October 8th, 2012 --- College Station, TX - Bryan/College Station based non-profit Mercy Project just returned to Texas after having successfully rescued 24 trafficked children from a small fishing village in Ghana, Africa.
News 3's Nicole Morten accompanied the Mercy Project Team in Ghana, Africa where she captured the rescue firsthand. Nicole will bring us the full report on Child Trafficking and provide behind the scenes footage of the rescue with a series of stories in November.
Mercy Project has been working on the ground in Ghana for the past two years, and this rescue was a culmination of these efforts. "This is a day we have been working toward, praying for, and laboring to achieve, for more than two years," said Chris Field, Executive Director of Mercy Project. "To walk out of that village with those precious children and to know that they were now free and could be kids again was a more incredible feeling than I could ever describe.”
Experts estimate that somewhere between 7,000-10,000 children in Ghana have been trafficked to work in the fishing industry. Most of these children come from rural and impoverished communities with poverty stricken mothers who struggle even to feed them. These mothers often agree to "rent" the children out to fishermen from far away because they believe the child's future is more promising with the chance of learning a trade, possibly attending school, and at least being able to eat a small amount of the fish they catch each day. Unfortunately, the children's days are almost always filled with up to 12 hours of work a day, seven days a week, which leaves no time for school or any of the other things that children generally enjoy. "To watch these children working in fishing boats, pulling in massive fishing nets, and cleaning the fish they catch, is just heartbreaking," said Mercy Project employee Gretchen Nickson. "They are children by age--but their childhoods have been stolen," she added.
While there are several non-profits working to eradicate child trafficking in Ghana, Mercy Project is the sole group working to end the problem through the use of sustainable economic development projects that are led by the local community. This includes partnering with the community for many months both before and after the children are rescued. "We believe that the issue of child trafficking, at its core, is an economic issue," said Board Chairman, Dean McMann. "So to end the problem, to really eradicate this virtual modern day slavery, we have to get at the root cause. We're doing that with the implementation of aquaculture, or cage fishing projects. We're doing that by giving the fishermen a better and more economical way of making a living which doesn't involve the children. Because of this, the fishermen are actually willing to give up the children voluntarily and agree that they won't traffic any more children in the future."
All 24 of the rescued children were from the same village in Ghana. Mercy Project has been working with this village, a fishing community named Adovepke, for more than 9 months. The process began with conversations about economic development and child trafficking and ended with a village-wide meeting in which Field addressed the fishermen who were willing to give up their kids. Field asked the adults in the crowd to raise their hands if they themselves had been trafficked as children. Slowly, more than half the adults raised their hands. "Thank you," Field then said to them, "thank you for being unselfish. Thank you for giving these kids an opportunity that you never had."
After the children are rescued, they are taken to a Ghanaian-run rehabilitation center where they receive medical care, psychological counseling, and begin their formal education. For many of the children, it's the first time they will have ever sat in a classroom or slept on a bed. "The joy on their faces when they hold their first pencil, draw their first circle, or learn that their name is actually made up of letters from the alphabet, is amazing to behold," Field said. "Very, very powerful to get to see that."
While the children are being rehabilitated at the shelter, a Ghanaian social worker will locate their families to prepare them for the child's reintegration. "Many of these mothers are relieved to know that their child is still alive and safely out of harms way," says Nickson. "They often miss them dearly and are so grateful for a chance to have them back." To help alleviate the issue of poverty in the children's home villages, Mercy Project will fund the first two years of school fees for the children. "When kids are going to school, the parents feel like their family has a fighting chance to make it," said Field. Ghanaian social workers will also closely monitor the families to make sure the children are not trafficked again. This monitoring will last for two years or until Mercy Project feels like the danger of the child being re-trafficked again is gone.
For more information about Mercy Project, visit www.mercyproject.net