by Kulsoom Khan
Laulo Senbanjo is a Nigerian-born singer and artist. He focuses his artwork on political and social justice issues. His music combines his love for American R&B and hip-hop and traditional African rhythms.
There are currently 350,000 child slaves living in Haiti, according to U.N. estimates. The Haitian Creole term for these children is Retseveks.
Resteveks are sent away by parents who cannot afford to take care of them, to live with other more well off families. The families are then supposed to provide the children with a good home and an education in exchange for help with household chores. However, that’s not always the case.
“I would say that the preponderance of the homes of the treatment of [resteveks] is not good at all and a good percentage are abusive,” said Ellen Donahue, the U.S. Director of the Restevek Freedom Alliance, a non-profit organization based in Windham, Conn., “A very small percent might be okay.”
Haiti ranks second on the 2013 Global Slavery Index of countries where human trafficking is an issue. Child slavery is a significant part of the problem.
Ruthly Cadestein, 22, is a Haitian-American from Union, N.J. She plans to visit Haiti someday with the intention of advocating for Resteveks and other victims of human trafficking,
“My goal is to go to law school and get my JD and MBA and work with certain cases connected with human trafficking,” she said, “I want to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves.”
Donahue also said that Resteveks suffer from emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of their patrons and don’t get the opportunity to go to school or do things that a regular child would get to do.
“Many of them have no freedom to just be a kid,” she said.
Resteveks work as “house slaves” doing a variety of different types of labor. They are expected to work in the fields, go to the market to get food, clean the house, as well as get up early in the morning to fetch water from the common water supply in the villages.
“They’re often dragging huge, heavy pails of water,” Donahue said.
Cadestein finds all this quite ironic, since Haiti was the first colony to abolish slavery, yet it still exists there.
“I always say that Toussaint Louverture would probably be turning in his grave if he saw what was going on on the soil of Haiti,” she said, referring to a Haitian military general who fought for Haiti’s freedom and to eradicate slavery.
The devastating poverty in Haiti forces many parents to send their children away, because they simply can’t afford to keep them. Cadestein thinks that these parents should not be condemned for making the choice to send their children away.
“I always say it’s not good to judge at all, because you never know what someone else is going through”, she said, “When you’re forced to think about which child you’re going to give away, that’s unbelievable.”
The Restevek Freedom Alliance is working to make a change little by little, so parents won’t have to resort to these measures. The organization has so far raised $50,000 to build homes and schools for former Resteveks and children who are at risk. The money is also used to provide the children with a variety of other things such as school uniforms and supplies, field trips, bikes to get to school and back as well as toys.
“I think we’re a probably a tiny drop in a big bucket,” Donahue said. “However, for our 32 children, their lives are improving.”
Donahue travels to Haiti every few months to and gets a chance to spend time with some of these children. She and other members of the organization play with the children, work on projects together as well as take part in educational activities.
“I think they’re able to be kids,” Donahue said, “It’s not like we shower them with gifts. We just allow them to play, which I don’t believe that the children who served as Resteveks were able to do at all.”
Cadestein on the other hand has never been to Haiti, but still feels a strong connection to the country and is passionate about this issue. She is thankful that her family immigrated to the U.S., that she was given so many opportunities and wants the same for children living in Haiti.
“I am happy that we’re here, but at the end of the day, it is your mother home and when your mother home is suffering and crying, you feel that pain too,” she said, “Those people, they’re your brothers and sisters. They come from the same baseline as you.”
Earlier this month, students laid on the floor of the NYU Bookstore with their eyes shut and fliers placed on their chests that read, “Deathtraps never stop exploiting.”
The students are members of NYU’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) and were protesting the University’s relationship with sweatshop labor in Bangladesh through a “die-in”. The JanSport backpacks sold in the cavernous East Village bookstore, are made in sweatshops, protestors said. VF Corporation, an American apparel company that makes the bags, refuses to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which aims to make garment factories safe workplaces through the implementation of more building inspections.
“They are one of the largest producers if not the largest producers in Bangladesh and it’s really important that they sign on to the Accord because it will determine whether or not the majority of the factories are covered”, said Robert Ascherman, an organizer with SLAM.
SLAM, which is a part of the national organization, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), is pushing the University’s administration to end its contract with VF. The students staged the “die in” to highlight the many workers killed and injured in garment factory accidents in Bangladesh in the past year.
