STELLA DEETJEN – An astonishing strong woman who ended up spontaneously building up a non-profit aid organization with a seed capital of USD 100,- to support local lepers in INDIA as a young student & backpacker tourist in 1997. Gradually, she grow her organization & network that supported street children and founded medical care centres and 13 slum-schools.
Since 2009 Stella and her team expanded to NEPAL, where her organization “BACK TO LIFE” founded 10 schools and medical care & birth centes and provided emergency help by reconstructing 7 schools after the big earthquake.
STELLA DEETJEN: “I’M JUST A NORMAL WOMAN”.
Stella Deetjen works as a German development worker in Nepal and India, is the foundress and managing director of the non-profit organization “Back to Life – Helping others help themselves in Nepal and India” and is the representative of the aid organization. She can also speak six languages fluently, including Hindi and Nepali.
Born in 1970 in Frankfurt/Main, she successfully completed her high school at the Kaiserin-Friedrich-Gymnasium in Bad Homburg and finished her acting education. At the beginning of the 1990s, Stella Deetjen had planned to study photography in Rome. Her place of study was already confirmed and safe. Before the studies started, she traveled for several months as a backpacker through India, where she eventually met the local lepers in Benares (now Varanasi). The encounter with these in India so called “Untouchables” ultimately led to the decision to stay in India and to help the lepers. In 1996, the non-profit organization was finally founded.
Caring for leprosy patients and their relatives in Benares let to caring for street children. Until December 2017, Back to Life had run children’s homes in cooperation with an Indian partner organization and a total of 13 slum-schools, so called non-formal schools, which considered the daily routines of the slum schools. After 21 years all India projects phased out.
In 2009 already, Stella Deetjen expanded her help in Nepal. In the medieval mountain region of Mugu, the organization has already built 10 schools and 7 birth centres, in Chitwan the focus is on supporting disadvantaged girls, their schools and the population as a whole of the project area. Through targeted trainings and support – including medical care – the population is taught to help themselves for not creating dependencies in the future.
After the earthquake in Nepal, the organization also provided emergency help and reconstructed 7 schools.
In 2016, Stella published her book “Untouchable – My Life Among the Beggars of Benares”, in which she tells about the early years of her work and of the organization.
HOW STELLA STARTED – A DECISION OF A MOMENT
The first time that I met lepers was in Benares – during a backpacking trip. They begged on the roadside, outcasted by society. Their situation seemed hopeless, as if they were just waiting for their death. I was sitting on some stone steps suffering from bad stomach pain and could not walk anymore. Then an old, white-haired leper came and asked if he could help me. I was stunned: I was the tourist with money in my pocket – I should have offered him my help.
He gave me a loving look that hit me right to the heart and soul and touched my head giving me a blessing. I was not afraid of his touch, though at that time I did not know if I could catch leprosy. He gave me so much human warmth that I could go on a little later.
The next day, I went to see this man to give him some useful things. When I asked for his name, he said: “My dear child, for 14 years no one has asked for my name, why do you want to know it now?” Musafirs answer did not let go of me.
I began to meet with him and his companions every day. The joy of being interested in them was written all over their faces. So, time passed… I learned my first words in Hindi with the help of Musafir and had already build a friendly relationship with the whole group: some called themselves my grandfather, my little brother or sister.
One day the police suddenly took all the male lepers and locked them on a truck. The police explained that begging was illegal, and the men were to be sent to jail. I was afraid that I would never see them again and something terrible could happen to them.
It was a decision of the moment: If I really thought them to be my brothers, then I should not leave them defencelessly to their fate. So, to the horror of the police, I jumped on the truck. They ordered me to get out again – but I refused. When we left, hundreds of people followed us on their bicycles. Some scolded me, other called out “God bless you”.
For hours we drove through the city and more beggars were collected. Then they were detained in a camp. Some asked me to send telegrams to their families to inform them that they were still alive but could not send any money. Because they send almost all their begging money, so that wife and children could live and survive in the village. For months, I tried everything to end their captivity, went to the mayor, magistrate and the highest judge of Benares and hired an Indian lawyer. But the matter proved to be extremely difficult.
One day I was interviewed, and the article was published in almost every Indian newspaper. As a result, the beggars were released in small groups. Finally free again, they pleaded with me not to return to my home country. During the same time, I met a Swiss doctor who told me that leprosy was treatable and gave me US$ 100. These US$ 100 became the cornerstone of my project, and I started the first street clinic for leprosy patients and their children with the support and help of a Western nurse.”
Of course, donations, helping hands and sponsors are always
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