IN NEPAL, Christians sew, sell and intercept to fight the scourge of human trafficking. BHARATPUR, Nepal
— "Gita, what would you like to tell us about your story?”
Jonathan Storment waits for a response from the dark-skinned girl sitting across from him on a rooftop in this Central Asian city.
Nearby, Matt Pinson toggles a video camera to record, framing her against the distant mountains. Strikingly beautiful, the 18-year-old’s pink scarf shimmers in the sunlight.
The two Americans, ministers for the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, have traveled halfway around the world seeking stories of restoration.
Here, on this rooftop, they found one.
Gita speaks in a high, soft voice. Another Nepali, Ramesh Sapkota, sits next to Storment and translates her words into English.
“I came from a family that was a little bit … disoriented,” Sapkota says, searching for the right word.
“Dysfunctional” seems more accurate. Gita’s mother left the country when she was young, seeking a job in the Middle East. Her father remarried, and her stepmother mistreated her. Poor and neglected, she yearned for a chance to leave. Then an older man came into her life, lavishing her with affection. She trusted him completely.
“Later on I realized that this man didn’t love me,” she says. “He loved my body.”
He convinced her to move with him to India. After the long trek from her village to Nepal’s western border, just before stepping away from her native land, a small woman in a purple dress approached Gita. Gently, she led the girl to a small kiosk with the words “Are you falling into the trap of a trafficker?” painted on its side.
She asked Gita questions — “Where did you come from? Where are you going?” The woman in the purple dress and her coworkers told Gita the sobering truth. This man was not taking her to a new life as a housewife in India.
Most likely, she was headed for a life of slavery in the brothels of Bombay.
“So they offered me an option,” Gita says. “Rather than going with this man, who already was betraying me, I could go (with them) and learn a trade to support myself.”
She did exactly that.
The woman in purple brought her to this building — a safe house — where she received food, shelter and counseling alongside other girls rescued from human traffickers. They studied the Bible together.
“I got a love that was not part of my life,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. She takes a long pause, cradling the pink scarf in her hands, and continues. “I cannot even express how much I was loved. ... I now know Jesus. God redeemed me and forgave all of my sins.”
Here, she’s become an accomplished seamstress and recently started her own business. Storment asks her about it, and she says she’s eager to see it thrive.
“I must do something to show people ... I am not that kind of person,” she says, considering the life in Bombay that might have been hers. “I want to be an example for other girls.”
After another pause, she brings the pink scarf to her face and weeps. Pinson turns off the camera. Sapkota, the translator, wraps his arms around the 18-year-old.
“I love her as much as I love my own daughter,” he says.FIGHTING AN EPIDEMIC WITH RED THREAD
“The devil tried to destroy Eve in the Garden of Eden,” Sapkota says. “Now he’s trying to destroy all the girls of Nepal.”
Gita is one of the lucky ones.
Across Nepal and around the world, children are abducted from their homes, sold by their parents or deceived into lives of slavery. More than 1.2 million children per year are the victims of human trafficking — the illegal trade of human beings for the purpose of exploitation — according to the International Labor Organization. Some become child prostitutes in Cambodia. Others are child soldiers in Uganda.
In Nepal, more than 12,000 girls per year are trafficked into India.
On the porch of the safe house where Gita lives, she and her sisters fight the global epidemic one bracelet at a time. The girls weave long, red threads between their toes and fingers, forming simple-yet-intricate bracelets — the symbols of the Red Thread Movement, an initiative born in Texas, near the church where Storment and Pinson serve.
Brittany Partridge, a student at Abilene Christian University, envisioned the Red Thread Movement in 2010 as a way to raise awareness of human trafficking. She contacted Linda Egle, founder of Eternal Threads, an Abilene-based nonprofit that sells fair-trade items crafted by women in a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Madagascar, India and Nepal.
Egle, a member of the Highland church, has partnered with Kingdom Investments Nepal — the non-governmental organization that saved Gita — since 2008.
She added the red bracelets to Eternal Threads’ product line. ACU students urged friends to buy them. The movement spread to other campuses. Christian rock bands sold the bracelets at their concerts.
Speakers touted the movement and sold bracelets at Church of Christ youth events, including the massive Winterfest rallies in Texas and Tennessee.
“Now 150-plus girls are getting income from selling the bracelets,” Egle says as the girls on the porch weave. One of them was rescued at a border station the day before.
“Each girl gets $100 to $200 per month,” Egle says. “And it’s so easy.”MICRO-LOANS FOR BIBLICAL BUSINESS
Egle longs for more involvement from Churches of Christ — including the one she attends — in Eternal Threads’ work.
She invited Storment and Pinson to Nepal to collect stories of restoration for their church and to get a firsthand look at Kingdom Investments Nepal, or K.I. Nepal.
Its founder, Sapkota, is a pastor who works with non-denominational churches and house fellowships across Nepal, a predominantly Hindu and Buddhist nation.
