The man who makes the shoes: Dukhi’s inspiring story
“Making shoes for children with disabilities is a noble job,” shares Dukhi, a craftsman and shoemaker who works at the Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children (HRDC), MiracleFeet’s partner in Nepal. Dukhi is one of approximately 30 staff at HRDC who are also former patients.
Dukhi’s daily task is an important one: making custom boots for the foot abduction braces children undergoing clubfoot treatment wear during the last stage of care. After measuring each little foot, Dukhi skillfully trims the raw leather, punches holes for laces with his awl, and carefully stitches together the material. It’s a well-respected job, something he never imagined he could have, but also incredibly meaningful. Dukhi himself was born with clubfoot in eastern Nepal and lived with the condition, and the shame and stigma it carried, for nearly a decade.
The resolve to find treatment
Dukhi grew up in Itahari, a small town in southeastern Nepal near the India border. “I had no idea what it meant to be disabled when I was very little,” he says tracing a small foot pattern on black leather. “And my parents had no idea that my disability was treatable, so it was left as is.”
“The villagers used to say that I would never get married or be able to work,” he recalls. “They teased me and called me names. They treated me badly and even wanted to oust me from the village.”
Because of his disability, Dukhi did not have a typical childhood. Instead of attending school, he started working when he was very young cleaning restaurants and doing other small maintenance jobs. The positions paid very little and were physically taxing, especially for a young boy with bilateral clubfoot. They did, however, provide some income – as well as something unexpected: a dream of a better life and the resolve to make it happen.
It was this fortitude mixed with a fortunate encounter with a community outreach worker that changed Dukhi’s life forever.
Ganga Ram was working as part of HRDC’s extensive field program staffed by community outreach workers who traverse the country seeking children in need of clubfoot treatment when he heard about Dukhi and went to visit him at his house.
He explained to Dukhi and his parents that clubfoot could be treated, without elaborate surgery and at no cost to the family, but his parents were unconvinced and declined help. It wasn’t until a few years later when Dukhi was doing maintenance work at a small hotel that he again crossed paths with Ganga Ram. This time, he approached Dukhi directly and asked simply: do you want your feet to be straightened? And this time Dukhi answered: yes.
Dukhi was only ten, and had already experienced the severe shame, stigma, and isolation of living with clubfoot. The idea of living a different life with two straight feet seemed almost unimaginable, but Dukhi took the clinic address Ganga Ram handed him and, despite skepticism from his parents, began treatment soon after.
Hope Becomes Him
Incredibly, after receiving treatment, Dukhi’s dream of living a life unincumbered by clubfoot was now a reality. He got a job at a motorcycle garage making a much better income than he had cleaning restaurants and hotels. He stayed in touch with Ganga Ram, and about two years after completing treatment, Ganga Ram approached him once again, but this time with an offer to work as a shoemaker at HRDC. Dukhi loved the idea of helping children at the same facility that helped him and immediately accepted.
“HRDC not only treated my legs but gave me a job as well,” shares Dukhi threading his sewing machine. “The villagers used to say I would not get a job even after my legs were treated, but HRDC not only gave me a job, but also money for my studies.”
Profoundly grateful for his transformed feet—and life—Dukhi hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be ridiculed because of a disability. “I try to help others understand that the disabled are not to be mistreated. They need our help and support.”
Every year, HRDC treats over 20,000 children with physical disabilities, including about 500 with clubfoot. They employ a wholistic model based on removing barriers to care and creating a compassionate, inclusive, and caring environment where all children have equal access to opportunities and the best possible quality of life.
The name Dukhi means sorrow in Hindi, but the staff at HRDC now call him Amal, meaning hope. He is a transformed person in so many ways, but through it all, consistently grateful.
Dukhi is now married with two young daughters – another dream he once thought impossible. “I used to wish for normal legs so that I could earn a living and lead a happy life. Now that I have been treated, my wish has been fulfilled.”