Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Slavery In Chicago

The slave next door: Illinois police rescued a mentally challenged 15-year old girl from sexual servitude this week, after spotting her flagging down cars late at night, dressed by her traffickers in only a bra and fishnet stockings. The traffickers "both face charges of Involuntary Sexual Servitude of a Minor and Trafficking in Persons for Forced Labor or Services", according to Chicago's WGN news site:
The victim told officers that she was recruited by Petterson about three weeks prior to the incident. The victim also told officers the defendants would pick her up from her home and drive her to the West Side of Chicago to perform sex acts for money. The defendants would take all of the money the victim earned and provide her with marijuana and alcohol, according to the victim. She also told police that the defendants provided her with a cell phone and clothes to wear while she worked for them. The victim's cell phone was found to have Mondane's number programmed into it.

The defendants were arrested and appeared in court over the weekend, where bail was set at $150,000 for Petterson and $250,000 for Mondane. Preliminary hearings are set to begin for both defendants Aug. 23. If convicted, they face a maximum of 30 years in prison.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Germany: Women Enslaved By "Voodoo Oath"

Even when Nigerian women are freed from their traffickers and are rescued from lives of daily prostitution, their religious oaths often continue to bind them to their captors, as revealed in this frightful report from Germany:
The Nigerian trafficking networks frequently use a set of traditional beliefs, commonly referred to in the West as voodoo, to intimidate and manipulate their victims.

Belief in voodoo is very strong in parts of Nigeria, and the women are often forced to make an oath by one of the religion's priests, in which they swear obedience to their trafficker or pimp.

Ritha Ekweza has been through this process. She began working as a prostitute in Germany in September 2007. After being caught, she testified in court in Frankfurt against her sponsor.

After the trial, she explains with tears in her eyes how painful it was to have to recall everything she underwent during her time as a prostitute.

"It is not easy to stand and say something, but the thing is, when they bring the girls here, they will just tell them that everything is good, everything is easier, but when you come here it's not the same situation," said Ekweza. "They will bring you and take advantage of you."

Once Ekweza was brought to Europe, her traffickers informed her that she had to pay back some 60,000 euros ($82,000) to them for her flight and other expenses. She worked as a prostitute seven days a week, sometimes attending to more than 18 men a day, to pay off the debt.

In May 2008, she was jailed in Frankfurt for being an illegal prostitute. But together with police and a local women's rights NGO, she overcame her fear of breaking the voodoo oath. She now works as a hairdresser, and has started a family. She still receives counseling from a local NGO called FIM, or Women's Rights are Human Rights. Ekweza is one of more than 900 African women the organization serves as clients each year.

"We try to stabilize her, socially and psychologically," said Elvira Niesner, a coordinator with FIM. "We look [to make sure] that she feels secure. That is very important, and she will get the money from the officials to survive."

But the biggest challenge remains that of countering the belief in voodoo, which complicates efforts to stop human trafficking from Nigeria. Although police are able to help some women escape from the traffickers, most end up returning to prostitution.

They still want to fulfil their promise of paying back the 60,000 euros that they made in front of a priest in Nigeria.

German police conducted a lengthy investigation into a human smuggling network that had been ensnaring West African women and sexually exploiting them in Germany's brothels. Earlier this month 600 brothels were raided and police have rescued 100 women, some of them minors, who had been forced into lives of sexual servitude.

Prostitution is not illegal in Germany, although a January 2005 UK Telegraph story revealed there are moral nuances to just how acceptable the practice has remained since its legalization in 2002. The British paper reported that a German women receiving unemployment benefits had been threatened by the state that her benefits would be cut off if she refused an employment agency's directions to work in a brothel, one job being as good as another, if prostitution was on the same legal standing as secretarial work. Later that year Snopes, the "urban legend" debunking site, reported on the story themselves, and claimed the scandalous Telegraph article was a mis-representation (probably through mis-translation) of two earlier stories carried in the German press, leading to German accounts of hypothetical possibilities being treated as actual events.

According to a government spokesperson, the labor office "had decided not to be active in that market sector" since forcing jobs of that nature upon unemployed women might constitute an infringement of their rights.

Brothels "used other employment channels" anyway, the article reports employment agencies as saying... a loaded comment if ever there was one, given the never-ending challenge posed by human trafficking, and how appallingly common it is for women trapped in poverty to be placed in the even harsher chains of sexual exploitation.

If prostitution is indeed the world's "oldest profession", the enslavement of women for the purpose of prostitution is probably neck-and-neck for second place.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Pennsylvania Sex Slavery Ring Shut Down

The slave next door: women trafficked from Mexico and Ecuador have been rescued from brothels run by alleged Mexican drug dealers in the Pennsylvania borough of Norristown, a few short miles northwest of Philadelphia.

One woman was held captive at a brothel located just down the street from a neighborhood elementary school.

In a recent press conference the Montgomery County District Attorney described the large-scale drug and prostitution ring organized by five illegal aliens arrested in the case:

[District Attorney Ferman] said houses at 566 Kohn St. and 34 East Oak St. were used for prostitution, and she showed pictures of the sparsely furnished interiors. One small, partitioned room had a blanket hanging in place of a door. A single mattress took up most of the room’s modest floor space.

