Maria Faßnacht, diocese of Speyer, Germany,
Chairperson of Catholic Council.
In November 2011, I travelled with a small delegation of the diocese of Speyer in Germany, to Calcutta in India. This trip took place in advance of the Lenten campaign of the Catholic relief organization “Misereor” which
was nationally launched in Speyer, in February 2012. The delegation included the Auxiliary Bishop of our diocese, full-time staff and volunteer people who are committed to global justice, and journalists. I participated in an honorary capacity as chairperson of the Catholic Council, the highest body of laity in our diocese. We were accompanied by representatives of Misereor.
The week in Calcutta was a huge challenge for me – physically, for all my senses, and psychologically – all of which can only be summarized in words with great difficulty. Particularly noteworthy was the visit to a large slum in the midst of a busy and noisy railway yard on the outskirts of Calcutta. The people here live on the margins of society, and the much-quoted improvements of the emerging India has not reached them. The thundering freight and
passenger trains regularly pass directly in front of the makeshift huts that provide protection against the floods of the monsoon rain or the winter cold.
The tracks serve the residents as a public laundry area, communal play area and it is their only meeting place; it is also a pathway to dry the clothes and to sort the garbage, which is their livelihood.
Between all these activities the tracks have to be cleared for the trains roaring by. It is done in an almost stoic calm manner, and just as purposefully, everything is set up again when the train has passed.
The most shocking images were of the hills of garbage from this city of millions: people standing barefoot in the mud, searching the rubble for a few recyclable materials. They are surrounded by countless pigs with whom they seem to share the mud, filth and hard to find usable food. These days would have been very depressing, had we not met Tiljala SHED, a committed Muslim group that is supported as a project partner of Misereor.
The NGO Tiljala SHED was founded by Muhammad Alamgir, who himself grew up in the slums of Calcutta, in 1995.
He dreamed of a better world for himself and his children – and the dream became a reality.
We got to know the people involved with this organization, including the dedicated son of Mohammed Alamgir, Shafkat Alam. Their positive attitudes, their passion and tireless work were abundantly evident.
Where families are in the care of Tiljala SHED, illnesses are treated, children are taught in schools and vocational training is offered. Tiljala SHED ensures that garbage collectors are paid fair wages. People who are
supported like this are able to take their lives into their own hands.
So thank God, I personally had many positive experiences. I still remember the 8-year-old girl on the Misereor poster of the past Lenten Campaign. Dignity radiated from this little Chano, just as it did from many other people associated with Tiljala SHED. Dignity – despite the slums and mountains of garbage.
So much has, in fact, been given along the way, [including a positive attitude]: even if we work in the trash, we are not garbage, as some people want to categorize us; we are called to lead a life of dignity.
Dignity, which enables us to take responsibility for our lives. Yet – despite positive individual experiences, such as those of the Misereor project partners – we were burdened with the overwhelming glaring injustice.
It was very evident that even the best projects cannot solve this global, man-made injustice. We were confronted with the question of how this inhumane injustice interacts with our faith and with our lives.
It became abundantly clear to us, that the slum dwellers are also children of God, our brothers and sisters – and so we must not be indifferent to their fate.
The cruel unjust situation of the people in the slums and on the mountains of garbage has consequences for us. Because we know that the decisions each of us makes in our lifestyle has an impact on life in all
regions of the world.
This study trip to Calcutta and the encounter with the Tiljala SHED, has been hugely thought-provoking. We ask: How do we change ourselves so that we can influence a more just world? We all know how hard that is.
I want to encourage that we advocate for global justice – in small steps. I want to thank Tiljala SHED for the meeting [and for facilitating this awareness] in 2011.
This testimonial is supported by Christoph Fuhrbach, Kirsten Glaser,
Father Andreas Sturm und Waltraud Zehnder-Liedke.