Where exploited kids are taught to choose life

Where exploited kids are taught to choose life

On a mission to Ghana, rabbis confront reality of human trafficking

My trip to Ghana was like no trip I had ever taken. I was there for 10 full days but I barely saw the country, I never got into a taxi, and had only one hour to buy souvenirs at a tourist market.

Instead I spent most of my time on the campus of a local school in a small village, greeting and meeting teachers and children. I learned only a little about the country of Ghana, but this narrow lens helped open my eyes to global issues often invisible from the safety of the suburbs.

I was sent by the American Jewish World Service as part of a delegation of 17 Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis to the Challenging Heights School in the small fishing village of Sankor. Challenging Heights was founded to help rescue and educate children trafficked into slavery or children at risk of being trafficked. AJWS and other groups work to fund hundreds of projects like these throughout the developing world.

We were lucky enough to meet with the founder of this school, James Kofi Annan. As a boy, Annan, the youngest of 12 children, was forced into the fishing industry at the age of six, like six of his siblings before him. After years of hard labor, beatings, and malnourishment, he managed to escape as a young teen. When he returned home he was rejected by his family yet somehow found a way not only to survive but to put himself through school and college.

Eventually working as a manager at Barclays Bank, Annan decided to start Challenging Heights. The program he developed now serves over 40 communities. It seeks not only to rescue trafficked children but to prevent trafficking by addressing its root causes. The Challenging Heights program is at once practical and visionary, with services that include micro-loans, advocacy, women’s empowerment, and developing young agents for social change.

Annan continues to be a primary funder, lead staff member, and mentor of this program. His dedication is humbling, his accomplishments inspiring.

About half-way through our trip we had the opportunity to visit a rehabilitation center serving 43 children rescued from forced labor in the fishing industry. There they are prepared to re-enter school and be reunited with their families. After our orientation we had the opportunity to visit and play soccer with these kids. One boy named Richard grabbed my arm warmly and wouldn’t let go. At nine years old, Richard was just between the age of my own sons. I tried to imagine what his life had been like and I wondered if he, like Annan, might now become a human rights leader.

We spent most of our mornings mixing concrete, filling wheelbarrows with sand, and carrying bricks. I was thankful to have this physical outlet, and it was easy to feel proud of my hard work helping to build this school. But truthfully we all knew that no matter how nice the concrete floors we poured turned out, sending 17 rabbis to Ghana was hardly the most cost-effective way to get this work done. Our service was a kind of small sacrificial offering. We let the stories of slavery and poverty — and of determination, strength, and hope — sink into our bodies so that we might take them home.

While I was in Ghana I often found myself hoping that I could radically shift my life away from consumer and toward activist, from desire to gratitude, and that I might find a middle path between hopeless apathy and self-righteousness. This wasn’t simply a reaction to the children who wore worn-out clothes and no shoes, who sometimes asked for food, or whose families lived in the simplest of one-room homes, near open sewage. Rather it was the disparity between this and the overflowing, superfluous, thoughtless wealth that I enjoy here in the United States.

On our very first morning in Ghana our small bus took us through a village, where the names of its meager businesses reflected faith rooted deeply in Christianity and Islam: Perseverance Grocery, Naked I Came Water Stand, God Time is The Best Taxi, Sweet Jesus Candy, and The Shalom Spot pub. We passed by chickens and goats, women smoking fish in pits, barefoot children playing in the dust, and finally through the gates of the school. A half-dozen simple concrete buildings painted bright yellow, filled wall to wall with wooden desks, was set in the middle of a dirt field. We were escorted to rows of children dressed in bright blue-and-yellow-checkered uniforms who, after warmly greeting us, chanted the school motto: “To whom much is given — much is expected!”

Hearing these children — some who had been rescued from child slavery, many who had known hunger, and many around the age of my own children — chant this paraphrase from Luke created an echo for me and the other rabbis on our trip. What is expected of us as Americans and as Jews to whom so much has been given? What is expected of us, knowing that Challenging Heights is but one moving response to the conditions of the developing world?

We contemplate these questions and the sense of obligation they imply. We hope we can take action equal to these expectations.

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