When the residences were raided in May [2009], two Mexican women were discovered at the Kohn Street house; a woman from Ecuador was inside the East Oak Street residence.

“This is the way these women were forced to live, but really, there is no privacy,” the DA said.

Saturdays and Mondays were the busiest times for the Norristown brothels, according to authorities. The men paid $30 to a doorman, who handed out tickets that the men gave the women, reports indicate.

Eventually, the prostitutes would exchange their accumulated tickets for $15 a piece, according to reports.

“On Monday, they would start with a fresh crop of girls,” Ferman said. “Fifteen minutes at a time.”

Hernandez-Garcia, Gonzales-Sosa and Guzman-Hernandez were allegedly employed by Castillo to run the day-to-day operations at the houses. The men controlled the women inside the residences and threatened them with violence, authorities allege.

“The women were beaten if they didn’t comply,” she said.

Castillo, who had been deported from the United States twice and returned, reportedy told investigators there was a “circuit” across the U.S. that exploited women as prostitutes. Many women are recruited unwittingly in Mexico with the promise of a better life in America, he reportedly said.

Bangladesh Nightmare: Children Stolen For Slavery, Body Parts, And Ritual Sacrifice

A bad dream from which there's currently little hope of waking: the nightmare story of how Bangladesh's poorest of poor street children are kidnapped by pitiless slavers into all kinds of horrors.

As reported in Scotland's Sunday Herald, the unfathomable laments from Dhaka's homeless women: "If We Fall Asleep The Gangs Steal Our Children":

Babu is four years old. [...] Three months ago he was kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken across the city by a man he had never seen before. Locked in a room for three days with little food or water, he was then sold for 4000 taka (about £35). [$55 CDN]
Babu is one of thousands of permanent pavement dwellers in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and the world’s most densely populated city. Official figures put the ­population at 14 million: on top of that, however, it is ­estimated that there are between 20,000 and 50,000 men, women and children living on the streets. [...]

As Babu tries to rest, a crowd gathers and a piercing wail begins. A distraught woman emerges from the darkness, a baby clutched to her chest, ­pleading for help and tugging at the clothes of those around her. “My daughter has gone,” she cries. “I have lost my five-year-old girl. Who has taken her? Have you seen her?” The crowd surges but the woman runs back into the night. We cannot find her. The ­onlookers seem unaffected. They say children regularly go missing.

Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, estimates that 400 women and children fall victim to trafficking in Bangladesh each month. Most are between the ages of 12 and 16 and are forced to work in the sex industry. Some become domestic slaves, and the boys are often taken to the Middle East and forced to be camel jockeys.

The annual report of the Pakistan-based organisation Lawyers For Human Rights And Legal Aid revealed that 4500 Bangladeshi girls are sold in Pakistan in a single year.

The pavement dwellers claim children are sometimes also stolen by religious cults for rituals and sacrifices and a report by the international organisation Ecpat (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) says they are sold for their organs and body parts, a claim backed by Unicef’s research.
Parents try to protect their children as well as they can. Mothers tie their toddlers to their bodies with their saris – little deterrent to the organised criminal gangs, known as mustans. One woman uses a padlock and chain.

Parents try to protect their children as well as they can. Mothers tie their toddlers to their bodies with their saris – little deterrent to the organised criminal gangs, known as mustans. One woman uses a padlock and chain.

Babu has no-one to tie himself to. His mother died of rabies and his father of asthma. Dhaka is one of the world’s most polluted cities and deaths from respiratory disease are particularly common on the street. The smog runs the length and breadth of the city, every road clogged with rickshaws, buses and cars. It chokes out the sun and blurs the sunset as yellow fog turns to grey. The pollution, the lack of clean water and the problems people have accessing even rudimentary medical care mean that skin disease, bronchitis and tuberculosis are commonplace.

The only respite from the noise and filth is from 9am to 5pm, when Babu can access one of Concern Worldwide’s nine day-centres across the city. The centres support more than 1000 pavement dwellers each day, offering a place for them to rest, wash and cook. Children under five are given nursery education and lunch, allowing their parents to work.

The centres also run savings schemes and encourage young people into vocational training courses to offer them an escape from the streets. The project is called Amrao Manush, meaning “we are people too” in Bengali – a name devised by the pavement dwellers themselves. This year Concern hopes to raise enough money to open night shelters for the most vulnerable, including pregnant women and children. It is at night that the children are normally stolen.

Sufia Begum’s son Shakil was taken seven months ago. He has not been seen since. “He was only four years old,” she says, tightening her grip on her baby daughter. “It was night and he said he was going to the toilet. He never came back. I ran around screaming, looking for him. [...]

