Jul

10

The Possibilities Continue : Indian Train travel and visit to a Lingerie Manufacturer

If you google “Indian Train”, you will see pictures of people jam packed like cattle or standing on top of the cars of the train. So far I have YET to see this in my experience, but our Indian counterparts have attested to this. Apparently some people even stand sleeping up in the bathrooms. Our last experience on an Indian train was on an 8 hour overnight AC 3 tier. That meant that there were 6 bunks, 3 on each side of a compartment; top, middle and bottom. I slept on the top and Elton in the middle. The poor guy is 6′ 2 and barely fit. The other bunks were filled with total strangers. One night I think a policeman slept across from me…I felt somewhat safe. Being the paranoid American, I strapped my bag across my body and prayed that I wouldn’t have to knock someone out in the middle of the night while protecting my goods. It was a good memory for the books.

This time around, I think that I knew what to expect for Indian train travel. It was only a 3 hour train ride to Kochin and we had the “luxury” of sitting in the 2nd class AC train. We got to see lush tropical scenery since we rode close to the coastline of the state of Kerala. Rice patties whizzed by, alongside of quick glimpses of fishing villages. It was truly idyllic.

Our purpose in Kochin was to visit Blossom, a lingerie manufacturer for the local market. We were picked up by Shaji, one of the partners of the company. We were immediately welcomed by his warmth. He and his partner Abey, acquired the company 15 years ago and was able to turn it around to a fully profitable company. They now have over 100 different styles and employ over 100 women in their 3 factories.

We were graciously given flowers and had an opportunity to give a few words of encouragement to his workers. His principles and ethics as a successful Indian business man were encouraging to see. Since bribes and corruption are the norm in this country, it’s hard to stay grounded and true. He has been able to operate a successful business based on integrity, love and trust in a world of greed and deceit.

As we connect and network with people, we often like to hear their life stories. Shaji shared with us a miraculous occurrence of how his 3 year old son was in a bad accident where his two fingers were severed. The doctors tried to reattach them but was not successful. He said that there was no blood supply flowing and the fingers were turning black. All he knew to do was to pray. Then miraculously before his eyes he saw the blood come back and turn from black, to white to pink. I met his son Smith, and saw the scars from the accident to prove it. His two fingers are fully functional and he’s a fine and happy boy.

We feel honored to meet Shaji and his Blossom family. Their willingness to share resources and learnings from their experience is invaluable to our next steps.

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Nov

21

POSSIBILITIES PROJECT // DAY 5 // COTTON MILL VISIT

Today we began the first of several visits to cotton mills. Sourcing is such a critical issue for us. On one end, it’s about finding really high quality materials so we can produce a really amazing blankie. But on the other end, we need to know how the cotton was made and who it was made by. We can’t enable freedom on one end and facilitate oppression on the other.

We were driven by the owner of the company to the outskirts of Kolkata and took a thorough tour of the plant. It’s pretty amazing to see the entire cycle: from processing the raw cotton to weaving the fabric to finishing the product. It gave us a very comprehensive view of the manufacturing process.

As we mulled over different fabric samples we had a really interesting conversation with the owner about the overall work environment in West Bengal. He shared that the communist party has been in power for over 30 years (Indian states are independently governed by different political parties, one of which includes the communist party) and their staunch commitment to socialism has left the state and its people in poor shape. Hard work is rarely rewarded and city development has been severely limited.

The owner also shared about how Bengali’s are very resistant to change and that relationships need to be cultivated over many years before you can make any type of progress. But once you have their trust you have it for life.

Even though we won’t be working in Kolkata, we were reminded that there are larger issues to deal with than just “making a blanket” – we’re here to both empower people and develop communities. Because of this, our road ahead may be a little longer than others. But our hope is to see lives changed and for this we’ll walk the longer, less traveled route.

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Nov

16

Possibilities Project: Day 3 & 4 Sari Bari and Freeset Visits

To say we love the poor doesn’t mean much until we do something about it. And Beth did something about it. Right out of college, Beth from Sari Bari, decided to move into the heart of the red-light district in Kolkata and has given up her twenties to defend the powerless.

She picked us up from the metro station and walked us through weaving alleys, shouting storeowners and bathing children. We noticed that the closer we got to our destination, the brighter the houses got. It was more alluring, yet more dilapidated than other neighborhoods.

There are no signs to Sari Bari. This is for the safety of the women. We proceeded up a dark narrow stairway to arrive on a brightly sun-lit terrance. At the center of a very worn down building, there was the gentle hum of women sewing. These beautiful sarees were being hand sewn, stitch-by-stitch into blankets, bags or scarves.

Beth speaks a few words in English to her operations manager and then gives a loving embrace to one of her girls. She’s both a mother and a manager. A coach and a counselor. Beth supervises, mentors and cares for over 50 former sex-trade workers, helping them find a way out of the trade.

We’ve spent two days with two organizations, Sari Bari and Freeset, hearing about their work providing freedom for women in the sex-trade. Many of these women are kidnapped, lied to or blatantly sold by their husbands or parents into slavery. There are several red-light districts in Kolkata where up to 20,000 men seek out the services of over 10,000 women daily (many of whom are barely teenagers).

What Sari Bari and Freeset do is provide gainful employment as an alternative to the sex-trade. Sari Bari makes bags and blankets out of recycled sarees. Freeset makes jute bags and organic, fair-trade cotton t-shirts (we’re offering their burlap bag as one of our Indiegogo perks!). Both organizations provide health coverage and basic education in reading, writing and math.

It’s been tough learning about how girls (not women) are being exploited. Kerry, the founder of Freeset shared about how they often get destitute women walking in with all the life sucked out of them. However when we observed the women, there were so many contagious and genuine smiles. They worked hard, laughed intermittently and you couldn’t help but feel like you were among family. You knew lives had been changed.

Annie, Kerry’s wife, spoke about a woman who was mute and had been working in the sex-trade for many years. Because of her physical disability and her age, she was barely making 25 cents USD per “transaction.” She came in broken and her saree was filthy. Annie gave her a clean saree, a few full-days wages and brought her into the Freeset family. After three years, she still can’t speak, but she can smile and she’s one of the hardest workers in the group.

This post could go on forever with stories and impressions. But what we saw were people courageously standing up for the poor, restoring broken lives and loving people that others have thrown away. They were willing to move their entire families to the worst neighborhood in Kolkata because of a simple call to follow Jesus and love the poor.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any photos within either Sari Bari or Freeset because many of the women are still at risk from former owners, pimps and lenders. We’ll share more in the next few posts, but both these organizations were amazing inspirations and ridiculously generous with their time and resources. It’s been both supremely humbling and encouraging to be with them and a huge blessing to connect with leaders who have been doing it for more than 10 years.

Thanks for journeying with us… more to come!

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