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On a Wing, a Prayer and Generosity of Many a Good Soul: Story of Raphael


“When I came to Raphael it was evening and there were long shadows from the Sal trees, which have tall slender trunks and the brightest of green leaves. From somewhere behind the trees I could hear children singing. In the distance the foothills of the Himalayas were turning pink in the evening sun. There was an overwhelming feeling of peace.” (Norman Potter, London Fleet Street photographer)
Raphael, the Ryder Cheshire International Centre at Dehradun, for the relief of suffering, is named after the Archangel of Healing. It stands on 24 acres of forest land, leased to it on the recommendations of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Set up by Group Captain Lord Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM, DSO**, DFC, and his wife Baroness Sue Ryder of Warsaw, CMG, OBE as their joint mission 60 years ago, it marked the dawn of a new era for persons with disabilities in what was to become the State of Uttarakhand.
Leonard Cheshire was one of the most remarkable men of his generation. As the designated RAF observer on board the Enola Gay, the US Air Force aircraft that dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki, he was witness to the devastation on an unparallel scale.
“… by a strange coincidence… the work to which this relates had its beginnings in the atom bomb, the bomb which fell on Nagasaki and destroyed the city and its population …” (Ava Dhar)
Discharged from the RAF on medical grounds at the end of the war and possessing a large empty mansion in Hampshire, he was persuaded to take in Arthur Dykes, a 75 year old, terminally ill cancer patient to free the much needed bed space in a hospital and provide the patient a place to live and die with dignity. For Cheshire, looking after Dykes was a life changing experience. Cheshire accepted two more people with disabilities and then there were more. People came to help and donations began to arrive. This was the start of his Foundation – The Cheshire Home, involuntary and unplanned. Cheshire went on to become the Founder of 270 ‘Homes’ in 48 countries, for the dying and the disabled.
Born into a privileged family in 1923, Sue Ryder was greatly influenced through her entire life by her mother and by the age of 15 years she had breathed in a humanitarian way of being. By the time war was declared, she was already looking for opportunities to make a difference to the lives of those unable to help themselves. She was done with school at 16 and joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) in 1939.
After the war, Sue Ryder went to work with a range of relief organisations amongst the millions of sick, homeless and destitute all over Europe as well as other parts of the world. In 1953, she registered the Sue Ryder Foundation, a living memorial that serves the progressive purpose for the relief of suffering.
In 1955, Sue was invited to see a home for disabled people in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, and met Leonard Cheshire for the first time. She had no idea, at that time, that this man whose home she was visiting had witnessed the dropping of the bomb.
In 1957, Cheshire who was travelling to India invited Sue Ryder to join him. Together they visited the Homes Cheshire had founded in previous years. The work done by their two charities differed – Cheshire Homes were intended mainly for the physically handicapped, whereas the Foundation cared for a wider range of age groups, doing social and relief work, and visiting prisons. But both had been established for the relief of suffering. They decided to look for a place to set up their first joint project – they built a new home, at Dehradun, by the River Rispana named ‘Raphael’. Despite no money, Leonard and Sue agreed on one matter: together they would create a Ryder-Cheshire Foundation and call it the Ryder-Cheshire Mission for the Relief of Suffering.
Here they decided to create a centre that would look after the “mentally handicapped children, spastic children, healthy children whose parents, because of illness or poverty, could not care for them, and cases of leprosy.”(Sue Ryder)
During that time, leprosy affected people were shunned and pushed out of their villages into colonies where they begged; some managed to survive, many did not. A few small houses were set up and a few leprosy patients and their children moved into these homes. The other group of users consisted of children with mental or physical disabilities, brought by relations or found abandoned on the streets.
In February, 1959, Ryder and Cheshire got engaged and were married on 5 April, 1959 in Bombay. After the wedding, they came back to Dehradun, to Raphael where there was no money, no water, no roads and little progress. They then went to Australia and New Zealand, as fund raising was urgent given that Raphael was growing and was hungry for resources.
Sue Ryder enjoyed fairly good health into her 70’s but Cheshire did not. In 1988, his health began to deteriorate and he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. In May 1991, he wanted to make a final visit to Raphael and he and Sue travelled with their children to India. Cheshire was in a wheelchair most of the time, but as he and Sue were about to leave Raphael, he stood up, knelt and kissed the ground in front of him, a moving memorable gesture. His condition worsened and in July 1992 he had a fatal heart attack.
Sue Ryder had thrown herself back into work but by 1998, Sue Ryder’s health began to cause problems. In November 2000, she died from multi-organ failure, septicaemia and Crohn’s disease.
Raphael became one of the biggest and most successful homes that either Cheshire or Ryder had founded. Over the years, it has taken on people with different disabilities and needs, provided treatment, friendship and education to many and attracted numerous volunteers.
“To see ahead Raphael’s gateway arch is a special moment for arriving travellers – it is journey’s end and a warm welcome is waiting…”