Busted Halo
 
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April 13th, 2010
Freeing India’s Sex Slaves
My visit to Mumbai's red light district

So this is where my work for Catholic Relief Services had led me: to a brothel. I was in the middle of a red light district in the go-go city of Mumbai on India’s west coast. The social worker we were with strolled casually into a shed-like doorway and starting chatting with one of the women. I stood tensely, aware that in the metal cubby right behind me a young woman in a spangled sari was sleeping soundly.

It was midday and there was no “activity” going on. But the tiny, sardine-tin brothel — its walls painted an incongruous robin’s egg blue — was appalling enough. Each woman slept and worked in a metal room that was perhaps eight feet by six feet, far smaller than walk-in closets I’ve seen in America. A footlocker was on a shelf above the narrow plank-like bed. Sometimes, my guide told me, the women’s children were kept under the bed at night — occasionally drugged so as not to make noise that would disturb clients.

When the social worker — a Catholic Relief Services partner — walks through this neighborhood, she’s focused on how to get the women’s kids in school. She’d seen it all. I hadn’t. It was unnerving to think how many women were in the brothels that honeycombed these alleys.

Worst of all was thinking how many were there against their will. My guides and I walked out of the brothel quietly — it seemed easy enough. A few children and older women on the side street stared at us. We kept on for a few blocks until we reached our car.

Hundreds of young women can’t walk away. “There are henchmen hanging around to catch any prostitute who tries to escape,” says Priti Patkar matter-of-factly. For twenty-five years, Priti and her husband have worked to save the thousands of teenage girls who are brought to the red-light district under duress, often tricked by acquaintances or even family members. The girls are held for years, working as unpaid prostitutes to make money for owners who buy and sell them. The Patkars head up Prerana — “Inspiration” — a CRS partner that helps girls who are rescued.

January 14th, 2010
Living in Limbo
A Haitian man and his family wait to see if he is deported and if their family is torn apart

Jean Montrevil and his family, from whom he is currently separated while in an ICE detention facility awaiting deportation to Haiti

Jonathan Freed hasn’t eaten since New Year’s Eve. The South Florida immigrants’ rights activist is one of six people who say they will not eat until President Obama puts a stop to deportations that separate immigrants from their American families. (Download the letter to the president.)

After a few days he stopped being hungry or thinking of food, he said. Instead he is consistently queasy, and his head is a little foggy.

The hunger strikers are part of a increasingly impatient immigrant movement that wants to see a moratorium on deportations until comprehensive immigration reform is enacted by Congress.

So Freed and his companions are camping on the grounds of St. Ann’s Mission in Naranja, Florida. Naranja is a community filled with Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants, too many of whom, Freed said, are at risk of deportation either because they are in the country illegally or because they’ve committed crimes ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) deems worthy of exile.

“In our community the amount of enforcement is ripping families apart,” he said Wednesday. Freed, who is executive director of We Count!, a immigrant rights organization, acknowledges that the hunger strike is a dramatic step — and one that could fail. But more traditional forms of protest haven’t worked, he said.

“People have marched, written letters, held rallies and vigils. We’ve done all that. The situation has become so critical we felt we had to do something dramatic,” said Freed.

So for thirteen days now Freed and five others — among them undocumented immigrants with American children — have slept in a tent on the church grounds and spent their days explaining their action to visitors, keeping each other company and praying.

“It’s a political action, but it’s also a spiritual action that you try to get God to intercede and change the hearts of those in government,” Freed said.

A senseless policy — a family suffers

That is exactly what Jean Montrevil is praying for as well. The 41-year-old Haitian immigrant, Brooklyn, New York resident and father of four is in a jail in York County, Pennsylvania, awaiting deportation to the country he left when he was 16. Tuesday’s devastating earthquake offered an odd sort of reprieve, temporarily suspending deportations to Haiti, but Montrevil is still in detention, three hours away from his family and could be deported as soon as ICE deems conditions in Haiti stable.

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