“They say my son has been sold abroad. This happens often. Some children are stolen for the sex trade and others for their body parts. I know that religious people steal children for sacrifices and rituals.” She begins to sob. “I still look, but do not know how to find him,” she says.
Sufia gets about 100 taka (70p) a day from begging. Like the majority of the pavement dwellers, she has few possessions and no identity card, nor any chance of obtaining one without a birth certificate or address. Fewer than 10% of children in Bangladesh are registered at birth. This, coupled with high levels of police corruption, compounds the vulnerability of the pavement dwellers. Officials speak about them as if they are not citizens, not even human. [...]
[M]any of the pavement women, most of whom leave home before they are 10 years old, attribute themselves the surname Begum, which means Queen. As with Sufia, Ratna claims the name as her own. Now 21, she still remembers the bus she took with her stepmother, the confusion and noise of the city compared to village life in Shirazgonj, 250km away, and the shock of being sold to a Dhaka brothel for about 3000 taka (£25) [$35 CDN]. She was just six years old.

“It was terrifying,” she says. “I cried and cried. Three men visited my room for sex at the same time. Two other girls and I plotted our escape. After three months we bribed the gatemen and we ran away. I have been living on the street since then.”

Ratna, whose name means “ornaments”, sleeps all day at one of the Concern centres in order to be vigilant on the streets at night. “I have to stay awake to ensure my nine-month-old son, Jannati, is safe,” she says. “Two years ago my other baby boy was stolen. He was eight months old. I went straight to the police but they said I should not be a mother, that I should not have brought a child into the world because I am a pavement dweller. They beat me.”

[A] few metres away, in the shelter of a disused toilet block, Shati Begum lays out some newspapers and plastic on the ground before unfurling a colourful sari upon which she will sleep. Aged 25, she is seven months pregnant. Five months ago, her seven-year-old son was taken in the night. “We were sleeping next to each other,” she says. “I was so tired because of the pregnancy. When I awoke, he was gone.

“I was crying and looking for him. I went to the police straight away with a photograph but they said they were not interested and wouldn’t even write it down. They said that as a pavement person I had no identity and that they did not care. They said I needed an address and an identity card.”

Shati still carries the photograph of her son but has given up hope of finding him.

Friday, February 26, 2010

UK: Diplomatic Immunity Prevents Prosecutions For Modern-Day Slavery

Are UK-based foreign diplomats trafficking women into their London homes, only to treat the unsuspecting domestic workers as modern-day slaves? And can such high-level traffickers escape punishment for their exploitative acts by exploiting legal loopholes of "diplomatic immunity"?

Great Britain's Human Trafficking Centre has been presented with charges that servants are suffering horrific treatment at the hands of diplomats who stand accused of beating and sexually abusing their domestic workers. Kalayaan, an organization that provides support for migrant workers in the UK, has come forward with information of at least six such cases of individuals who "were moved across borders for exploitation by means of deception or coercion – the international definition of human trafficking."

"Many have been deceived about their working and living conditions, the salary they will receive and many are confined to the house and have their passports removed," said Jenny Moss, a community advocate for Kalayaan. "Sometimes they are threatened that if they run away, the police will put them in jail."

In each case, the workers were admitted to the UK legally under a domestic worker visa programme especially for diplomats which prohibits alternative employment outside the diplomatic mission. Diplomats and senior government figures who claim diplomatic status enjoy immunity from prosecution in the UK and no charges have been brought in any of the cases.

One employee for a Middle Eastern diplomat reported that she was forced to work 17-hour days doing all the cooking and cleaning as well as the nanny work without a day off or pay, that she was also subjected to violent attacks by the diplomat and his wife, and that she was barred from leaving the house for six months, except to buy milk.

"From the very first day I was treated like a slave, and it immediately became clear that the diplomat wanted more from me than just to look after his son. He sexually molested me and would become angry when I refused his advances," the worker told Kalayaan.

Kalayaan has brought several such cases to the attention of government authorities in the past year, only to see justice denied, due to diplomatic immunity:
Although the woman reported her allegations to police, they advised her that the couple could not be prosecuted because of their diplomatic status. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) contacted their embassy but were told that since they have returned to their home country they cannot be chased for the compensation payments ordered in January.
The domestic worker was 21 when she came to Britain. "From the first night I knew something was wrong," she said. "I was made to share a room with the diplomat and he came into my bed and touched me all over.
"I was so scared but I spoke no English and had no money and no phone. I was trapped. I was paid nothing, never allowed to leave the house, and only given scraps to eat.
"They made me get up at six to cook, clean and care for them and their children; I didn't get to bed until one in the morning. They treated me like dirt, throwing things at me, shouting at me and hitting me ... I hand-washed all their clothes until my hands were inflamed. If I didn't do what they asked they would beat me and smash my head against the wall. Every time I asked to go home they threatened me. They said they would destroy my passport and harm my family. I was terrified because I knew they could; they have power in my country."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rooting For Kari

There's a good reason for readers of this blog to pay attention to the Academy Awards this year, at least the short film category: one of the nominees for Best Live Action Short Film is KARI, a 17-minute offering by writer-director-producer Gregg Helvey on modern-day slavery in India.

