A trans-Atlantic flight for several West Essex families will translate into a flight to freedom for enslaved children in Ghana, West Africa, in two weeks.
That’s when the Robbins family of Verona, along with several members of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, will take a 10-hour direct flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport into Accra, the capital of Ghana, and from there to a village in the Volta Lake region. The trip will not only take the adults away from their homes but their children into a country where their fate would have been sealed as early as age 4 into the slave trade.
“For the past six years our family has been involved in supporting the effort to eradicate child slave trafficking in Ghana, Africa,” said Lisa Robbins of Verona, who takes the Feb. 17-26 trip with her husband, Evan, their two daughters, Maya, 11, and Arianna, 16, as well as members of Caldwell’s Congregation Agudath Israel. “The fishing industry in the Lake Volta region in Ghana is notorious for using child slaves as young as age 4. The children dive into murky water to untangle fishing nets, paddle boats, empty buckets of water from the bottom of the boats, do domestic work and more. They sleep on mud floors, receive no medical care, are severely underfed and are forced to do such physically demanding labor that it distorts their growing bodies by causing microfractures. It is truly heartbreaking.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has a program to rescue, rehabilitate and educate the trafficked children and ultimately reunite them with their families, Robbins said. As part of this program, the fishermen learn how wrong it is to use trafficked children, are given equipment and other support so they are not reliant on child labor, and must sign an agreement not to take on new slaves.
“Over the past six years, my husband and his students at Metuchen High School have raised over $75,000 which has secured the freedom for over 30 children,” Lisa Robbins said.
In the past year, this effort has taken a new direction: establishing schools in rural villages that lack schools in exchange for releasing the village’s trafficked children. The family has since launched a charity, “Breaking the Chain Through Education, Inc.” which is incorporated and awaiting 501(c)3 status. Construction has begun on the first school in Awate Tornu, Ghana, and 19 trafficked children were released last spring as part of this agreement.
“The school is expected to be completed in February and our family, along with another family and friends committed to this cause, are planning to travel to Ghana for the opening of the school,” Robbins said.
Eye Witness To Slavery
The problem, however, would still have remained a thing happening across the ocean had not Evan Robbins, a social studies teacher, made the trip to Ghana to see first-hand the horrors of child trafficking. It was an article in The New York Times about children trafficked and sold as slaves that piqued his interest.
“My daughter was the same age as those children,” he recalled. “It bothered me.” Typical of the sorts of work imposed on child slaves, whose ages range from 4 to 18, is scooping water out of the bottom of fishing boats and diving into the water to untangle fish nets,” he said.
“I talked to my students [at Metuchen High School] about it and felt we should do something. I brought in a speaker who was a former slave to discuss child slavery and started raising money.”
Robbins eventually began working with IOM, established after World War II to deal with migrants in Europe, and which now has expanded its role. It is a staggering mission: Robbins notes that globally there are 27 million trafficked slaves.
Two years ago he recalled traveling with a representative from the group, Eric Peasoh of Ghana, to rescue children out of slavery. “I noticed that trafficked children don’t smile and don’t play kids’ games,” he said. “But when we rescued them, how they changed.”
Rescuing trafficked children, he said, means negotiating for them. “The fishermen are reluctant to give up their labor supply. In addition you’re dealing with the attitude is that it’s the child’s job to take care of the adults. It’s heartbreaking to see children like this. They often don’t reach their full height because of the strenuous labor.”
Robbins and Peasoh ended up rescuing five children during that trip: Vida, Bright, Wisdom, Nanuma and Mawuli. “I taught them how to use a video camera,” he said, adding that despite the language barrier the groups were still able to communicate. “We played soccer with them – it’s the international language,” he said.
There were sobering moments, however. “Bright especially had a really hard time,” he said, recounting a story told to him about Bright who, while in the water, was hit over the head by his “master” with a stick when he did something wrong.
“It almost killed him,” Robbins said, “but the kids jumped in the water and helped him.”
So affected was Robbins by the plight of children, especially those in Ghana, he launched a project to build the school in the village of Awate Tornu.
But, as always when dealing with trafficked children, the school project entailed a bit of negotiation.
“As a stipulation in order for the school to be built, 19 children had to be released from slavery,” Robbins said, adding that “all the children in the village were trafficked.”
The school, at a cost of between $35,000 and $40,000 – a funding gap of $7,000 still remains – contains six classrooms that each holds 40 children. “You have to rehabilitate the children. They will learn all the basics and if they do well they’ll be awarded scholarships,” Robbins said.
Robbins added that there is no plumbing in the village and the group is working on getting clean water to the area.
Among the others traveling with the Robbins family is Natanya Stein of Caldwell, a sophomore at James Caldwell High School, and the best friend of Arianna Robbins, who invited Stein along on the trip. Stein said she has since started a club at the high school to help raise awareness into the plight of trafficked children.
“I was shocked that slavery was still going on today with kids so young,” Stein said. “I wanted to become involved. I think it will be a huge eye-opening experience. I’m excited to be going for such an incredible purpose.”
While in Ghana, the group will visit the children who were rescued during Evan Robbins’ previous trip to Ghana and spend time with children currently being rehabilitated. They are in the process of collecting school supplies, soccer equipment, clothes, footwear, medication and other supplies.
Most important, however, will be the human to human interaction.
“My daughters have grown up with the stories,” Evan Robbins said. “I hope they learn you can make a difference.”