Category Archives: slavery

In Plain Sight but Invisible

Shelley with fellow volunteers Joanne and Kathleen, waiting on the train

Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at ten o’clock p.m., I am waiting with my group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar we are on our way to spend a week with.

From nowhere it seems, two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about seven or eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging. I am acutely aware of the mountain of belongings surrounding the five of us, the suitcases containing toys and treats for other children, the plastic bags of food and drinks for the overnight train journey at my feet.

There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden, in plain sight right out on the pavement or the train stations – yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.

When brought face to face with them, it becomes almost impossible for me to ignore them, to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul and no matter how many times the situation happens, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation. Reinforcing the tactic of children begging as a successful strategy merely continues the cycle. Activists and NGO workers will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like this, or in fact anyone in desperate need, then supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.

With railway kids in Mumbai, 2007

I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to NGOs that work with vulnerable children. It’s the reason I’m in India in the first place, volunteering in this orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I’m approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It’s so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.

A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. But I can’t help it. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.

After we board the train and find our seats, I stow my backpack under a side bench and sit down. Within moments, there is a knock on the window. I look out and the two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They’re all grinning from ear to ear. “One more, auntie!” they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station. As little as it seems, I’m glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. They stay with me long after I’m gone and I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will be tomorrow.

Inspiring Youth: The ASSET Foundation

Last May 2010, I was a keynote speaker at the Tamil Nadu Foundation’s annual conference in Philadelphia. This year, a teenager named Nita Umashankar received an award for the Young Social Entrepreneur, for her work in starting her own nonprofit, ASSET India Foundation.

Today I would like to feature a guest post by Nita’s father, Ray Umashankar, who also works to fight for children who are victims of sex trafficking in India. Here, Ray tells the inspiring story of his remarkable daughter:

Nita with her parents, Sue and Ray Umashankar

As a family we always contributed to various charities, and we wanted to do more than just write checks. I volunteered at a local shelter for abused children. My wife served on the school board. When our daughter, Nita, had her solo dance recital in Indian classical dance, she asked that instead of gifts, donations be given to the Brewster Center, a Tucson shelter for abused women and children. Her request produced a total of $7,800 for the center.

Nita, who was born and brought up in Tucson, was selected for admission to several Ph.D. programs in marketing strategy, and she chose the University of Texas at Austin.

However, in 2005, before joining the program, she said she wanted to spend a year in India working with nongovernmental organizations serving abused women and children. She also laid down two conditions:

She wanted to stay by herself and not with relatives, in order to experience the real India.

She wanted only to volunteer and did not wish to be gainfully employed.

My wife and I agreed to support her for the year.

Nita Umashankar and her family established an organization to aid victims of sex trafficking in India.

In 2006, When Nita returned home she dropped a bombshell. She said that of all the marginalized children she had seen and met in India, the children of sex workers were the most ostracized and abused. Nita said this is the group she wants to work with, and that she will go to India every six months to do so.

My wife and I were shocked. We were totally unprepared for something this radical from Nita. My wife and I wanted to support her completely, but we were worried at the same time. I told Nita that this could be a dangerous undertaking, with pimps and brokers who would not like our interference. I said we had to find qualified, fiscally responsible nongovernmental organizations that were already working with these children and find out what programs were in place.

I gave this assignment to Nita so that I could determine how committed she was to the project. I also said we needed to find out what programs failed so that we didn’t repeat the same mistakes.

Within a month, Nita had all the answers to my questions. Nonprofit groups mostly focused on teaching these children nontechnical skills, such as bag making, sewing, and vegetable vending. Those that did provide computer literacy did not provide “soft skills,” with the result that computer-literate children did not know how to look for a job.

Nita and I decided that we would provide training in information technology skills that were in demand in the job market. In addition, we would teach conversational English and also help in the placement of our graduates in internships and jobs after they complete the training.

My first plan was to raise funds for paying the students’ fees, so that they could attend established computer institutes, instead of having to start our own. But when I contacted the owners of the institutes in India and told them who our students were, they flatly refused them admission because of the fear of contracting AIDS. The owners also said that other parents would pull their children out of the institutes if they found out that children of sex workers were in the same class.

So, Nita and I started the ASSET India Foundation.

ASSET, which stands for Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology, provides computer literacy for education toward alternate livelihood. The program is designed to help the children attain a level of education and familiarity with technology that will enable them to free themselves from being chained to the same profession as their mothers.

The foundation administers education programs, using functional-literacy software in regional languages, and microfinance efforts, to help people establish, own, and operate their technology-based small businesses, such as computer kiosks. We presently have seven centers in the major cities of India, including  Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad (4), and Mumbai, and Delhi.