At the film's official website, Helvey reveals some behind-the-scenes information on the origin of the project, and the the two-and-a-half years' work that went in to its creation:
After I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2001, I had a brief stint as a National Geographic Traveler, where I first learned that slavery still exists. The editor I was working for was starting a nonprofit targeting sex slavery in Eastern Europe. It blew my mind to hear the horrific stories of young women being sold into slavery. As I dug into research, I learned that the most prevalent yet least-known form of modern-day slavery is bonded labor. The majority of films I had seen exposed sex slavery and human trafficking, but there are very little on bonded labor. I read about some brick kilns in India and Pakistan where entire families are forced to make bricks in order to pay off “loans” they are tricked into taking. The slaves are forced to work through intimidation or violence and, if they attempt to escape, they are often beaten and then charged for the price of their bandages. If they do escape, then the loan givers will force extended family members to work in their relative’s stead. Often, the victims are both illiterate and innumerate, thus making it difficult to fully understand their own situation. These bogus loans can be passed down through generations, resulting in families who have only ever known a life of forced labor.

Hopefully, even if it doesn't win, the very nomination and mention during the high-profile Academy Awards will ensure greater exposure of the film, and especially of its subject matter.

The film is playing this week at Arizona's Sedona Film Festival, and at San Jose California's Cinequest Film Festival. In March the film will be screened at Nebraska's Omaha Film Festival,
San Francisco's Asian American Film Festival, and Fort Wayne Indiana's Winsong Pictures Film Festival.

(What, I wonder, does it say about our 500+ cable channel culture, that short films, Academy Award-nominated or otherwise, have so little market that they must make the rounds of film festivals in search of their audience?)

A big vote of thanks to the persevering Gregg Helvey for his work in bringing attention to the evil of modern-day slavery.

For more background on the cruelty of South-Asia's back-breaking brick-making industry, see this 2007 report by the New York Times.

For a recent story on the desperate measures kiln-workers in neighboring Pakistan are resorting to in order to escape the brick-making industry, read this harrowing report from last December.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Blind Eyes In Ireland

The slave next door: police have jailed the husband-wife controllers who were running a large prostitution ring encompassing almost 35 brothels across Ireland. The 70 prostitutes in their service included many women who had been trafficked into the Emerald Isle from Portugal, Venezuela, Brazil and Nigeria.

The court heard women would be sent from their home country with promises of education or steady jobs.
Women arrived in Ireland via Britain or mainland Europe and were "soon put to work" in rented apartments across Ireland.
The court was told they were frequently moved around flats to in different towns north and south of the border to provide punters with "variety".
Judge Neil Bidder QC told Carroll and Clark: "You made huge profits from the women who were exploited. You had no care for those women and you were both prepared to profit from their unhappy trade.
"You set up brothels all across the Republic and Northern Ireland, renting from unsuspecting landlords and moving women from brothel to brothel as your economic needs dictated."

Judge Bidder said that, though Clark and Carroll did not traffic women themselves they, "turned a blind eye."
He said: "If you choose to close your eyes to people who bring prostitutes into your business you must share some of the responsibility for their activity.
"It is more than a coincidence that several of the Nigerian women tell dreadful stories of coercion and all ended up working for you."

Using the internet and mobile phones, the couple had been able to move their headquarters from Ireland and supervise their organization from a small Welsh town, Castlemartin, in Pembrokeshire, in order to escape the growing scrutiny from Irish police.
They employed pimps in Ireland to run the brothels.
The women’s services were advertised on the internet. When men rang the Irish numbers on the sites, the phones were answered in Wales by Carroll and his wife, who directed punters to the Irish brothels.
The couple pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to control prostitution for gain and conspiracy to money-launder. Their daughter, a fourth-year law student, was charged with money-laundering. They were not, however, convicted of trafficking, as Judge Bidder explained during the sentencing:

"I'm not sentencing you for trafficking those women and accept you were unaware of the personal circumstance of the women who worked in your brothels and you were not responsible for any violence and threats of violence.
"But the Nigerian women who were threatened with dreadful coercion all ended up working for you.
"You did not ask and did not care what personal tragedies had befallen those women submitting for your profit. You were willing to exploit them."
Are we to believe that today's slaves are so invisible that even those that are exploiting them can be unaware of their existence? If someone is jailed for seven years, is that sufficient justice for cases like this:
Robert Davies, prosecuting, said the business had used foreign sex workers "so they would not have homes to go to at night".
The Nigerian women also underwent "terrifying and humiliating" rituals involving menstrual blood and killing chickens to "put the fear of death in them", Judge Neil Bidder was told.
Instead of the promised work as hairdressers and seamstresses, they were sent to apartments in the Republic and in the North and put to work as prostitutes. Some of the girls were as young as 15.
"They were cynically catapulted into a miserable existence and exploited," Mr Davies said.

For more on the evil of human trafficking in Ireland, see here.

Also please visit Ruhama, a Dublin-based NGO which works with women affected by prositution.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Upwards Climb

I appreciate radio talk show host Dennis Prager's weekly advice on happiness, courtesy of his Happiness Hour every Friday.

He suggests that since happy people make the world a better place, we therefore have a moral obligation to be happy.

Naturally, life being what it is, and human nature itself being what it is, this is not an easy duty to live up to. But if there's one change that's overtaken me as I've gotten older, it's coming around to share Dennis' belief about the moral obligation to not succumb to despair. If I could travel back in time to counsel my younger, perennially depressed self, I would do all I could to encourage this habit, of working to cheer oneself up.

