It gets darker and darker as I walk up the steps into the building. The sun disappears behind me. Outside, the streets are full of hustle and bustle—a massive crowd of people, rickshaws, goats, cows, and stray dogs. Constant honking makes me nauseous and keeps ringing in my ears in the darkness. I detect an odd smell—a mixture of semen, urine, and garbage—as I enter a tiny six-by-seven-foot room. I think to myself, Who would want to come to this dark, filthy place, let alone to have sex?
Sex trafficking is rape for profit. It is a violent crime. And the inhabitant of this room has been subjected to this violence for over a decade.
Human trafficking and modern slavery are umbrella terms that refer to a crime whereby traffickers compel another human being to perform labour or engage in commercial sex. It often involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion. It can happen in any community, including in the United States.
Conservative estimates suggest that the number of enslaved people today is 40 million—more than the entire population of Canada. That is the largest number of slaves in human history. This tiny six-by-seven-foot room in Mumbai, India, is not just a brothel where girls and women—daughters, mothers, and sisters—are trafficked and trapped, but a symbol for the failures of my generation, one that has created this record-breaking tragedy.
As I enter the tiny room, my whole body braces to face the unimaginable filth. The room has a small bed and no other furniture. On the bed lies a woman, the one who has been trafficked for over a decade. This room is her whole universe. It’s where she sleeps, where she eats—and where she gets raped multiple times a day. Though she is barely thirty years old, she has been so abused that she looks decades older.
And there with her is a little girl, only six months old. I am surprised to see the baby. Looking into her brown eyes, I already know what this child’s fate is going to be. I want to grab this child and run. Run to rescue her. Run to change her future. But I can’t.
This encounter happened in 2014, when I went to India for the first time. Given my work in anti-trafficking efforts since 2002, I thought I was familiar with the situation in India. The country is home to 1.38 billion people. For thousands of years it has been a rich source of culture that greatly influences our world, from the legacy of the Indus Valley civilization to the social and economic exchanges along the Silk Road. It is the world’s fifth-largest economy and third-largest purchasing power. And along with her money, glamour, and power, India is marked by poverty that feels desperately hopeless—basically unfathomable to those of us in a North American context.
The poverty exists not just on an economic level. Under India’s caste system, one’s very identity can be a source of poverty; lower castes are not only poorer but also more despised. Generations of inequality and discrimination have taught the poor to submit to this fate as if nothing can be done. The poor are told that if they do not simply accept their poverty and oppression, their next life will be even more difficult—or worse, that their families will be reborn into harsher circumstances. Poor populations are more vulnerable to human trafficking, and of the 40 million slaves worldwide, 27 million live in India. These victims are almost always from the lower castes and the poorest communities.
Before that encounter in that six-by-seven-foot Mumbai brothel, I had heard many cases and client stories. But what I had not known was that there are lives born into the darkest corners of the world.
This child was born out of violence into violence, and she will live in this violence. Sometimes her mother feeds her—this six-month-old infant—alcohol or drugs to keep her quiet at night. Not to abuse her, but to protect her. But inevitably, violence begets violence. There are vultures flying around in this neighbourhood, looking for an opportunity to hunt, and predators seek the weakest. That’s where this little child is growing up. There is no defence for her, and she will come to know the inevitability of this cycle of violence and trauma. It will repeat all over again in the next generation unless—until—light breaks into this dark place.
A room of six feet by seven feet, where a woman faces violent crime every night, is where God has chosen to bring a life into this world. But as I consider this life, the Spirit leads me to ask an “upside-down” question: Can this life be the beginning of enduring beauty?
When beauty is created, if this beauty does not reach into the darkest corners of the world, it is not yet complete—so we must work to make it so, seeking the very essence of beauty at the heart of darkness.
Embers International is a global organization that seeks to protect, restore, and empower victims of human trafficking by creating access to opportunities and resources. It strives to break intergenerational cycles of exploitation and uplift the marginalized through its programs and advocacy. In India, where Embers began operations in 2018, this has meant building a children’s centre in one of the red-light districts.
The centre is called Sahasee Embers. (In Hindi, sahasee means “courageous.”) It started by offering daycare for the children who are born into a brothel or live in the red-light district—the group at the highest risk of trafficking. But watching these children grow gave me pause. Embers created this haven for them, but they still have no way out of these intergenerational cycles of injustice unless they are educated and empowered. So Embers also began to provide education and economic opportunities to both the mothers and their children. However, these opportunities must be preceded by belief that they can have a different future—a breakthrough called hope.
These educational and economic opportunities must be preceded by belief that they can have a different future—a breakthrough called hope.
When I first arrived in India and reached out to a local NGO to see how I could best serve the marginalized, they requested that I offer a medical camp in the poorest neighbourhood of Mumbai. One year, I invited Lisa Singh, an Indian American physician from New York City, to participate in the camp. Although she does not speak Hindi, she looks like a local. Together Dr. Lisa and our team served over three hundred patients in the ninety-five-degree heat and humidity. One of them was Mr. Sirsath, who lived in a slum with his four daughters. After carefully watching our team serve at the medical camp, Mr. Sirsath was moved and said, “When I see Dr. Lisa, I see my daughter! I think my daughter can be a doctor like Dr. Lisa.” That was a moment of breakthrough—from the poverty of identity into generational hope. Mr. Sirsath continued, “I want to see my daughters return to our community and serve like Dr. Lisa.” He began to dream about his daughters’ future, not only for the sake of his daughters, but also for the sake of his community.
