site, but Renuka and others from Adoni were added to the beneficiary list even though they are quite far away: not only is Renuka HIV-positive, but her family’s home was destroyed in a devastating flood that hit India a few weeks ago.
It’s a triple whammy of crushing misfortune: impoverished, sick, and now virtually homeless, this teenager’s life seems impossibly grim. Renuka has someone on her side, though: a determined woman named Sister Lilly Lobo. Sister Lilly, and other Indian sisters of St. Joseph of Tarbes, started working in the slums of Adoni years ago.
“There are many brothels there,” says Sister Shanti, an HIV counselor in a CRS-funded programme. The sisters run awareness sessions and encourage people to get blood tests if they have certain symptoms.
It’s tough work: few want to get tested, because stigma against the disease is so strong that many families kick HIV-positive members out of the house.
“More than the sickness, they are afraid other people will find out,” says Sister Lilly. One man who infected his wife, and whose five small daughters are HIV positive, committed suicide, she says.
But with help from CRS, 480 HIV-positive people are receiving medicines, food, and monthly follow-up support from nuns like Sister Lilly. And when the floods of early October carried away their few possessions, they had someone to turn to. CRS is distributing items like tarpaulins and rope, which families use to create makeshift shelters.CRS is also giving flood survivors water storage jars, pots, pans, water purification tablets, and more items so they can start over. Renuka and other HIV patients were already receiving bulgar grain and oil from CRS. The food is especially important since HIV medication causes nausea if the patient doesn’t have enough to eat.
On Tuesday, Renuka—along with over 1,000 other flood survivors—picked up her parcel at a Carmelite school a few miles from the worst of the flood damage. “I can really use these,” she says of the cookware and other items, “because the water washed everything away.”
Watching Renuka with Sister Shanti and Sister Lilly, it’s clear she is receiving something less tangible than the aid package, but just as important: kindness. “I am happy the sisters accept and love me,” says Renuka. “They understand my feelings and my suffering.”