“Though we are Christians, K.I. Nepal is ... a social organization registered with the government,” Sapkota says. It offers help to women regardless of their faith.
The organization operates 11 stations in the low-lying cities of Nepal’s border with India. There, purple-clad women intercept girls before they leave the country. (Little protection is needed for Nepal’s northern border with China, where the massive Himalayan Mountains stand guard.)
K.I. Nepal has 60 full- and part-time workers. Each of its border stations intercepts and interviews about 250 girls per month, Sapkota says. Combined, the stations rescue about 2,000 girls per year.
Recently, the problem of human trafficking in Nepal has received celebrity attention. In mid-2011, actress Demi Moore traveled here to host a CNN documentary, “Nepal’s Stolen Children.” But many anti-trafficking initiatives focus on symptoms rather than the causes, Sapkota says.
“Most of them are thinking, ‘We stop it and send (the girls) back home,’” he says, “but that doesn’t solve the problem. Some give money, but without understanding business from a biblical perspective, it’s not going to work.”
Women who earn their own money are less likely to rely on the empty promises of a trafficker, Sapkota says. Their work is more likely to be profitable when they see themselves as caretakers of what God has provided, he adds.
For that reason, K.I. Nepal operates three safe homes where girls receive counseling and learn marketable skills, including cosmetology and tailoring.
After six to eight months of training, the girls can apply for micro-loans from K.I. Nepal to start a business. The organization has helped launch a beauty salon and 18 sewing shops, including one operated by Gita. In addition to the red bracelets, Eternal Threads sells aprons, bags, medical scrubs and other items produced by some of the shops.
Working with Egle and Eternal Threads “is like a flesh-and-blood relationship,” Sapkota says. “It’s very easy for me to communicate with Linda on women’s issues. She has a passion … to feel the girls’ pain and to do something to support them.”
Egle adds, “I don’t think you can be a woman and not be passionate about it.
“The trafficking of girls is one of the great evils in the world,” she says, “and I believe strongly that Christians are the ones that should be fighting this evil.”A BEAUTY SALON AND A MOUNTAIN VILLAGE
Inside the safe house, girls sit on a bedroom floor and take turns slathering layers of hot wax on each other’s arms, then ripping them away, trying not to wince.
The makeshift salon teaches the girls the skills to run their own business, including the “Priyanka” cut, a layered look made popular by Indian actress and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra.
The women are eager to practice on their American guests. Egle gets a temporary henna tattoo on her leg while Jennifer Patterson, an Eternal Threads staffer, reclines in a barber chair. Prabina Shiwakoti, the cosmetology instructor, demonstrates a method of eyebrow plucking called “threading.” It’s painful but effective, Patterson says.
Two girls give Storment a pedicure, as Pinson films and cracks jokes about the difficult nature of mission work.
They regret those words in the days that follow, as Sapkota takes them on a whirlwind tour of KIN’s work in western Nepal. Dry and dusty in the weeks before the monsoon rains, temperatures crest above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the towns that straddle the Nepal/India border.
The team visits other safe houses and meets members of KIN’s Ambassador Clubs — teams of Nepali teenage girls who perform street dramas and compose songs to raise awareness of their fight against human trafficking.
Sapkota also takes the Americans to a mountainside village. Here, a girl named Sunita has returned home after training as a seamstress at one of the safe houses. She now has her own business and is teaching more than a dozen other women to sew.
“People here have a perception that women can’t do anything,” says Chhabi Lal Sunar, a preacher in the village. “(Sunita) has changed that. She has served as a humble example.”
Sunita studied the Bible at the safe house. Now she worships with a small congregation here. She asks the Americans to pray “for more to come to God, for God’s power in this place.”‘THE FINAL STOP’
Before leaving Nepal, the team visits the border unit where Gita was rescued nearly a year ago.
Rubbing sweat from their eyes, the Americans watch as a pair of purple-clad ladies survey the countless taxis, ox-drawn carts and motorbikes crammed with souls bound for India.
The border police, dressed in blue camouflage uniforms, carrying rifles, invite the guests to watch from a shaded, wooden pagoda.
“This is the final stop,” Sub-inspector Narayan Kunwar tells them, gesturing toward the checkpoint, “Once they cross from here, they’re gone.”
The purple ladies appear tiny next to the broad swath of humanity darting past them, but they aren’t shy. They pull aside what appears to be a large family laden with shopping bags.
As they speak privately with the young woman in the group, the men cast nervous glances at the border guards, busy inspecting cargo in a nearby van.
Even with the ladies’ help, Kunwar knows he won’t catch every trafficker crossing the border.
But, he says, “if we can stop at least one girl, that’s one less girl in the brothels.”For more information on Eternal Threads and the Red Thread Movement, see www.eternalthreads.org.
Reader feedback: Is your church involved in the fight against human trafficking?