SLAM members also delivered a letter in person to NYU’s officials in February, requesting them to break their ties with VF.
“Our real power comes not from individual actions but by working together and putting pressure on the university,” said Ascherman. “Because we pay (the university), it should be responsive to students and listen to us, but that’s not actually how it occurs here.”
After doing some research on the matter, the University will be responding to SLAM’s letter this month, according to John Beckman, Vice President of Public Affairs at NYU.
In an e-mail, Beckman said that JanSport is an NYU licensee meaning that it is authorized to produce NYU apparel. JanSport was purchased by the VF Corporation in 1986. Despite that, JanSport is the sole holder of the license to produce NYU apparel.
“JanSport, like all the VF companies, operates independently and determines where to manufacture JanSport goods”, Beckman said. “JanSport has never produced apparel in Bangladesh.”
He also said that VF owns another brand called VF Imageware, which does produce in Bangladesh. However, NYU does not have a contract with VF Imagewear, and that no VF brand has ever produced NYU apparel or products in Bangladesh.
There have been numerous garment factory disasters in Bangladesh, including fires and building collapses. More than 100 workers were killed in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in November of 2012 as reported by Human Rights Watch.
In April of 2013, over 1,000 workers lost their lives when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhakka, the country’s capital. Rana Plaza was home to many Western retailers’ factories.
Ismail Ferdous is a documentary photographer, who is based in Dhakka, but also works in New York City. He was at the scene of the disaster and was able to capture the pain and devastation of both the victims and their families in his photographs.
“An eight-story building became like a sandwhich,” Ferdous said, demonstrating by clamping both his hands close together. “I never seen so many dead bodies in my life-like 1,200 people and the faces of the victims’ families broke my heart all the time,” he said.
SLAM wants to raise awareness about the lack of safety standards in many Bangladeshi garment factories so accidents like Rana Plaza don’t happen again.
Along with some other Western apparel companies, VF has joined the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. In a statement of purpose that was released in July of 2013, leaders of the Alliance said they plan to launch their own Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative.
But Ascherman said that the Alliance is “illegitimate, not legally-binding and does not provide enough funds” to ensure building repairs and inspections as the Accord does.
Besides VF, GAP, Wal-Mart, JCPenney, and the Children’s Place are some of the other American companies that haven’t signed the Accord. According to a report by the International Labor Rights Forum, GAP, Wal-Mart, and the Children’s Place have also refused to compensate the victims of the factory disasters they’re involved with.
“They’re big companies,” said Ferdous. “They can afford to compensate the (victims’) families, because the families are poor. Some of the kids lost both their parents.”
As the one-year anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza incident draws near, SLAM has experienced some success with their “End Deathtraps” campaign and getting their message out. “I think there’s been a significant amount of progress on this campaign,” said Ascherman.
He also said that recently several companies including Addidas and Fruit of the Loom have signed the Accord through the pressure of USAS groups at various universities across the country. “We’ve seen about six or seven groups sign on and so those factories will definitely start immediately seeing improvements.”
The safety and rights of Bangladeshi garment workers might not seem like an issue concerning Americans, but Ascherman begs to differ.
“Americans like anyone else are moral human beings and should be outraged about what’s going on and also should realize that as the major consumers of the products coming out of Bangladesh, we have a lot of power,” he said.
Samuel Chukwueze,25, is a proud Nigerian-American from Cherry Hill, N.J. He lives and breathes Nigeria or “Naija” as he calls the country he loves so much. That’s why he goes into a state of utter disbelief when he turns on the news and hears about all the violence that’s going on in the northern part of Nigeria, most of which has been directed towards Christians.
“Both of my parents are Nigerian. I’m very proud of my Nigerian culture, but once I heard about the killings or attacks I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “How could this happen in Nigeria?”
But it is happening. The suicide bombings targeting churches as well as mosques, schools, colleges, and villages started in 2009 and the number of killings and attacks increased last year.
“Between 2009 and now, we have almost 4,000 people that have been killed-mostly Christians,” said Pastor Laulo Akande, executive director of the Christian Association of Nigerian Americans (CANAN).
