It takes a global village

Despina Meris discovers a dedicated Greek Orthodox nun working miracles in a most unorthodox place - Calcutta, India

They say that the Hellenic spirit has touched all corners of this big blue earth. From democracy to philosophy to philanthropy – Greek character and determination has touched all walks of life, often in surprising locales. Still, it is hard to imagine a selfless Greek Orthodox nun running a children’s orphanage just outside Calcutta, India. But that is exactly what Sister Nektaria is doing. The destitution she saw in India had such a profound effect on her, she chose to dedicate her life to a children’s orphanage.

“When you see the poverty in India, you can’t close your eyes to what you see,” she explains to Neos Kosmos. “The homeless on the sidewalk, the skeletal children dying in the street. When you see these children, you will bring them some milk, some food to eat. Whether they are or aren’t Orthodox.” The Philanthropic Society of the Orthodox Church (PSOC) was founded by Father Ignatios Sennis and Sister Nektaria Paradisi back in 1993.

As the current director, Sister Nektaria began this humanitarian mission by wanting to reopen an abandoned Greek Orthodox church. What eventuated was a humanitarian effort with a very big heart. From humble beginnings of handing out milk, PSOC has now grown to six primary schools, seven medical clinics, a girls orphanage with over 100 girls and a boys orphanage with over 30 boys. In addition, they also distribute food daily to the poorest of the poor: breakfast for hungry children each morning and lunch for the homeless poor at lunch.

“In Calcutta, there are five million homeless. The mind of someone from a rich nation can’t grasp the concept if he doesn’t see it with his own eyes,” she says of the enormity of the poverty problem. According to the Global Hunger Index, nearly half of all Indian children are undernourished, one of the highest rates in the world. The plight of girls is especially harrowing. Girls born into poverty are more likely to beg, resort to prostitution or forced into marriage . But Sister Nektaria remains a realist.

“We can’t say we will cure India. The work we do is a drop in the ocean. It is a testimony of our love. In proportion with our strength – we do what we can.” The objectives are to ensure that the children are fed, in good health, educated, and taught skills such as drawing and sewing – benefits that these children never dreamed of before entering these doors. Sister Nektaria has definite goals for all the children and that is “to have a degree, to find a good job, to be independent financially so that no one can exploit them because they are orphans”. The girls consider this orphanage as their family, and the love they have for Sister Nektaria is that of a mother and daughter. Debbie was brought to the orphanage as a baby, too young to mix with the other girls. Sister Nektaria raised Debbie by her side.

“Her first words were in Greek. I would rock her to sleep in my arms, and sing Vgainei i varkoula. Once when I was interrupted, she continued ‘apo to perigiali’ on her own. If I had given birth to her, I don’t think I could love her any more than I do now.”

April Pierce, a volunteer at the orphanage, says that orphaned Rupa had strong emotional reactions, but in the final weeks of April’s stay, “Rupa seemed to be altogether academically and personally transformed. The successes of the orphanage are not just quantitative. They are personal.”

Christiana Thanos, active supporter of PSOC, says that the orphanage allows the girls to reach goals they wouldn’t have thought possible, goals “that most girls in their villages could never dream of attaining”.

In an effort to support the orphanage, Christiana has produced the film Lucky Girls. It is a touching and positive film, introducing us to several of the girls and their personal journey. The film has screened at fundraisers around the world and been viewed in 118 countries – as far reaching as Rwanda and Azerbaijan. To survive, PSOC relies on donations from Greek diaspora around the globe. But with the gloomy economic crisis in Greece, nearly all of the Greek sources of funding have run dry.

Sister Nektaria is carefully consolidating costs, creating long term solutions to ensure the sustainability of her life-long commitment. She aims to have all schooling completed on the premises, to save on transport costs, petrol, and buses. Future projects include transforming their land into a farm, eventually subsidising all of their food costs. The first step is to build a wall. Although work on the wall has started, it has been curtailed due to a lack of funds. Another idea dependent on funding is to install solar panels to greatly reduce energy expenses.

Throughout all these hurdles and hardships, Sister Nektaria continues to be optimistic. “It’s a struggle, but as soon as I think things are impossible, a solution presents itself out of the heavens. The love from these children gives me the strength, the courage to continue. I give them a little bit of love, but I get much more back than what I give.”

Donate or sponsor a child at 100 per cent of all donations go directly to the children.