If we're not genuinely happy, then at least we should act happy... because, often enough, that sincere effort is sufficient to be of service to us. It shifts us forward, ever so slightly. It helps us climb upwards, from out of the gloom, one step at a time.

Is there really any other way to overcome the inevitable grief, and suffering, that goes hand in hand with life's rare delights?

Our memory holds the key to happiness: to remember better times, to use those memories as the spark that lights a candle in darkness, and lifts us out of despair, through the imagined possibility of rejoicing, of learning to feel a renewed joy once again.

Friday, January 29, 2010

French Abolition Memorial Begins Construction

19th century French abolitionist Senator Victor Schoelcher is indirectly in the news this week, as France's city of Nantes is undertaking the construction of a large memorial near a pedestrian footbridge named in his honor.

The memorial is not dedicated to senator Schoelcher per se, but rather to the 1848 abolition of slavery in France's colonies, the movement he played such a large role in bringing to fruition.

There will be two parts to the abolition memorial; one, an esplanade walkway along the Loire river, several miles long, aligned with 2,000 stones, each bearing the name of a French ship that had participated in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The riverside trail will connect the forementioned Victor Schoelcher footbridge and the Anne-de-Bretagne bridge. A second, wooden pathway, described as a "meditative route", will be constructed on the slope just below the Quai de la Fosse.

This branch of the memorial has some controversy attached to it: significant work, at great cost, will have to be done to shore up the riverbank to secure the ground for the 426 foot pathway, in a section of the river prone to periodic flooding. Officials admit that it is likely that the expensive pathway will be submerged under water, and therefore closed to the public, several times a year.

The city says that a "closing protocol" is being established, where it will be someone's job every Monday morning to determined whether or not to leave open or to close the pathway to pedestrian traffic, depending on weather conditions and tidal predictions projected for that week.

The entire memorial project is expected to be completed in 2011.

[Translated from an article in the French online newspaper Press Ocean]

It's great to recognize historical events that remind us of our ability to change for the better, as from such signs we may find encouragement that such progress may continue in our own time, through our own efforts.
But: one can't help wishing that more of that money might instead be directed towards curbing slavery in modern-day France instead...
[image of the Pont Anne-de-Bretagne and my best guess for where the memorial project will be built, courtesy of Googlemaps]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Two Lessons

While reading Reverend Parker's 1883 history of the American abolitionist movement, "Acts of the Anti-Slavery Apostles" this week, I came across an arresting quote:
When some discerning Romans saw how many statues were reared in their city to persons of only indifferent merit, while Cato, one of their wisest and best, had none, they wondered. But the great man had answered the question beforehand:
"Better that posterity should ask why Cato has not a monument, than why he has."
That anecdote seemed to put into focus some half-formed ideas I had been thinking about, on what I've learned since I started blogging about the scourge of modern-day slavery. From all the reading and researching, come two lessons learned.

Lesson One: The numbers involved are no longer quite so abstract.

The daily deluge of news stories that Google Alerts sends into my mailbox has made me much more able to visualize the mathematical abstraction of the number 27,000,000. (That's the calculated number of human beings undergoing various forms of enslaved labor, today, right now.)

It's a staggering total, but I think its true horror is hidden by our inability to comprehend such figures in concrete forms. It's a number outside of our experience. We've been in crowds of dozens of people at parties, so that's a number we "see" quite clearly. Same with hundreds, or thousands, even tens of thousands; we've all been to theaters, churches and sports stadiums, so larger numbers like these are within reach of our imagination. But "millions"? What does a "million people" look like? It's inconceivable.

If you point to my neighbor's lawn, and tell me that there are 7 million blades of grass contained within it, but quickly confess that you were only kidding, that in truth the number was actually almost four times that amount, at 27 million... I'd be unable to feel deceived: I simply can't put a mental picture to such numbers. You might as well have said there were 27 billion blades of grass on that lawn. It's an abstraction that has no shape.

Well, after two months' worth of daily deposits of stories of modern day slavery, from all around the world, such previously unimaginable numbers start to take clear shape indeed. When every day's revelations include stories of 3 teenage sex slaves found in Texas, 54 Burmese laborers rescued in Thailand, 200 children liberated in India, and more, these numbers add up over time like a crowd emerging out of a fog, until the immensity of a number like one million starts to assume a ghastly form.

When one is too many, when twenty is monstrous, the sound of millions of chains is deafening. May the day soon come when this sound is heard by more, by all, so that by our numbers we can gather the will and the strength to break these chains.

Lesson two has to do with another number: the delightful surprise in discovering the incredible number of heroes who succeed in rescuing men, women and children from enslavement on a daily basis.

As it says in my blog's sidebar, it was through reading the journals of obscure 1820s-'30s abolitionist Benjamin Lundy that I was motivated to start chronicling the various stories I was finding online about the scope of modern-day slavery. Lundy's was a solo voice when he began his abolitionist work, not one in a choir; Lundy's journey started off as a solitary walk, not marching at the front of a crowd; yet he persevered on, despite the unimaginable odds stacked against him.

How much less hopeless things must be today! I had no idea that there are so many heroes who toil day after day to identify, to rescue, and to help, those slaves shackled to modern-day chains. (Please visit them in my "Breaking The Chains Today" link section in the sidebar!)