The most recent church bombing took place last month in Adamawa state, killing 22 people as reported by Nigerian media. These attacks are the work of Boko Haram, a terrorist organization based in the northern part of the country. The group is rebelling violently against the government in an effort to establish Sharia law (Islamic law) in Nigeria.
“Based on a survey that was commissioned by the state department, Boko Haram is the second most deadly terrorist organization in the world-second only to the Taliban,” Akande said.
According to reports conducted by Human Rights Watch, members of Boko Haram have decapitated and mutilated hundreds of citizens residing in Northern Nigeria and abducted many girls and women as well. One of Chukwueze’s uncles who resides in Kano, a northern city, was attacked by a Boko Haram militant in the past year.
“I was just shocked about what happened and I was just more concerned about my uncle’s safety,” Chukwueze said. “I don’t know why someone would go to a church and kill innocent people.”
Akande said that Boko Haram’s militants kill any group of people who oppose them, including moderate Muslim leaders who have spoken out against their violence.
In response to this ongoing crisis, CANAN has started a relief fund for the victims of Boko Haram. Since 2012, approximately $50,000 has been raised, which goes to those who have been widowed or orphaned due to the violence. The money from the fund has also helped some victims who were brutally attacked receive reconstructive surgery. Victims usually don’t receive any compensation from the Nigerian government according to Akande.
New Covenant Dominion Cathedral, a predominantly Nigerian church located in the Bronx, N.Y. has also helped with fundraising efforts. “Any donations that we have as a church we send to those who are affected,” said Pastor Peter Temanu. “We are solidly behind those who are going through these atrocities in Nigeria.”
CANAN has also sought help from Congress with Republicans Peter King of New York and Chris Smith- of New Jersey, responding with support.
“We got very good help from the U.S. Congress,” Akande said.
He is also pleased with the U.S.’ decision to aid the Nigerian Army fight against Boko Haram by having the U.S. military provide training and some equipment to Nigeria’s Army Special Operations Command.
“The U.S. can do a lot and we hope that the U.S. will actually do more to help the situation,” he said.
Any time that Chukwueze hears about another suicide bombing in his beloved “Naija”, he finds comfort in turning to a higher power.
“There’s so many things that I can’t do, but my faith as praying will help bless
Ali Jafri last saw his uncle, Dr. Mohammad Jafri, in 1993. One year later Dr. Jafri was murdered at gunpoint by two men riding by on motorcycles, according to family members.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Ali Jafri of Long Island, N.Y. said, “I mean he’s so young. He’s so loving. It’s just not possible and he has four children.”
Ali Jafri’s uncle was targeted because he was a Shia Muslim living in Pakistan. A small minority, Shias make up only 20 percent of Pakistan’s population. They have been targeted by extremist terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Siphah-e-Sahaba, and Lashkar-e-Jangvi, who have been persecuting the Shia for their beliefs. While this is not a new a problem in Pakistan, the number of killings have increased over the last two years.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 800 Shias have been killed since 2012. In January and February of this year, a series of deadly bombings in the Northwestern city of Quetta killed over 150. In another bombing in March in the southern city of Karachi, over 40 people were killed, as reported by Pakistani media. Several more people were killed in a more recent bomb blast in Karachi in November.
Dr. Zaheer Jafri (no relation) is a cardiologist who resides in Monroe, N.Y. His older brother and cousin were killed in Quetta and another one of his cousins was killed last November in a bombing in Rawalpindi, a city located nine miles from the capital.
“It was really shocking news for me because I just met (my brother) six months ago and that was the happiest time for us,” he said. “Within two months, I lost three family members very close to me.”
Dr. Zaheer Jafri’s brother and cousins left behind their wives and several children. When he went to Pakistan to attend his brother and cousin’s funeral, he met many devastated families in Quetta who had also lost family members.
“The people of that city were very sorrowful,” he said. He saw families sitting outside for three days with the dead bodies of their loved ones, refusing to bury them in an effort to pressure the government to address the situation.
The persecution of Shias in Pakistan has ignited a cry of outrage in the Pakistani-American Shia community. Rallies and protests were held earlier this year in many cities including New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas.
Many blame the Pakistani government for not providing enough security and protection for Shias and also for failing to bring the terrorists responsible to justice.
“They should be dealt as criminals and they should be prosecuted as well as put in jail, so further incidents should not happen,” Dr. Zaheer Jafri said.
