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!