Next week I will be speaking at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis, alongside 2014 Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who has helped over free over 60,000 children from slavery.
Many of the children Kailash has rescued were enslaved in carpet loom factories, a brutal industry in which 300,000 children are ensnared. These children often do not see the light of day for months or years. Their small fingers are prized for making the tiny, elaborate knots of Oriental rugs. Traffickers promise their parents that the children will be educated, will work part-time, and will be able to send money home. Many of those parents never see their children again. Children work from morning to night, and sometimes sleep chained to their looms. Many do not survive.
On one occasion, Kailash and his team rescued thirty people from a carpet factory, and were taking them to a shelter. Some kids have been so malnourished that they grow six inches in a year once they are properly fed. Many have facial scars because of the poor ventilation, carpet fibers irritating the skin, and the stress of being removed from your family and forced to work twelve hours a day.
Raids are conducted by rescue organizations, sometimes with local trusted police, but in other cases by unarmed citizens. Many activists have been hurt, killed, or wrongfully arrested in such raids. Slaveholders are prepared to defend their livelihood and police are often bribed to overlook slavery. Raids usually involves a heated confrontation with lots of shouting, threats or physical violence.
After this particular raid, seven rescued children were riding in Kailash’s car. He had fruit on hand for them, including bananas, the most common fruit in India. Asha, aged eleven, picked up one of the bananas and took a bite without peeling it. “What kind of potato is this?!” she asked, sputtering.
Asha, who had worked in the factory since early childhood, did not recognize food other than rice and potatoes. This is what slavery does to children. They are completely isolated and lack basic knowledge. After receiving an explanation and help peeling the banana, Asha devoured it with the greatest pleasure. A few silent minutes passed. Then she asked, “Why did you not come sooner?”
At first Kailash laughed. He thought she meant ‘Why did you not come sooner, because these bananas are so good!” He was appalled when she continued, “Why did you not come sooner, before my little brother died?”
“Why did you not come sooner, before my mother was raped in front of everybody?”
“Why did you not come sooner, before my childhood was over?”
Whenever I experience a moment of doubt, self-pity, fear or exhaustion, I think of Asha, and renew my commitment. While what I’m doing may not always feel meaningful or important, I know that every small action helps survivors move closer to freedom and independence. Each product sold, each woman trained and employed, each child sponsored for school, every dollar raised towards a shelter, is one step closer to ending slavery. And as long as there are children like Asha hoping for rescue, we can’t afford to lose momentum.