On a cold March evening in Chicago, close to 100 young adults found seats in a cozy, if crowded café. The lights were dim and the tea steaming hot. But the topic was as chilling as the wind outside: modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
But AbdelRahman Murphy, youth minister in the Muslim Community of Knoxville, and Muslim Chaplain at the University of Tennessee, addressed the Zakat Foundation of America (ZF) Teahouse with an attitude that said we are not powerless before this evil.
Weaving together Quranic verses with parables and sayings from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Mr. Murphy established first that no one is meant to live well at the expense of others. He linked the concept of modern-day slavery to the many ways that servitude can be abused and weakness exploited, whether through trafficking, forced prostitution, child labor, child pornography or abusing labor laws to take advantage of workers.
Mr. Murphy led the group in an exploration of each person’s slavery footprint, or how many slaves are supporting their lifestyle. He encouraged them to start looking at the labels of their clothes and asking if they come from countries with sound labor practices. Do the countries or the manufacturers uphold fair labor practices? Once those questions are answered, people’s actions must change to reduce the demand for slave-made goods and reflect support for companies that treat their workers well and do not employ children.
While the global textile industry may bring slave-made products into our homes, for those who live through trafficking, the experience is much more direct.
Halima (not her real name) grew up in a Somali refugee camp in Kenya under her grandmother’s care. When Halima was 13, her grandmother became seriously ill. A woman in the camp told Halima’s grandmother that a friend in Nairobi could care for Halima and send her to school.
But when Halima arrived in Nairobi she was forced to marry an older man who sexually assaulted her. Halima soon discovered she was pregnant.
As she recovered after giving birth to her son, Halima caught the attention of a nurse because she was so young. The nurse contacted the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and a week later Halima and her son were rescued by Heshima Kenya, a ZF partner, and taken to a safe house.
In the seven years since the organization started serving vulnerable girls and young women in Nairobi, Heshima Kenya staff have worked with survivors of human trafficking, forced marriage and forced prostitution. As these traumatized girls gain the safety to heal and the power to take charge of their lives through education, they emerge from their sense of powerlessness.
The support she received at the safe house eventually drew Halima out of her silence and pain. She participated in psychological counseling and learned how to care for her son. As she became more confident she enrolled in the ZF-sponsored Girls’ Empowerment Program and eventually became a skilled seamstress.
In time Halima joined the Maisha Collective, where at 17 she is an artisan in training. She manages her own money, speaks Swahili and English well and is known for her creative contributions to Heshima Kenya dance and singing competitions.
Back at the ZF Teahouse, Amal Ali, ZF Service-Learning and Community Engagement Director, encouraged those present to mobilize to not only reduce their demand for slave-made goods, but to pool their resources and support education, especially for poor children and those who are more vulnerable, such as orphans.
Education, Ms. Ali said, makes it harder to traffic children because they are in a healthier and more stable environment. If they go to school, if they are mentored, if they have a safe place to be after school, they have a better chance of avoiding being trafficked into forced labor or prostitution.
Studies sponsored by World Bank have shown that girls who go further in school earn higher wages as adults, and their children are more likely to survive the delicate years of infancy and early childhood. They are also less likely to experience violence.
But for both young men and women in Chicago, orphan boys and girls in Bangladesh, high school students in India, or refugee children in Turkey, education is essential if they are to grow into men and women who can make dignified lives for themselves without degrading others.