According to Mother Teresa's Testament: A Personal History of Volunteering in India

Everyone has heard stories like “drop everything and go to the other side of the world to find yourself”. It is another matter to fly half the world to selflessly help the suffering and homeless

According to Mother Teresa's Precepts: A Personal History of Volunteering in India

Ani Gulijanyan

Born in 1985 in the Vladimir region. In 2002–2008, she studied social work at the Russian State Social University. She worked as a social work specialist and coordinator in the club of volunteers of the charitable foundation.

Photographer, traveler and volunteer*. She speaks Russian, English and French.

* Anya spoke about her volunteering experience in 2020

The Testament of Mother Teresa: A Personal History of Volunteering in India

The Testament of Teresa

When I was twelve, my father told me the story of Mother Teresa. The dedication of this woman, who renounced well-being and dedicated her life to people, impressed me so much that I decided to enroll in a social work course.

Once, while looking for textbooks, I found a shabby little book “Mother Teresa – No more that love …” In fact, this is a simple collection of quotes, divided by topic – love, forgiveness, gift, work. Many chapters mentioned Nirmal Hriday, the very first hospice of Mother Teresa, opened in Calcutta back in 1952.

The book described how the sisters picked up the dying or seriously ill on the streets, brought them to the house, washed, dressed, fed, gave love and care, which those long years were deprived of. This house is still in operation, and volunteers come from all over the world to help the sisters. The thought of going there, visiting the places where Mother Teresa worked, doing the same work that she did, became my dream. At that time, completely unattainable, of course.

According to Mother Teresa's testament: a personal story of volunteering in India

While I was at university, there was no question of going to India, and after receiving my diploma, I managed to find a wonderful job in a charitable foundation, which I loved very much. Of course, I could go to Calcutta and go on vacation for a couple of weeks, but it seemed to me that I would not be able to do anything during this time. Although the thought that I was delaying the trip only because of fear, sometimes still crept in.

Before that, I had never traveled anywhere alone, did not speak English, and India seemed so distant and mysterious. But despite this, the dream of going there still did not leave me, until one “beautiful” day I was fired from my favorite job. Probably, it was a sign that I had stayed too long.

According to Mother Teresa's testament: a personal story of volunteering in India

I managed to find a remote job, I realized that it was time, and I bought a plane ticket to Delhi. I still remember the moment I hit the pay button. I moved out of the rented apartment, moved all my things and two cats to my parents, got a visa for six months, hugged my family and friends and went to the airport. Once on the plane, I realized: there is no turning back – and this was perhaps the most exciting moment in my life.

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Hospice work

< p>To become a volunteer with the sisters, you do not need to write or call in advance – you just come and go for an interview. Special skills are also not required. Orientation (that same interview) takes place three times a week in the courtyard of the local orphanage, Shishu Bhawan.

First, I spoke with Sister Maria, and then she entrusted me to the already experienced volunteer Mary. Nothing special was asked: where I am from, what I do and what brought me to Calcutta. The girl from Russia surprised them very much. There are almost no our compatriots here, the last Russian-speaking volunteer was here six years ago.

I remember how people later came up to me and asked with surprise, they say, are you from Russia? Cool! On the first day, I was told about which houses you can work in and what to do, about the rules of conduct, dress code, schedule and other little things. When I chose where I want to work, I was given a volunteer card. As a result, Mary became a special person for me – a teacher and friend. She volunteered in the same house as me, she showed me everything, told me everything, taught me everything.

According to Mother Teresa's Precepts: A Personal History of Volunteering in India

I chose the Nirmal Hriday Hospice (also called “Kaligat” because of its proximity to the temple of the goddess Kali). The dying or seriously ill are kept here, picked up by the sisters right from the streets. Each guest has his own story, but there is one thing in common: there is no one to take care of them. Now it's up to the sisters, Massi (local workers) and volunteers.

The building is divided into two wings – men's and women's. And accordingly, male volunteers work in the men's wing, and women – in the women's. This rule is set for ethical reasons only: it's not uncommon to help volunteers defecate or change their clothes while on the job.

According to Mother Teresa's Precepts: A Personal History of Volunteering in India

On my first day of volunteering, I was very excited, but after a week I felt at home in the hospice. Gathering at the main Mother House at 6:30 am for breakfast, prayer and important announcements. After the volunteers disperse to their “homes” – we got to ours by bus. Before starting work, they always washed their hands, put on an apron and then went downstairs to our ladies (as we called our wards).

