He could have been one of the ancient Israelites toiling for the Pharoah under the brutal Egyptian sun some 5,000 years ago. Even his name is biblical.
Three years ago, 10-year-old Joshua was a modern-day slave, and Evan Robbins was a social studies teacher at Metuchen High School in central New Jersey, and a modern-day abolitionist. Robbins had traveled 5,000 miles to Ghana’s Lake Volta to witness contemporary slavery firsthand, in the form of that West African country’s massive, and exploitative, fishing industry.
Like other young Ghanaian boys enslaved in the fishing trade, working 12 to 15 hours a day, eating two meager meals a day, Joshua was thin; he owned a single shirt and a single pair of pants. Like his fellow slaves, some as young as 4, he had never gone to school. Like them, he slept on a dirt floor.
Robbins, who teaches about slavery in the pre-Civil War United States, was in the middle of Lake Volta on a small island, with no electricity or running water. He was there with an anti-slavery NGO to take part in delicate negotiations with village elders and fishermen for the freedom of some slaves that the fishermen controlled.
After two marathon days of talks under an unrelenting sun, officials of the International Organization on Migration had won the freedom of five slaves, in exchange for a fish farm and a motorboat.
The look on Joshua’s face as the negotiating team left — without him — changed Evan Robbins’ life.
When he returned to his New Jersey home in Verona, Robbins, 47, decided to form his own slave-freeing organization, in order to give himself more flexibility in his fight. And so Breaking the Chain through Education (btcte.org), a 501c3 charity, was born. It’s an effort that has expanded from Robbins’ family home to encompass his Metuchen High students, and beyond.
“Joshua was one of the reasons — definitely,” Robbins says.
Robbins’ story resonates, particularly at this time of year, as Jews prepare to retell the Exodus story at Passover seders the world over. But his story also is part of a movement that is gaining traction of late in the Jewish community, as individuals and organizations take a stand against contemporary slavery, which, experts say, includes as many as 27 million people across the world. They are enslaved in factories and private homes, working in fields and in brothels, and doing backbreaking work untangling fishing nets and bailing water on Lake Volta.
While isolated members of the Jewish community have lobbied against slavery in recent years, the movement is now becoming a much higher priority in communal circles; next month UJA-Federation of New York hosts an all-day conference on the topic. (See accompanying story, page 18.)
Through the Breaking the Chain foundation, which Robbins founded a year and a half ago with the help of his students, he is responsible for 30 young Lake Volta slaves gaining their freedom. Some have been returned to their families, others have taken up new lives in foster homes. His crusade, he says, which also involves building schools for the ex-slaves, “is part of my life.” And it is part of what underpins his Conservative Jewish faith. “The core part of Judaism,” Robbins says, “is helping other people.”
Robbins’ organization has produced “A Modern Day Slavery Reading for Passover” to be read before the Four Questions at the seder. Based on a prayer written by Rabbi Joel Soffin of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, N.J., it reads, in part, “we have come to know in our very being that none can be free until all are free.”
The Robbins family mission to rescue young slaves began in a bedroom in their home seven years ago. One of Robbins’ daughters, Maya, then 6, was home sick. Evan, staying home to care for her, read a story in The New York Times about child slavery in Ghana — thousands of children enslaved at dangerous work in the fishing industry, toiling long hours for no pay, sometimes drowning and receiving no medical care.
“We decided we should do something about it,” Robbins says. He told his high school students about his interest. Enthused, they formed a club and started raising money, which Robbins gave to the IOM (iom.int), which monitors human trafficking as part of its mandate to “help ensure the orderly and humane management of migration.”
Robbins invited Simon Deng, a former Sudanese slave and human rights activist, to address his students. With students designing and selling items like calendars and T-shirts, Breaking the Chain has raised more than $200,000. Rather than buy freedom for individual slaves, the organization buys freedom for groups, offering fisherman valuable quid pro quos.
“By establishing schools in destitute villages, we provide local fishermen and their families with educational opportunities and alternative ways of earning their living,” the BTCTE mission statement declares. “In exchange the trafficked children they employ are set free and returned to their families.
Robbins, who was recently honored for his humanitarian work by the New Jersey Education Association, can tell you the story of each slave he has played a role in freeing, boys who are growing into young men, who are back with their families, and, for the first time, in school.
And he can tell especially about Joshua, and the efforts to free him.