Friend Lundy had to stand in opposition to his own government, in addition to the slave-owners and slave-traders; his mission placed him against his own society. Today, in theory, there are no nations that still legalize slavery. The slave traders are criminals, not businessmen. The odds are on our side, that an end can be conceived, a day can now come that the chains of slavery may be somehow broken, and that all may taste freedom. The victories of today's abolitionists need to be heard, if we are to find the most valuable resource needed in the fight against slavery: hope. The hope that this second lesson brings almost balances out the despair brought by the first.

It's been the greatest surprise I've received since I began my research, because these heroes tend to be just as hidden to our eyes as the evil they fight against. Why is such goodness kept such a secret?

Where are the honors, for example, for the wonderful team of doctors led by Dr. Jeff Barrows who are headed to Nicaragua to care for the rescued former prostitutes sheltered at the House Of Hope?

Where are the medals for heroes like Charlotte Salasky for her work in helping rescued sex slaves in Cambodian shelters organized by the Somaly Mam Foundation, as they provide medical attention and vocational training for their young charges?

Where are the red carpets for the Australian former police officer whose quick-thinking rescued a 10-year old and 14-year old Vietnamese girl from the nightmare of sexual exploitation?

Where are their monuments?

In the smiles of those they've served, that's where; smiles animated by the previously unimagined possibility of better tomorrows.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hearing The Chains Of Modern-Day Slavery In Montana

Inspiring story out of Montana. High school student Tierney Strandberg steps up and teaches us all about the difference even one person can make to change the world, by changing one mind at a time.

The beginning of the journey sounds innocuous enough: the young student read a book while she was home sick. Yet that book seems to have left its mark on her, giving her a sense of mission that she probably didn't expect to find when she started it. Not for the first time, random chance introduced someone to the problem of modern-day slavery, and an unexpected passion was ignited by a surprising source.

Somaly Mam, enslaved as a child prostitute in Cambodia at the age of 12, had written about her decade-long half-life in South-East Asian brothels, as well as her efforts on behalf of girls still trapped in sexual slavery, in her 2008 book "The Road of Lost Innocence” (now in paperback). From her foundation's website:

Written in exquisite, spare, unflinching prose, The Road of Lost Innocence recounts the experiences of her early life and tells the story of her awakening as an activist and her harrowing and brave fight against the powerful and corrupt forces that steal the lives of these girls. She has orchestrated raids on brothels and rescued sex workers, some as young as five and six; she has built shelters, started schools, and founded an organization that has so far saved more than four thousand women and children in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.
Montana high school student Tierney Strandberg said that after finishing the memoir she was "overwhelmed", eager to do something, anything, to help:

“I knew as an International Baccalaureate student, I would have access to people who would help,” Strandberg said. “People are interested [in international issues] and they have power in the school to do something about it.”
Then a further coincidence occurred. Shortly after her return to school, a representative of the Flathead Abolitionist Movement asked if the group that Strandberg was involved with could show “Call + Response,” a documentary about the global slave trade, at the school.

“I just about jumped out of my seat,” [coordinator Genia Allen-Schmid] said. “I said, ‘We have a student who wants to do this very thing.’”

Strandberg leapt at the opportunity to get involved with the abolitionist group. She started a corresponding student group, FAM at FHS, and has worked tirelessly to help the community group find ways to get high school students involved in the cause.
Strandberg is in a unique position of being able to raise awareness about human trafficking nearly every weekend. She is a member of Flathead’s speech and debate team, and her original oratory speech is all about modern-day slavery.

“It’s really cool to give my speech all over the state every weekend,” Strandberg said. “I’m trying to cultivate awareness. It’s really hard to realize as a teenage girl that this is happening all over the world — and people don’t know. Really, people don’t know.”

The judges who hear her speech are often shocked, she said. Judges give feedback on speeches, and Strandberg’s comments have ranged from, “I can’t believe I didn’t know about this,” to “You need to be president.”

Strandberg said she is just glad for the opportunity to raise awareness about such an important topic.

“I’m not necessarily changing the world, but I am making a difference, if even a small one,” she said. “I really believe in the power of one.”
How does that old expression put it...: "Being the Right Person, at the Right Place, at the Right Time"... When I was Ms. Strandberg's age I would have interpreted that saying to mean that favorable chance and good fortune are out of our control, yet hers is a case study in how one's own self-initiative, the spark of taking action, ennobles us to become the Right Person, it puts us at the Right Place, it assists us in finding the Right Time.

God Bless you, young lady, for believing you can make a difference: that belief has to come first, if the difference is to come later.

[An equally inspiring story of Illinois teenagers embracing the challenge to raise awareness of modern-day slavery, here.]

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti Tragedy

Some links on the awful aftermath of Haiti's earthquake.

The scope of the problem:

The devastation included the parliament, the cathedral, the only two fire stations, hospitals and schools, the tax office, the prison and the headquarters of the United Nations mission, which had been trying to build a nation out of a failed state.

Video of the earthquake. Frightful.

