I was at the Made By Survivors office, when I noticed the Empowerment Pendant for the first time. The heart and hand stood out to me as simple elegance that child or adult could wear. I immediately visualized placing one around my 8 year old daughter's neck to communicate that she should love herself and also love others by giving them a helping hand.
Human Trafficking Survivors
To me, none of these are girls are forgettable. You meet and work with these special girls who have survived the worst human rights atrocities and they stay with you forever. Sometimes it is because of their story, sometimes it is their personality and attitude whether it is difficult, or inspirational, or comical, or gracious, or dedicated, or sometimes it is their perseverance, and many times a combination. A survivor I am really in awe of is Kate who resides at Rescue Foundation and is all of the above.
Kate, approximately 17 years old, 4 foot 10 inches, and painfully cute is amazingly on many levels. When our jewelry program began at Boisar, with my extremely limited Hindi, she would communicate with me a lot by using the couple of words I knew. She would say, “Chota” all the time which means small. Well, yes, jewelry is small and we make small loops, drill small holes, and she is small and she would just say it all the time. About what she was making, about herself, about little children, flowers, what have you, using big hand movements when she talks like a New York Italian. “Kitna chota hay?!” “Chota, chota.” “Mai Choti hu, Ap bari hay.” (How small it is?! Small, small. I am small you are big). We would all be laughing me, Kate, the other girls too, my translator; she is just funny.
Not to mention, Kate is dedicated, talented and good at everything she does: she is picking up English, great at jewelry, gold medaled 5 times at karate competitions (the best at Rescue Foundation), lastly she has an impeccable moral compass and doesn’t get caught up in the nonsense, so to speak. With over 120 teenagers, there is frequent nonsense.
After I taught her jewelry for a couple of months, I learned her story: trafficked by some she knew to a brotheI in Mumbai for about three days until she asked to go to the toilet where she escaped through a barred window, found a police officer and returned to the scene to free three friends. This tiny hero later testified against her trafficker, a very rare thing; she is an extremely brave young woman. I often find myself daydreaming about what her life (and all the survivors’ lives) would be like if she hadn’t been born to a tragically poor family and then kidnapped from them and sold to brothel.
Kate has been in the Boisar Jewelry Program since its inception a year ago. My Kolkatan colleague at Made By Survivors, Doel Basu who regularly travels to Boisar to manage the program also knows how special Kate is. Upon my arrival this trip in Kolkata, Doel informed me Kate had finally received her orders from Indian Court to be transferred from Rescue Foundation Boisar to a Shelter Home in Kolkata. The goal is for her to be repatriated with her family, when and if possible. I know how badly Kate wanted this and how desperate she is to be reunited with her mother and father so I am immediately very happy for her.
Then, my motivations went completely selfish: Will I see her this trip, and if I don’t, can I ever see her again? Will she be able to work and make jewelry and earn money? Is she just going to fade into the quagmire of Indian red tape? I know how badly she wants to help her family and contribute. What shelter home is she going to? To get more information about whether she will be at RF by the time I get there, Doel calls a teacher at the school there. Doel discovers the time frame and that the President of Rescue Foundation is going to Court finalizing her transfer and the teacher relays what shelter home she is going to and it is not Women’s Interlink Foundation (WIF). It sounds like a done deal.
Terrible news in my estimation, it is not the amazing organization we partner with; my heart sinks. If Kate went to WIF she would be with our survivors, Doel and Soma almost every day, and under the caring watch of Paul Suit, our Asia Program Manager and Aloka Mitra, Founder and President of WIF. And, now I am a jeweler in an Indian quagmire of shelter homes with no previous relationship and the hang ups of the Indian Court system.