The sex workers are desperate for educational opportunities and a chance for a better life for their children. They do not want their children to know about the flesh trade and also wish to minimize the risk of their contracting HIV/AIDS.

I have thanked my daughter Nita so many times for coming up with the project idea. My passion for ASSET has become all-consuming. Before ASSET, my passion was adventure travel and mountain climbing. I have lost interest in these. I spend at least 30 hours a week on ASSET, in addition to my regular job. I get restless at social events and make notes on 3-by-5 cards in the restroom.

Since I will be 69 in June, I want every day to count for something meaningful. Through my daughter, Nita, ASSET has made me realize that the only purpose of my existence on this planet is to help those in need.

Fund raising is one of the most challenging and fun activities that I have undertaken. I look at it like a chess game and constantly figure out new ways to reach potential donors and build relationships. I scour business journals, magazines, and The Wall Street Journal for stories on successful businesswomen and -men, find out about their philanthropic interests, and hunt for their contact information.

Once I get the contact information, I congratulate them on their business successes and tell them about ASSET and share our success stories briefly. With a couple of them, my approach was rather direct, since I was desperately in need of funds to open the first center and was ready to take out a home-equity loan on my house.

It feels great when a fund-raising pitch goes well, breaking through another major barrier. I offer to meet busy CEOs at airport lounges during their business trips so I don’t take time away from their workday.

One foundation president kept putting me off for months. One day I called her up and said I was going to be in a nearby town for a wedding and would like to meet her on Saturday morning. She said she and her husband had a million errands, children’s soccer, piano lessons, and so on. I said I will have a car and will drive her and her children to their game and piano lessons. She relented and gave me an appointment. I left the meeting with a $10,000 check.

I also competed in a couple of fund-raising challenges because I was told I stood no chance to win. I won them anyway.

I tell people I suffer from an unusual learning disability. I cannot understand the meaning of “no” in any language.

I have a history of being bold in this way, long before my involvement with ASSET. I have a total hip replacement from a bicycle accident in 1993. After the surgery, the surgeon told my wife that because of the seriousness of the injury, the most I could expect was to walk with a cane.

That motivated me to train. My wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon 14 months after the surgery.

If you are going to start a charity, the No. 1 requirement is a dream. Next is a passionate commitment to that dream no matter what anyone says. People will say yours is a crazy idea, and it will never work. Just laugh it off and keep going. Be bold in sharing your dream and asking for support.

Enjoy the challenge of accomplishing your dream. I say it’s better to have an impossible dream than no dream at all.

Butterfly Moments

Butterfly, a website portal for working mothers, features a different “celebrity mother” each month. For April, I am delighted to report that yours truly is featured on the site. Butterfly features both a printed interview with me, as well as a series of short video interviews. The interviews discuss my work in India and research/writing about issues affecting children there, as well as my own journey as both a parent and author.

Click here to read the written interview.

For the video interviews, they are available in order below:

Interview Part 1 - Shelley Reports on the Deplorable side of India

Part 2 - How a Boy's Life was Changed

Part 3 - India's Impact on an American Teenager

Part 4 - Orphaned by Malaria, AIDS and Poverty

Part 5 - Shelley's Journey in India

Part 6 - Advice for Aspiring Writers

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Shooting Child Slavery

Big World Magazine just published my article about former child laborers. Titled “Shooting Child Slavery,” the article recounts the story of these previous child slaves who went on to become award-winning filmmakers.

Ashikul Islam and Sahiful Mondal lived at a home for destitute boys in Calcutta. In 2004, the two 10-year-olds made a short independent film called “I Am,” which created a worldwide stir.

Their film won a Grand Prize at the International Children’s Film Festival in Athens, grabbed the attention of the Australian press, and was even featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. “I Am,” about growing up from the childrens’ point of view, starred only other children.

It was an unlikely turn in the filmmakers’ difficult lives.

Sahiful had been put into indentured slave labor at age 4, after his father died of tuberculosis. With their mother suffering from a mental illness, this tiny boy and his siblings had to figure out how to survive. Ashikul was orphaned at four years old, and soon after began surviving by doing odd jobs at tea stalls and begging. Eventually, Ashikul worked in a leather factory.

The boys were rescued, and brought to the orphanage Muktaneer (the word means “Open Sky” in Hindi). There they began receiving four good meals a day, were given their own beds, went to school, and were allowed to play for the first time in their lives.

The story of these boys is incredibly inspiring – as are other former child laborers, such as Om Prakash, who himself became an advocate against child labor and went on to be awarded the International Peace Prize for Children.

You can read the full story at Big World Magazine.

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