First, I helped them brush their teeth after breakfast, then I gave massages to everyone who wanted to, toilet procedures, physical exercises under the supervision of a physiotherapist (for those who can still walk). In addition, it was possible to help with laundry, cleaning, distributing food. And, most importantly, in addition to all these activities, you could just communicate – sit next to me, read, talk, laugh, hold hands. Some volunteers even sang and danced along with the wards, always making others smile.

After dinner, we helped everyone settle into their nap beds, made rounds, saying goodbye to everyone and asking if anything was needed. At 12:00 the bell rang, signaling that it was time for the volunteers to leave.

According to the precepts of Mother Teresa: a personal history of volunteering in India

The second shift started at 3:00 pm, but often due to remote work, I could not volunteer in both shifts and was limited only to the morning. They don't get paid for the work – only breakfast and volunteer programs (for example, excursions to the places of Mother Teresa or a day of silence) are bonuses. Flight, accommodation, food – all at your own expense.

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< h2>New friends and inner peace

At the very beginning of my Indian adventures, I almost did not speak English: I learned the language myself a little from films and books, but this was not enough for live communication. And although people treated me with great understanding and patience, it was still embarrassing and hard to understand some difficult things in conversations.

But thanks to practice, I finally spoke. My new friends, Mary and Hanna from the USA, played a big role in this. It was more difficult with the wards, because they don’t speak English either. In Bengali, I learned only a few basic phrases, so I had to improvise, learn to understand people without words, focusing on gestures, voice timbre and facial expressions.

According to Mother Teresa: a personal story of volunteering in India

I remember once hanging clothes on the roof – there is a noisy market below, cars and rickshaws scurry back and forth, and on the right – the bulbs of the temple of the goddess Kali, huge birds are circling in the sky. I couldn't believe it – am I really here in India? I spent a total of five months in the country, and returned again a year later.

According to Mother Teresa's testament: a personal story of volunteering in India

The second time I had other tasks. Apart from Nirmal Hriday, I also worked at the first aid station. Here another little dream of mine came true: I learned how to treat wounds and make dressings.

Already on the first day, I did my first dressing and was incredibly pleased with myself. We were visited mainly by people living on the street. More often men. There were severe cases: wounds with protruding bones or worms. But I gathered my will into a fist: when you realize that you are doing something really useful and important for another person, it is not so difficult to overcome hostility.

According to the testaments of Mother Teresa: a personal story of volunteering in India

Besides, there were much more pleasant and incredible things than difficult ones. I have found many friends from all over the world, because this place is an amazing cluster of kind, bright and sympathetic people. Mostly people come here from the USA and Latin America, many volunteers from China and Japan.

I was amazed at the people who, year after year, spent their only vacation coming here to help the sisters, changing jobs from one job to another. For example, Barbara is a female doctor from Italy who has been coming to Calcutta for eight years in a row. My good friend Hilda -an elderly lady from Germany –was here one day when Mother Teresa was still alive, being on vacation with her husband, and promised her to return and help when the children grow up. And returned. For 16 years in a row, she has been coming here every year for two months.

Of course, mostly Christians come to Nirmal Hriday, people for whom the name of Mother Teresa is not an empty phrase. But among the volunteers there are also atheists who just like to do something useful. There are also many young people here – for example, two of my roommates were only 18 years old, and they worked in the orphanage of Mother Teresa. Sometimes I think about how my life would have turned out if I managed to come here in my student years, because the guys get such an invaluable experience almost at the very beginning of their journey, and it's great.

The Testament of Mother Teresa: A Personal History of Volunteering in India

Although I can no longer be counted among the youth, my experience here is also invaluable, at least for me. During the six months spent in amazing India, I learned that I am capable of much, that I am braver than I thought, that I think well in stressful situations, and that me  alone is already a good resource.

And I I learned to trust myself and realize that I can really handle it. Many of my fears and worries have been released and no longer control me. The most, probably, the main gift of India is the inner peace that I have been looking for all my life and found only there.


Material published in June 2020, partially updated in August 2022

Ani Gulijanyan, Editorial

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