It was Robbins’ first trip to Ghana, and the negotiations that he was a part of had the air of a traditional village meeting. They featured drumming and extensive shaking of hands, 150 men and women and children sitting around on plastic chairs outside on the dirt, under the hot sun. The fare was “hardboiled eggs with some spicy sauce,” Robbins remembered. He and two IOM representatives bargained, through a translator, with the fishermen for two days, 15 hours a day; the visitors made a moral argument, explaining why slavery is wrong. They made a financial pitch, offering the fishermen something they needed in return for slaves’ freedom.
The final agreement: five slaves’ freedom for a fish farm and a boat motor. “We didn’t exchange money,” Robbins says.
Joshua — Robbins does not reveal the ex-slaves’ last names — wasn’t one of the five.
The fisherman had bought Joshua five years earlier from the youngster’s grandfather in a nearby village, for the equivalent of $38; the money was needed for a dowry for Joshua’s mother. And the fisherman would not part with him.
Joshua was at the negotiations the whole day — with “a very serious look on his face,” Robbins says — because his owner was there the whole day. “His face was one of the saddest things I have ever seen.”
When Robbins and the IOM representatives left the Lake Volta area the next day, Joshua went back to work on the boats.
And, back home, Robbins took his concerns to his students again.
They were reading “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson’s book that describes how he oversaw the building of 171 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
We should build a school, Robbins’ students suggested.
Through IOM representatives on the ground in Ghana, who visited several villages and proposed a trade — a school for a village in return for the freedom of slaves owned by fishermen who live there — one agreeable community, Awate Tornu, a farming-and-fishing village of 1,000 people on the shore of Lake Volta in eastern Ghana, was found.
First free the slaves, then we’ll start building the school, the IOM representatives insisted.
Nineteen boys went free; construction on the school, a one-story, V-shaped, cinderblock structure, began.
As part of the deal, Joshua also went free. The IOM people negotiated separately for his release.
Robbins would like, of course, to rescue more than a score of children at a time. The fishermen are tough bargainers. “This is what we are able to get.”
“I think it’s a wonderful initiative,” Chris Lom, IOM senior media and communication officer, says of Robbins nonprofit. An individual like Robbins, who has neither wealth nor political connections nor a background in international human rights is “an exception,” he says.
“When somebody steps up to the plate like this, it’s a wonderful story,” Lom says. “He’s obviously an exceptional individual. He’s managed to have his students gain an awareness of how lucky they are. He’s a very good teacher who has instilled in his students a very worthwhile concern for the least fortunate people in the world.”
IOM keeps Robbins up-to-date on the progress of the school’s construction and the lives of the now-freed slaves.
Last year, the Robbins family, active members of the Conservative Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, went to Ghana to see for themselves.
Robbins and his wife, Lisa, 47, a reading specialist teacher, took their two daughters — Arianna, 17, and Maya, 12, both of whom attend the Golda Och Solomon Schechter School in West Orange and assist their parents’ fund-raising and administrative activities in Breaking the Chain through Education. “From the beginning our kids were involved in it,” Robbins says.
During their visit, Lisa trained teachers; the daughters played with the village children, and Maya, who had recently marked her 12th birthday, was named a “Queen Mother” in a thank-you ceremony during which she was blessed in a ceremonial headscarf, kinte cloth and beaded necklaces and bracelets.
“I wanted to go back to Ghana as soon as I got back here,” says Maya, whose bat mitzvah hall was decorated with photos of freed slaves and other Breaking the Chain mementoes. “It’s a charity we’re really committed to.”
Her father returned to Ghana a few months ago, for more reunions, and for the dedication of the completed school.
Is he scared in Ghana? No, he says. “I never felt any danger.” He’s never been threatened, although he is possibly affecting the slave owners’ livelihood and trying to change an accepted economic way of life.
Robbins hopes to schedule more-frequent monitoring visits to Ghana, and plans to start a campaign to release another group of slaves within the next few months. “I’d like to rescue another 20 children.” This time, “the old way,” through trades for “a motor or a fuel pump,” he says; it’s less expensive than a school.
His reunions with the now-free youngsters are emotional, he says. He finds himself “holding back tears.” The children, he says, are reserved. Words of thanks don’t come easily. “It’s an unbelievable feeling that someone is free because of what you did. That’s thanks enough.”
Last year, he reunited with Joshua, who is living with a foster family — “His [own] family wasn’t able to take care of him” — and is attending school. “He’s doing great,” Robbins says.
Joshua, Robbins says, was more demonstrative, and he knew he owed his freedom to the American he had met for one day three years earlier.
“He jumped into my arms,” Robbins says. “He hugged me.”