Fevil Dubien, an aid worker, said some people were almost fighting over the water that he handed out from a truck in a northern Port-au-Prince neighbourhood.

Security was the biggest problem, Delfin Antonio Rodriguez, the rescue commander from the neighbouring Dominican Republic, told the AFP news agency.
"Yesterday they tried to hijack some of our trucks. Today we were barely able to work in some places because of that."

The history of Haiti's poverty, and the state of the nation in the wake of a parade of dictatorships, especially the recent father-and-son kleptocracy that embezzled 80% of Haiti's international aid:

[W]hat has really left Haiti in such a state today, what makes the country a constant and heart-rending site of ­recurring catastrophe, is its history. In Haiti, the last five centuries have combined to produce a people so poor, an infrastructure so nonexistent and a state so hopelessly ineffectual that whatever natural disaster chooses to strike next, its impact on the population will be magnified many, many times over. Every single factor that international experts look for when trying to measure a nation's vulnerability to natural disasters is, in Haiti, at the very top of the scale. Countries, when it comes to dealing with disaster, do not get worse.

"Haiti has had slavery, revolution, debt, deforestation, corruption, exploitation and violence," says Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian and writer... "Now it has poverty, illiteracy, overcrowding, no infrastructure, environmental disaster and large areas without the rule of law. And that was before the earthquake..."
A smart response to Pat Robertson dumb explanation of Haiti's historical poverty.
Tragic aftershocks of a different kind: Adoptions of Haitian children thrown into chaos.
Normally, these adoptions must be approved by a Haitian court. But the government building that houses the offices that process the applications is reportedly in ruin, and there are reports that the Haitian judge who signs off on adoptions has been killed.
Dana and her husband, Ryan, recently visited Haiti to spend time with Carmalisa and sign some legal documents; since the adoption still didn't have final approval, they returned to Canada without her.
The Smids heard quickly the child was unharmed but the Haitian judge in charge of the adoption wasn't so lucky, he was killed. They now worry the paperwork could also have been lost, which could force them to start all over again.
"We wait so long and its been so emotional and we fought so hard to get her home," said Dana. "The thought of having to do that all again and leave my daughter there breaks my heart."

It's incredible to discover just how many charitable organizations were already operating in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. The good often do their work in humble obscurity. Unfortunately, that goodness of heart did not spare them from the natural disaster: Food For The Poor Missions Director Hospitalized After Being Buried Alive 17 Hours Beneath Rubble:

[Food For The Poor’s Missions and Travel Director, Leann Chong], had lain trapped for 17 hours beneath 3-feet of concrete, chin tucked and face to the floor, since the 7.0-magnitutde earthquake hit the struggling country on Tuesday evening.
Chong was on the second floor of the Hotel Montana in PĂ©tionville at the time of the quake. She was in Haiti leading a mission trip, which included 12 students and two faculty advisors from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
There are six from the group who are still unaccounted for.

..."It is truly heartbreaking what is happening in Haiti. Hearing Leann, and the students who were found are all alive brings us much joy, ” said Robin Mahfood, President/ CEO of Food For The Poor. ”I know she is tremendously worried, as are we, for those who remain missing. Our hearts and prayers go out to their families and to all of Haiti.”

I pray that those in need may find sufficient strength of will to endure the ongoing tragedy in Haiti, and as this article reminds us, prayers are also needed for those who wait for positive news of their missing loved ones.

Praying For Haiti's 300,000 Child Slaves

Haiti was last in the news a month ago, as many media organizations carried stories on the tragedy of that island's high number of child slaves: as many as 300,000 of Haiti's 2 million children are believed to be enslaved as household servants... and worse. Now the beleaguered nation is back in the headlines, with news of the dreadful earthquake that struck near the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Child slaves in Haiti are called Restaveks (derived from the French "reste avec", or "stay with"), and a majority of Haiti's enslaved children were being kept as property by wealthier Haitians in the areas hardest hit by the earthquake. About a third of the island's total population were living near the epicenter of the quake.

The suffering of the disaster's survivors has been compounded by worries we can only imagine; the fate of their families, the fate of their friends, and the weakening of the many organizations pledged to help them escape their lives of poverty and servitude, as well as the death of so many individuals engaged in charitable efforts to help them.

Many of the schools, medical centers, orphanages and other shelters painstakenly created for Haiti's rescued child slaves, seem to have been damaged when not destroyed, and now must be rebuilt.

There are many videos and interviews with former and current restaveks online, and this week we watch them with new eyes as we wonder about the fate of those testifying to the hell on earth existence they had to live with even before the added tragedy imposed by the earthquake. Will the aftermath of this week's aftershocks send them back into chains, or is this the hammer blow that can bring freedom to Haiti's slaves, once and for all?

Godspeed to them in their time of need, God Bless those working so selflessly to assist them through these dark days, may we all do as we can to help ensure that a ray of light will emerge out of the cloud of darkness that has descended over the island of Haiti.

[Photo of destroyed church courtesy of Missionary Ventures]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Starvation, Torture, Murder: Life As A Maid In Today's Middle East

The headline is horrific: "Saudi Throws Kenyan Maid Out Of Top Floor Window".