A bit of good fortune, Paul had already booked a dinner later that night with the amazing Aloka Mitra, just to catch up since my last trip. Before dinner, Paul and I talk about Kate’s ability to work at our CCH Jewelry Studio at WIF, coming from another shelter home and we know it’s dicey. Mrs. Mitra, for excellent reasons, is very strict with girls working at her studio who don’t live at one of her homes. Security needs to be tight; all it talks is one cell phone and some phone numbers snuck in from the outside world to compromise the safety of over 80 young women and little girls. Traffickers are always on the prowl for girls at shelter homes, they remain vulnerable to being enslaved again. We quickly realize Kate would need to full transfer to Mrs. Mitra’s custody at one of her homes to be able to pursue jewelry in Kolkata. But, will Mrs. Mitra take Kate and is there even space for her at the homes?
At dinner that night after small talk, I am pretty much bursting at the seams, feeling the time crunch and sweating the whole situation. I mean we haven’t even broached the whole aspect of possibly changing Indian Court Orders. So, after I blurt out everything about Kate and how special she is and her story, the regal Mrs. Mitra just patiently listens and when I’m finished, throws up her hands and says, “Well, my dear, why don’t you just transfer her to me!” While my shock persists, she proceeds to tell us everything we need to do, and what letters she will write to provide in Court. Aloka, then says she is happy take ANY girls from RF who are being transferred back to their home state of West Bengal in either one of her two Kolkata homes, or, the new one she is building in Jailpaguri (and the location of our third jewelry studio). What?! Amazing! Now we just need to hope that there is enough time to do something about Kate.
Upon getting home from what will go down in my world as the best dinner ever, I immediately contact Triveni Acharya, President of Rescue Foundation, a wonderful and incredibly busy woman. Mrs. Acharya tells me what documents she needs and that yes, she would go to Court and transfer Kate! Surmising she wants the best for Kate and this work situation is fantastic, and surely a great building block for the rest of her life. Lastly, considering the Court’s prioritization on ability to work and earn, Mrs. Acharya’s impression was that the Court should be okay with the transfer, too. We also let Mrs. Acharya know about Mrs. Mitra’s willingness to take any girls headed that direction and Mrs. Acharya was thrilled to hear of it and have more options, as unfortunately, so many girls are trafficked out of West Bengal.
I’m in complete disbelief. This is India, nothing can be THAT easy. Not only did love and teamwork keep Kate under our collective wing, but, it laid the ground work for more transfers which will keep talent in our jewelry program and allow the survivors to earn in jewelry working. Their ability to work helps to ensure their continued success, and ultimately, freedom in life. When we contacted John and Sarah, Made By Survivors’ Founder and CEO they were over the moon as this was their dream all along: to have a program that supports these survivors as they are moved around. I mean everyone won in this situation; it’s just so amazing and far too rare.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and Kate is now living and working at WIF in Kolkata and Team India is helping her acclimate to her new situation. Kate is so grateful and would tell me every day before I left India. I’m also so grateful and I tell Mrs. Acharya and Mrs. Mitra every time I communicate with them. One day, hopefully, Kate will be in a situation to move home and be able to commute to work but in the meantime, she’ll have excellent care and folks who know her looking out for her well being on a daily basis. And, selfish me gets to see Kate, every time I return to India.
Friday October 28th
Diwali celebrations still continue throughout the city. Every night people head to their roof tops or out into the street to set off an impressive display of fireworks. The city is truly a site to behold when everyone is lighting up the night sky with sparklers and fireworks worthy of a July 4th celebration in America. The festival season is winding down which means cool temperatures will soon follow.
Sunday October 30th
There is a tall wall, topped with barbed wire at one the best shelters in Calcutta for survivors of human trafficking. Many visitors have asked why they need to keep the survivors behind a wall. Show up at night and you will see why. Human traffickers gather outside the wall, tossing notes and even cell phones over to the young women.
I can only attempt describe how wonderful it is to be reunited with the survivors in our jewelry programs in both, Kolkata and Boisar, India. There is inspirational evolution with both the survivors, and, the program itself, and there are milestones being reached at both studio locations. It's always such a pleasure for me to be a witness to such things and these are the things I will treasure forever, even the one's that deliver a bit of backhanded emotional slap to the face.