The Al-Khoei Foundation is one of the largest non-profit Shia Muslim organizations in the world. The branch located in Jamaica, Queens has been active in raising awareness about the Shia genocide as well as raising money for victims of anti-Shia violence.
“It’s an ideological war against not just the Shia, but against everyone who loves freedom, who believes in freedom of speech and being able to express and profess your faith the way you want to,” said Meesam Razvi, a United Nations representative for the foundation.
Razvi has brought up the issue during meetings at the U.N., but said there is very little that they can do in terms of putting a stop to the genocide. The U.N. can pass resolutions, but they do not have much power to enforce them.
“I think it really comes down to individual countries as to how they enforce their obligation of protecting the fundamental human rights of minorities living among themselves,” he said.
Razvi has also met with Pakistani ambassadors in Washington D.C. to discuss the issue, but said their attitude has been “unresponsive”.
“We’ve found them to be very complacent,” Razvi said. “They’ve hardly ever done anything about it.”
Ali Jafri, a Canadian who relocated to Long Island several years ago has had a different response to the genocide. Instead of participating in rallies and protests, he practices yoga and writes poetry, which help him deal with his feelings about the issue.
“I feel like yoga is a release for me and it also reminds me that those people who killed my uncle and those people who kill anybody, they’ve just forgotten who they are,” he said.
Ali Jafri believes that if people practiced yoga, they would not be prone to violence.
“Because if they were really tapped in to who they really are, they would never want to harm anything or anybody regardless of religion, belief, race, gender, sexual orientation – anything, so yoga has been a huge therapy for me and poetry allows me to express any anger or frustration that I have.”
Dr. Zaheer Jafri makes donations to the families of victims. He said that many of the people who have been affected especially those residing in Quetta are quite poor and have lost the main bread winner of their family, leaving many widows and orphans to fend for themselves.
Dr. Zaheer Jafri is also a member of Imamia Medics International (IMI), an organization of doctors based in Princeton, N.J. IMI has helped pay for school fees, books, and clothing for the children of victims. IMI members have also traveled to Pakistan after some of the bombings took place to help the wounded.
Even as the violence against Shias in Pakistan continues everyday, both Ali Jafri and Dr. Zaheer Jafri remain hopeful that a day will come when this oppressed minority group can live more peacefully.
“Hope is always there,” Dr. Zaheer Jafri said. “Whether it will change or not is yet to be seen.”
Amid the crowd of spectators attending the ING New York Marathon in Long Island City, Queens, a band decked out in purple and white uniforms and cowboy hats kept both runners and viewers energized with drums and blaring trumpets. A closer look revealed that this was no ordinary band. The Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps Marching Band proudly wore LGBTA ( Lesbian Gay Bisexual, Transgendered and Allies) and the iconic rainbow on their chest.
This is the first time the LGBAC is performing at the marathon. Band manager Lindsay Becker said it had been a very positive experience, with runners passing by waving and blowing kisses to the band members who gave them encouraging yells and fist pumps in return.
“Everyone running is just so inspiring and it’s thrilling to stand here and give them a little pep right here in the middle,” said Becker.
Dyanne Irby, a self-admitted “rookie”, joined the band only a few months ago when her roommate encouraged her to look into it.
“The cool thing about the Big Apple LGBTA band is that they allow anybody to come in at any level with no auditioning, “ she said. “You don’t even have to be gay.”
Irby, a sousaphone player in the group, is originally from Maryland and has lived in San Francisco as well, but feels more at home in New York City after moving here in 2001. She enjoys big city events like the marathon.
“I love New York,” she said. “You come to a marathon and think everybody’s going to be wearing running clothes, but then you see people that are dressed up as characters and it’s a lot of fun.”
The marathon draws thousands of runners from all over the world.
“It’s cool to see people from different countries,” Irby said, “It brings people together.”
The Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps, which is made up of 85 members, was formed back in 1979, ten years after the Stonewall Riots said Leslie Becker, percussionist and band resource coordinator.
Becker said the LGBAC plays at many events in New York City throughout the year including the New York City Gay Pride Parade, the Fourth of July Parade, and the Washington Market Children’s Halloween Parade. But one event in particular stands out in Becker’s memory.
“We marched as part of the National Lesbian and Gay Band Association for President Obama’s inauguration,” she said with a big smile, “That was amazing.”