Sadly, the story that accompanies it is merely the latest addition to the ongoing revelation of the cruel exploitation faced by migrant workers in the oil-rich Middle East, and the especially vicious treatment of their household servants.

The news report details several incidents of Kenyan women suffering in their role as Shakala, "house-help", in Saudi Arabia. The tragic case referred to in the headline alleges that she was pushed off the third floor while hanging out clothes on a clothesline. "You are better off dead", she claims she heard her employer say right before he shoved her out the building; luckily she landed in a nearby pool rather than on the pavement, although the fall caused her to be hospitalized nevertheless. She says that while she was employed there, the man's children had often sexually exploited her. Enduring the labor for five months, she had only been paid for one.

Other Kenyan maids reveal more of the inexplicably sadisistic treatment they suffered at the hands of their employers: one woman was reduced to eating dog food to sustain herself, after working for 22 hours a day and receiving so little food for her labors. They say that they know of 100 other Kenyan women who are now homeless in Jeddah, stranded after being dismissed from their jobs.

“Their children insult us. We were never let out of the house and for the three months I was there [in Jeddah], I did not see the sun. I only saw it when I landed in Nairobi. I fainted on alighting,” she said.

These stories are not rare, but they differ in their degrees of misery. A Phillipino woman was punched, kicked and beaten with nightsticks and steel tubes, at a police station no less, by her employer and his sons. A particularly extreme case was reported back in 2007, where an Indonesian housemaid was so badly beaten and tortured by the Saudi married couple that abused her that she had to have her hands and feet amputated.

In the face of such a despairing existence, many of the immigrant workers choose suicide as the lesser of evils. Neighboring Kuwait is seeing a wave of suicides and attempts at suicide; examples include a Sri Lankan housemaid tried to kill herself by drinking detergent, while another hung herself after going months without receiving any pay for her work. A woman of unidentified origin grew so despondant that she poured gasolene over herself and set herself on fire as a final act of escape. (A photo gallery of examples of the appalling living conditions that trapped servants are forced to live under has been posted here.)

Last September, the nation of Indonesia grew so concerned over the treatment of its citizens at the hands of Kuwaitis, that it banned its women from working there as maids. The ban is now being tentatively lifted after the signing of a "Memorandum of Understanding", promising better treatment of foreign workers in Kuwait. A similar ban had been in place to Saudi Arabia, after the Indonesian embassy received hundreds of complaints of torture, mostly from housemaids.

330 Sri Lankan maids were reported to have died in the region in 2009, according to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE). How many Indians, Philipinos, Indonesians, Pakistanis, and Kenyans will end up being added to the total?

[Thanks to the valiant Migrant Rights website for many of the links in this post]

US Abolitionists: 19th Century Bloggers

When I first found and started to read the early 19th Century abolitionist newspapers of Benjamin Lundy ("The Genuis Of Universal Emancipation"), and William Lloyd Garrison's "The Abolitionist", I was struck by how much these 1820s and 1830s weekly and monthly journals felt like our modern-day blogs.

The formats are remarkably similar: Lundy and Garrison collected stories from regional (and occasionally, international) newspapers that related to their journals' themes, acting more as editors than reporters, much as bloggers do today (It was part of the "rules of the game" that editors shared their newspapers with each other through mailed subscriptions, and that proper credit would be given when one editor would reprint a story originally appearing in another's journal, exactly how linked stories are handled today); readers wrote in with their comments and observations, and their letters in turn were commented upon by the editor; meetings were "live-blogged" by having their minutes published in subsequent journal entries...
It seems the urge to blog on a theme of personal interest is "something old made new again".

I see that I'm not the first to make this observation; I'm in the middle of reading Merton L. Dillon's 1974 book, "Abolitionists: The Growth Of A Dissenting Minority", and while searching this morning for more information on the author, I came across this 2005 exchange between Professor Dillon and a former student of his, on the amazing resemblance between abolitionist journals and blogs.
Dillon compares the work of early abolionist writers to their modern-day counterparts, and perceptively concludes on a hopeful note that hadn't occured to me:

The problem, then, in an age lacking popular print or other conduits of information, was how to reach like-minded people. How can such people find each other? How can random and inchoate ideas be gathered from these sympathetic but disparate people and molded into an acceptable, rationally consistent program? Interchange of thought must be the process. What shall be the agency?

Beginning around 1820 small, shoestring newspapers began the process. [Benjamin] Lundy's [The Genius of Universal] Emancipation was one of the first and most long-lasting. Lundy sent his paper where he thought it might be welcomed. He printed exposes of the slave systen and proposed remedies. He invited readers to contribute their ideas. Later, [William Lloyd] Garrison did the same. The remedies were as varied as the critiques.

It took a while before antislavery advocates found each other and developed something like a community. It took still longer for them to forge a program. It is not ungenerous to conclude that, despite all their writing, all their speaking, all their conferring, they never were able to set forth a program for abolitionism that all opponents of slavery found acceptable, but they did create a society or community.
How do people find each other? Bloggers in quite systematic and lightning-speed fashion are taking advantage of the opportunities technology has given them to speed and share ideas and, potentially, to create societies all with a facility Abolitionists could not have dreamed of.