Monday, September 24, 2012

Bringing Ghana to Nebraska on October 11th!

I have not had a chance to write fully about my summer experience in Ghana.  But I managed to get the director of the program that I volunteered at a speaking gig in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I submitted this piece to our local Jewish paper to promote the event.  I hope that everyone in Omaha can drive out to Lincoln on October 11 at 7:30 pm to hear this extraordinary man tell his story.  You will not regret it!!!

This past summer I visited Ghana as a participant of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Young Rabbis Delegation.

AJWS partners with over 400 grassroots organizations in 31 countries around the world that are working to provide people with access to prosperity, health care, food, education, and basic human rights, in places where none of those things are taken for granted. 

What I love about AJWS is that they apply Warren Buffett's investment strategies to providing grants.  AJWS does not fund ideas, and they do not try to start new programs in foreign countries.  Like Warren Buffett, they do their homework and find programs that are already successful.  More accurately, Warren Buffett and AJWS look for extraordinary people who have already demonstrated that they and their company or organization are doing something special.  They approach those people and say, “We will help you do what you are already doing—and with our help and resources you can do it even better!”

In Ghana, I had the privilege of meeting one of these extraordinary people who is making a difference.  His name is James Kofi Annan (no relation to the former U.N. Secretary), and his organization is called Challenging Heights.

The big problem that Ghana faces is child trafficking.  In the coastal regions, where fishing is a big industry, children are sold into slavery to work on fishing ships.  A fishing net is a valuable piece of equipment.  If the net gets caught under the boat, pulling the net may cause it to tear.  But child slaves are cheap.  So the fisherman would rather risk losing a cheap child slave rather than risk tearing his precious net.  He can easily purchase another child!

This evil, twisted, perverse mindset is a tragic reality.  Parents with children that they cannot afford are talked into selling their children into slavery, often coaxed with false promises that their children will be cared for and taught a viable trade.  The reality is that they are abused, beaten, starved, tortured, sometimes disfigured, maimed, and even sent to certain death.

Mostly boys are sold as workers, but often young girls are used as sex slaves to occupy the male slaves.

James Kofi Annan was the youngest of 12 children.  He was sold into slavery at the age of six years old.  As a slave, he suffered all sorts of abuse and torture, often living on one small meal a day.  He was deprived of education, human rights, and his very humanity. 

At the age of 13, after seven years of slavery, he managed to escape.  He somehow managed to return to his family, but found himself rejected by them. 

With nowhere to go and no one to help him, he picked himself up and decided to make something of his life.  His heroic story of how he did this, against impossible odds, is worthy of its own movie.  He managed to somehow support himself and receive an education—eventually earning a college degree.  He was employed by a Barclays bank, and it was not long before he was promoted to manager.  In 2003, he won a prize for being the best manager in the region.  Now, for the first time with discretionary income, he had the ability to do what he had always wanted to do—rescue children from slavery.

Rescuing a child from slavery is even harder than it sounds.  First of all, you have to be able to prove that the child is a slave.  Slavery was outlawed in Ghana in 2005(!!!) so slave owners will not readily admit that the children on their boats do not belong to them, and parents are not always quick to admit that they sold a child into slavery.  Only after you have identified the parents and can definitively identify the child, you have to find the boat that the child is on.  Then you must somehow negotiate the child's freedom with the slave owner, a dangerous, sometimes life-threatening ordeal. 

The difficult process of rescuing a child takes time, resources, and skill.  James managed to find all of these because he had the most important ingredient of all—the  determination to do what was right and to spare children from the hell that he went through.

In 2003, James successfully rescued two children, but for these children rescue is not the end of the journey towards freedom.  It is only the beginning. 

Like James' parents, often parents who sold their children view them as a financial burden and are not ready to welcome them back.  More often, the children have terrible resentment for the parents who sold them into a life of slavery.  Both parents and children must go through a process of rehabilitation.

That is where Challenging Heights comes in.  In 2005, James started Challenging Heights as a place where rescued children can find a home and receive an education while being slowly integrated back into their families and into lives of freedom.  By 2005, over 50 children had been rescued from slavery because of James.  In the last seven years, hundreds more have been rescued.

James is also responsible for starting a youth movement for local children that inspires them to value education, to strive for success, and educates them about their rights—specifically, that they have the right to freedom.  The children are taught about resources they have that can prevent themselves and others from being sold into slavery. 

James has also started parent groups that educate parents on the truth about slavery and that slavery is not an option.  The parents are taught about resources that are available to them, specifically how to access micro loans to help them start their own businesses that can raise them out of the poverty that precipitates childhood slavery.

Almost 8,000 families in the region have been affected by James' work. 

I, along with 16 other Rabbis from all over America, had the privilege of volunteering at Challenging Heights.  We got to interact with the staff and with the children.  Every child we met was at one time a slave, but at Challenging Heights it was hard to tell.  These children are now being cared for, loved, educated, and given hope for a bright future. 

On the last day, we had the honor of participating in the grand opening of the new technology center.  We walked into a brand new building, funded by AJWS, with 30 brand new computers.  At each computer was a child learning how to use Microsoft Word and Facebook.  At the front of the room was a proud teacher looking out to a classroom of students who will one day grow up to make something of themselves and make a difference in the world.

Today Challenging Heights has a robust staff, mostly young people who were somehow inspired by James as children and aspire to make a difference as he did.  James, who is still in his early 30s, is a consummate leader and is in the process of passing over the reins of leadership to a capable and devoted protégé so that he can move on to other projects, but he remains an inspiration to every child at Challenging Heights.  One day we were playing soccer with some of the boys and there was one particular boy who was an exceptional athlete.  One of the Rabbis asked him if he wanted to be a professional soccer player.  "No," said the boy.  "When I grow up, I want to be a bank manager!"

Thanks to Ruth Messinger, the director of AJWS, James Kofi Annan was brought to the attention of members of the faculty of Grinnell College and he was chosen as the recipient of the Frederick Douglass Freedom Award.  The prize included $100,000 which James reinvested in Challenging Heights.  Part of the award requires James to visit Grinnell a few times a year and teach a seminar.  When I learned this, I contacted James and asked if he would be interested in speaking in Nebraska.  He was.  Thanks to Dr. Jean Cahan, Director of the Harris Center for Judaic Studies, the Harris Center will be sponsoring James as a speaker at the annual UNL conference on human trafficking.  James will be speaking in the Centennial Room of the City Campus Union on Thursday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m.  I urge everyone from Omaha to make the trip to Lincoln to hear the full story of this remarkable man.

I am grateful for AJWS for giving me this unforgettable experience.  James is only one of over 400 grantees that they partner with.  When I think about what James has accomplished with the help of AJWS, it is hard to imagine the impact that 400 people just like James are having on the world, thanks to AJWS.