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Jersey family on a mission to free child slaves
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Jersey family on a mission to free child slaves

Metuchen teacher founded a nonprofit to help Ghana’s kids

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

When Evan Robbins can’t sleep, good things usually result for child slaves in Ghana. There’s nothing magical about it — it’s just one man’s quest to make things a little better for kids halfway around the world.

What keeps the Verona resident awake is the plight of children as young as three and four who are sold by their parents to fishermen along Ghana’s Volta Lake. The youngest are often put to work scooping water out of boats. Most help with the fishing and are forced to dive into the water to untangle nets. Some drown; many are beaten, sometimes to death.

As Robbins, a social studies teacher at Metuchen High School, tells his students, there are more slaves trafficked each year today — as many as 800,000, according to the U.S. State Department — than at the height of the Atlantic slave trade. In Ghana, thousands of children are trafficked into slavery annually.

On Feb. 26, Robbins returned from a weeklong trip to the country on Africa’s west coast, where he was reunited with several of the children he helped rescue from slavery on a previous trip and examined the progress on a school he and his students are helping to build.

It was his second trip to the region, the first as president of Breaking the Chain through Education, the 501c3 agency he founded.

On this latest trip, he was not alone. Accompanying him were his wife, Lisa Robbins, a Montclair school reading specialist who formerly worked at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and their two daughters, Arianna, 16, and Maya, 11, both GOA students. Also traveling with them were Rebecca Grossman, a former student of Evan’s now at Rider University; Melissa Huey, a longtime family friend originally from Montclair now living in New York; family friends the Chaloms — Beth, Mayer, Albert, and Tamrah — of Livingston; and Netanya Stein of West Caldwell, a student at James Caldwell High School and a friend of Arianna’s.

Robbins’s involvement in child trafficking in Ghana started in 2006 after he read an article in The New York Times about a young boy, then six — at the time, the same age as Maya — who had been trafficked into slavery on a fishing boat. He brought the issue to his senior politics class. They explored regions where children are trafficked, including Sudan, where children are enslaved as soldiers, and parts of Asia, where girls in particular are forced into brothels.

The class decided to hold a fund-raiser to help these enslaved children. Although Robbins had never done anything like it, he said, he supported their efforts. They held a walkathon that raised $7,000, which they sent to Darfur through the organization CARE. The next year, the class raised $21,000, which was used to help children in Ghana. After that, Robbins said, “Working on behalf of the children in Ghana was just part of the class.”

Four years in, after the class read Three Cups of Tea, the author’s account of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of the students suggested they too build a school. (The accuracy of the book has since been questioned.)

Robbins was convinced he had to visit the area to continue working on its behalf and to find a community that would agree to release its child slaves in exchange for a school. So he went to Ghana for the first time in February 2010, arriving, after a 10-hour plane ride and a 13-hour drive, in the Lake Volta area.

He was surprised, he said, at the poverty and the grinding work he saw. “At 5:30 a.m., activity had already begun on the lake,” he said. “Children were carrying water on their heads back to their families, and the children were already out on the boats.”

He noted right away the telltale signs of children who had been enslaved. “They don’t smile at all,” he said, and they often bear the scars of beatings.

The rescue missions are all about befriending and then educating the fishermen who exploit the youngsters, many of whom were trafficked as children themselves, explained Robbins.

According to Robbins, there is no moral taboo against using child slaves in Ghana, and so people have to be convinced to relinquish what is considered an economic necessity.

There is, however, a law against child trafficking in Ghana, which makes it easier to accomplish their aims there than in other parts of the world.

In each case, children who are released spend two-three months at a rehabilitation center in Akra, a major city in the south of the country, before being reunited with their parents.

Eventually, on that first trip, with the help of the International Organization for Migration, Robbins found a village, Awate Torno, that agreed to release all the slave children in exchange for a school being built.

Back in the United States, Robbins created Breaking the Chains through Education, which was approved for 501c3 status this past January. Before its establishment, he said, “we felt too restricted. We wanted more control over what we were doing. Now we can send 100 percent of the money we raise to Ghana.”

Working within the framework of Breaking the Chains, he said, he can apply to foundations and secure grants, and raise funds more readily. “People are more comfortable knowing they are giving to a 501c3, and we’ll have the freedom to also work in other parts of the world some day.”

‘Mother queen’

Last month’s trip was a culmination of what has become a family affair.

Arianna raised money on behalf of Ghana’s trafficked children for her bat mitzva project and recently started a club working on their behalf at GOA, where she is in the 10th grade.

The Robbins family are members of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.

Maya, a sixth-grader, has taken on the issue for her bat mitzva. While in Ghana, she had a different kind of celebration. The paramount chief of the Awate region blessed her on her upcoming rite of passage, and the village of Awate Torno named her their “mother queen,” bestowing upon her a ceremonial headscarf, wrapping her in kinte cloth, and adorning her with beaded necklaces and bracelets.

Maya, said her mother, doesn’t need to go to Princess Charming — a popular local clothing shop — for her bat mitzva dress. “She already got her royal attire!”

When they arrived in Awate Torno, the visitors were greeted by women dressed in festive clothing, singing and ululating, and were treated to a ceremonial dance.

The family visited the school, which is in the final stages of construction. Robbins was reunited with several of the children he had helped rescue, and his family and friends got to meet them for the first time.

Meeting with a reporter after returning on Feb. 26, Robbins said, “It’s really hard to find the words to sum up all my emotions on the trip.”

Now that he is back, though, he still has trouble sleeping. He worries that even some of the children who were saved will inevitably fall through the cracks — one in particular, Vida. Although poverty is the norm in the country, neighbors do try to look out for one another. Vida, however, lives in a slum in a one-room hut with her mother. There’s no supportive community around them, and Robbins said he doesn’t trust the people living nearby.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “We have to get her out of there.” He is trying to convince everyone who joined him on his latest trip to contribute some money.

“I think if everyone contributes $50, we can move her,” he said.

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