By Pervez Saleem
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
When Humans of New York’s (HONY) Brandon Stanton came to Pakistan this summer, we knew we were bound to discover some remarkable stories. To conclude his series, he put the spotlight on a very special change agent: Syeda Ghulam Fatima.
Fatima is a notable activist in the country, who is known for her work towards ending bonded labour in Pakistan’s treacherous brick kilns.
Humans of New York
I want to conclude the Pakistan series by spotlighting a very special change agent who is working to eradicate one of the nation’s most pressing social ills. Over 20,000 brick kilns operate in Pakistan, supported by millions of workers, and the system is largely underpinned by an extremely close cousin of slavery-bonded labor. Throughout rural Pakistan, illiterate and desperate laborers are tricked into accepting small loans in exchange for agreeing to work at brick kilns for a small period of time. But due to predatory terms, their debt balloons, growing larger as time goes on, with no possibility of repayment, until these laborers are condemned to work for the rest of their lives for no compensation. If the laborer dies, the debt is passed on to his or her children. The practice is illegal. But due to the extreme power and wealth of brick kiln owners, the law is often unenforced in rural areas. It is estimated that well over one million men, women, and children are trapped in this modern feudalist system.
Meet Syeda Ghulam Fatima. Described as a modern day Harriet Tubman, Fatima has devoted her life to ending bonded labor. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism. Quite literally, she places herself between the workers and their owners. The organization she leads, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, is small but determined. It is working to set up Freedom Centers throughout rural Pakistan so that every bonded laborer has access to advocacy and legal aid. Fatima operates on a very small budget. So as we learn her story over the next few days, anyone wishing to help empower Fatima can donate to Bonded Labour Liberation Front here:
Talking to DawnNews, Fatima recalls what it was like meeting Brandon and how he has helped spread awareness about the prevailing social shame:
“Brandon went and met these labourers himself, he saw how miserable their lives are and it was evident that he wanted to do something to help. His support has been appreciated immensely and he has these kiln workers’ prayers with him.”
She adds: “It took someone from a different country coming in and spreading the word about this social ill that plagues our nation.”
There are millions of workers who are trapped in this system of debt bondage, one that Stanton refers to as “an extremely close cousin of slavery.” Fatima runs an organization focused on the emancipation and rehabilitation of such workers called Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLFF); a fundraising campaign was launched by the blogger to help raise money for Fatima’s cause.
Eight hours ago, the campaign had generated around $600,000. The sum doubled overnight and is a whopping $1.2 million at the moment.
Humans of New York
“My sister’s kidneys were failing. We tried to raise the money to save her. We sold our cattle. We sold our property. We sold everything we had. When we ran out of options, I took a 5,000 rupee loan from the brick kiln. I thought I could pay it back by working for 15 or 20 days. But when I thought it was time to leave, the kiln owners did the accounts. They told me: ‘You lived in our house. You ate our food. You owe 11,000 now. If you have 11,000 rupees, you can go. Otherwise get back to work.’ They worked me harder. I never saw my wages. If I wanted to stop, they beat me. A few months later, my grandfather died. I asked for a few days off to arrange his funeral. ‘You owe 30,000 rupees now,’ they told me. ‘If you have 30,000 rupees, you can leave. Otherwise get back to work.’ Now I owe 350,000 rupees. And my sister died a long time ago. There’s no way out. Soon my debt will pass on to the next generation.”
This is the sixth post in a series on Syeda Ghulam Fatima. Known to her admirers as Pakistan’s Harriet Tubman, Fatima has worked tirelessly to eradicate bonded labor-one of the last remaining forms of modern slavery. This man is one of millions of bonded laborers in Pakistan, and one of the tens of thousands who has turned directly to Fatima to help him escape the violence and cruelty of his owners. Fatima has been electrocuted, shot, and repeatedly beaten for her activism. Despite her outsized impact, she operates on a very small budget. So we are raising money to help her in her mission.
Today is the last day of the fundraiser we are holding for Fatima’s organization, The Bonded Labour Liberation Front. We have raised nearly $600,000 so far. ($400,000 in the past six hours). Costs are low in Pakistan, so this sort of money can be leveraged many times over. We are not just increasing Fatima’s abilities to help free people from bondage. We are MULTIPLYING those abilities. Nearly 20,000 people have contributed so far. That is .13 percent of the people who follow this page. If .2 percent of people who follow this page donated, we could empower Fatima with $1,000,000. I encourage everyone to read the previous posts so far, and consider being counted in our effort to aid Fatima’s fight against modern slavery: http://bit.ly/1N9W3Ts
The longer he works, the larger his debt grows.
Labourers in rural Pakistan get lured into working at one of the 20,000 brick kilns in the country by accepting small loans in exchange for working there for a short period of time. Once cornered into the vicious cycle, it is next to impossible to find their way out as their debt keeps increasing. The workers are forced to do the job until the day they die; even then, the debt is not forgiven. It is passed on to their children.
Although technically illegal, the voices of these workers go unheard as Pakistan’s rural areas are laced with corruption and the wealthy and powerful are unaccountable.
Humans of New York
“I was walking to court to attend a hearing against a kiln owner when suddenly I was surrounded by a group of men. Everyone ran away except for my brother and me. The men told me that I better drop the case. I told them I would not. Then they knocked me to the ground, pulled back my leg, and shot me in the knee. Afterwards they did the same to my brother. We thought we were dead. I was taken to the public hospital but was turned away. Politicians from the local ruling party had forbidden the doctors from treating me. The assailants were never prosecuted. I had to sell my house to afford treatment at a private hospital. But the brick kiln workers came together to try to help me pay for my treatment. Despite their poverty, they gave 5 to 10 rupees at a time. And they lined up to donate their blood.”
When asked about how the funds will be allocated, the BLFF founder states, “The organization’s committee has to sit down and decide that, I am only one member of the committee. Nothing is set in stone right now but we will continue our agenda working towards the freedom of these labourers, their education and providing them with legal aid, among other things. Rest assured, the process will be completely transparent and there will be an open publication about everything.”
For those skeptical about HONY’s agenda, will this be a wake up call?
Though most responses to HONY’s Pakistan series were positive, some people did criticize and question Stanton’s motives. That may no longer be possible, as the fundraising campaign has achieved in a few short hours what many months of campaigning might not have made possible.
Fatima is not the only person Stanton has helped through his iconic photo series – visitors to his page were equally interested in helping this woman, below, who suffers from Hepatitis C.
Humans of New York
We have located the woman from yesterday’s post, and are in contact with her. We also have someone in Lahore who is going to help connect her with those who wish to help. In order to streamline that process, we created a new email account for all such offers. She is hoping for someone who can help connect her with services, as opposed to cash donations. If you believe you can help this woman with accommodation and/or medical treatment, please email: email@example.com.
Thanks everyone. Based on the outpouring of offers and support from yesterday, hopefully we can help her heal and get back on her feet.
“I left an abusive relationship and I have nowhere to go. I have Hepatitis C, so no one is willing to take me in. I don’t know how long I will live. I tried to give her up for adoption so that she’d have a good home. The wife of a minister told me about a place where I could drop her off. But when I got there, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
We wonder – what will HONY do next?