Unknown to us, Mr. Sirsath passed away a year later, leaving his four daughters without any means to continue their education.
Meanwhile, Embers implemented an education program called Legacy Education, which provides at-risk youths from the lower castes and survivors of trafficking with access to higher education. It enables them to become professionals, such as nurses, engineers, lawyers, teachers, social workers, and aviation staff, and so to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty for themselves and their family. Our idea was that once they have secured gainful employment, the Legacy Education graduates would be invited to contribute to the education of the next round of students, creating a new, generative cycle. This was a bold and risky initiative, with no guarantee of success. The potential candidates are trauma victims from an oppressed population who have never before had dreams for their futures or role models to show them such dreams were possible. Whether any of them would persevere and succeed in their schooling was questionable.
A girl named Madhu became the first Legacy Education student to enroll in a nursing school. Madhu used to be a troubled youth. It was only with a lot of encouragement from her community leaders that she even applied for the Legacy Education program—in fact, it took years of cultivation. When Madhu started the nursing school, my prayer was that she would just survive and stay with the program. But Madhu showed me how small my prayer was. She graduated the school first in her class and received a distinction award from the government. Today, Madhu is working at a hospital while attending the next level nursing program, and her dream is to become the best female surgeon in India.
Only after her graduation did I learn that Madhu is the second daughter of Mr. Sirsath. It was her father’s proclamation of hope that became a light breaking through the cracks of Madhu’s life.
Madhu has become a role model for the primary- and secondary-school children that Embers is educating, and she often returns to Sahasee Embers to help teach the children. Hope begets hope among these high-risk children and youth, and that hope, even when it is the dying wish of a father, is not in vain.
Hope begets hope among these high-risk children and youth.
Sahasee Embers has grown into a community hub for daycare, emergency shelter, counselling, legal aid, medical assistance, vocational training, and education. For children born into brothels, the centre is a safe place to rest, play, learn, and sleep. For their mothers, who are still trapped in the sex trade, it provides a caring community that empowers them to be a “parent” for the first time. As the name Sahasee Embers implies, these children are indeed courageous little flames. However, after they finish school each day, our children must return to the brothels. We believe that one day these children will put all they have learned into practice—taking their mothers away from the red-light districts and even one day returning to those areas to say “no more!” to intergenerational exploitation and oppression.
There is a venerable art form that comes out of the tea traditions in Japan and Korea, where broken ceramics are mended with lacquer and gold. It is called kintsugi—kin means gold,” and tsugi means “to mend” and also “to pass down.” When important teaware breaks, the families of tea masters will often hold on to the fragments for several generations before having an urushi master mend it—something that is called “beholding.” Kintsugi does not hide the fractures of the past but accentuates them, turning the teaware into a more beautiful and valuable new creation. Our Sahasee Embers children are already beautiful because each of them is the image bearer of God. But they are not without fractures—some of which have been handed down to them from the previous generation. What are we passing down to the next generation? The highest number of slaves in human history? Or a beautifully mended kintsugi generation of empowered children who live in hope?
Every fracture is an opportunity to make something new. The craft of kintsugi offers a common language to convey the work of justice and beauty, whether to the most vulnerable or the most powerful. Embers’ work of justice and mercy is to seek beauty through the brokenness, going beyond addressing conflict into creating new opportunities for flourishing. The fragments of what has been broken through injustice are held together to create a new and beautiful community—something I like to call “kintsugi-peace.”
If there is any community capable of bringing what sometimes feels like the impossibility of beauty into persistent brokenness and intergenerational pain, it is the community that surrounds Embers International. We are mending our trauma with others who have also been shattered—our local partners and field team in India. We hold each other in this brokenness. We do not cover over the pain of the past; rather, we seek to walk alongside our children and their mothers, teaching them how they might turn what once was broken into something beautiful.
Beauty is transcendent. It endures. It has the power to defeat evil. It leads to lasting transformation.
It may get darker and darker as we walk up the steps to face injustice, but even a small crack in the ceiling can fill the darkness with light. When it comes to the people we serve, we know that the fractures they’ve experienced are painful. But God sees those wounds and beholds them—he is the ultimate kintsugi master. And through the fissures, God’s light will flow through. God is there in the heart of the darkness, there with the most broken. God is not afraid of showing up in the messiest places. And his light is pushing back the darkness so that the beauty of the coming new creation is already now resonating throughout the filthy brothels.
I believe the “impossibility” that many of our Sahasee Embers children are going to be leaders in India. And one day, with Madhu, they will say, “No more of this. No more violence, no more brokenness, no more darkness in this place where I am from.” Just like the proclamation of Madhu’s father, their voices will resound loudly through the streets of this red-light district, bringing the reality of hope and kintsugi beauty to even the darkest corners of the world.