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Pakistan's Christian Hospice to Close After 50 Years

In the crowded, winding streets of the Rawalpindi, a small Christian hospice led by Irish nuns has taken care of the destitute and disabled for 50 years.

But the hospice that caters mainly to Muslim patients is now being forced to close because of falling donations and rising costs.

FILE - Pakistani men are pictured during visit of Spanish Defence Minister Jose Bono at St. Joseph's Hospice in Rawalpindi.

FILE - Pakistani men are pictured during visit of Spanish Defence Minister Jose Bono at St. Joseph's Hospice in Rawalpindi.

For Aisha Gulrehman, the hospice has been her home for 10 years.

After being hit by a bullet outside her home in Pakistan's poor northwest at age 12, she has battled with cerebral palsy.

“When I first came here, I couldn't do anything, now I can eat by myself and I can write," she says. "Everybody here loves me and takes care of me. I wasn't looked after like this in my own home."

Like Aisha, all 40 patients here are destitute. Some of the paraplegics and quadraplegics have been abandoned.

Sister Margaret Walsh and a team of Pakistani and international volunteers have been trying to keep St. Joseph's running.

But after 50 years, donations are drying up, and bookkeeper Naveed Inderyas says fuel, electricity and medical costs are rising.

“According to our bank balances, we can survive only for the five months," he says.

Although the hospice cares for people of all religions, many think that, as a Christian institution, its own faith community should be responsible to raise the money. But sectarian violence has pushed many of Pakistan's wealthier Christians to depart, leaving few donors.

While there are many charitable organizations in Pakistan, St. Joseph's is unique, says Dr. Munawar Sher Khan, a Muslim who has been involved with the hospice for 40 years.

"It gives a unique service," she says. "There is no place to the best of my knowledge that helps the disabled, the chronically ill, they are rejected from other hospitals, they can't afford to go to hospitals, they can't afford expensive treatments."

Abler patients are encouraged to stay active.

Mohammed Sohail was a young man when he dove into a lake and cracked his head on a rock, paralyzing him from the neck down.

"These people, especially hospice, they know what to do with me," he says. "Dressings, food — a lot of other things, special needs for patients they provide us — and slowly, slowly, starting that day, I did move my neck, my hand, my finger, and now I am like a big man."

But without donated funds, such success stories could becpome a thing of the past.

While Sister Walsh says she will fight to keep the hospice open, as closing seems too painful an option. Dr. Munawar says she cannot believe that the prospect of closure is one they need to confront.

"I love the hospice, and I just can't bear the thought of it closing," she says. "For what? Why are we closing? Insufficient funds? People don't care anymore? I care. That's it."
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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