‘Set Beautiful Free’ Aims to End Human Trafficking Misery

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Even from across the world, grassroots efforts can take hold and make a difference for an epidemic almost too abhorrent to imagine.
Pasadena-based committee members for India’s Set Beautiful Free have learned this, after recently immersing themselves in a world so forsaken they couldn’t believe it to be true until they saw it firsthand. They had heard of the organization that helps rescue impoverished women and girls sold into the sex trade, but before they were ready to commit financially and hours of service, they had to see it to believe it.
So off they went, five concerned Pasadenans, to the depths of one of India’s poorest of the poor cities, to a neighborhood ghetto grid where they saw street upon street of enslaved women and girls, held behind bars and cages in the city’s brothels. This is Kamathipura, known as the red light district.
Concepcion “Connie” Holguin said nothing could have prepared her for the emotional journey. She described the filth, the stench, the rats and the aimlessly roaming, barely-clothed children. And then she looked up, and saw the bars on second-story rooms — cells, really — overlooking the streets. Some of the cells are said to be no bigger than boxes. The younger girls are held there, raped repeatedly, until they are broken and no longer a flight risk.
“It’s repulsive. It stiffens your spine. I didn’t know I could be so angry. Just completely outraged,” said Holguin, choking back emotions of the memory. “When we came back I was absolutely convinced to do something. We just want people to look; take a look, see what’s happening. We saw modern-day slavery.”
That group of five returned to become Set Beautiful Free Los Angeles Committee and is inviting the Greater Los Angeles area to support the nonprofit in its pledge to rescue, restore and rebuild the lives of those victimized by sex trafficking in India. On Sept. 16, the local chapter will invite 350 guests to an “Evening in India” at Holguin’s family historic estate in Pasadena. The evening will celebrate all things Indian, with food from the Mint Leaf, Indian dance and culture, but focus on education about human trafficking in India, and one group’s prevailing mission to stop it. One of the estate’s back houses will be transformed into an identical cell one might find in the red light district, so that people can see it for themselves.
The nonprofit’s core group from India, along with a group of rescued survivors who now are employed by SBF, will share their personal stories of enslavement and journey to freedom.
Lisa Haleblian, Set Beautiful Free contingent co-founder, has been twice now to the ravaged red light district. The first time, she went to see it for herself, and again to help organize the trip for Holguin and the group of others.
“I really didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to see it again … It took me months to get over the depression and [what I saw] last time,” Haleblian said. “My first time there, we were being taken down into the district in a van, and my first image was of a woman strewn out into the gutter of the street. She was either passed out or dead, and people were just walking over her like it was nothing.”
Heleblian has worked in various humanitarian efforts in Mexico and Armenia, yet the streets of Kamathipura were more than the mother of three could bear. Ultimately, she found it a relief to take the others, like Holguin, knowing that with the power of numbers, the group could combine talents and truly make a difference.
“Our vision is education. We want to show you, tell you what these survivors have dealt with, share stories from real-life victims,” Holguin said. “This is an epidemic, and the more you bring light to it the less power it has.”
An initiative of the Bombay Teen Challenge, Set Beautiful Free was founded by a man named K.K. Deveraj to break the cycle of sex trafficking. According to the United Nations, there are at least 3 million women who are victims of trafficking, with some 20,000 of those located in the city of Mumbai. Of those, about 100,000 of girls are trafficked to Delhi and other areas from the state of Jharkhand. About 67% of those girls who fall victim are bought and sold by someone they know. Usually, the victims are young women and girls — as young as 10 — from rural areas born to large, impoverished families who are promised domestic work in the city to help support their families. Then, their world ends. Many of them become young mothers, which accounts for the hundreds of impoverished children living among the brothels. If they stay, they also become absorbed into the industry.
In comes SBF’s mission: Rescue, restore and empower. The most challenging part, the rescue operation, is taken on by a team living among those suffering in the red light districts, counseling women over time to earn their trust and convincing them of a future elsewhere, for them and for their children. The team is comprised of ex-pimps, ex-prostitutes and ex-brothel owners who were once trapped in similar conditions and can relate to the victims. The outreach team works with thousands of victims each year.
Another aspect of SBF is providing those trapped in the brothels with medical treatment. More than 90% of those victims suffer from some type of sexually transmitted disease, including HIV, and thousands more from diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria. The nonprofit has set up two medical clinics in Turbhe and Kamathipura that offer women and children free medical advice and treatment.
Once ready to escape, SBF takes the victims to one its campuses a few hours away, to safely distance them from their captors. For the safety of SBF and its mission, the Outlook agreed not to name the city.
But the town is affectionately called Ashagram, “Village of Hope,” and this is where the healing begins, said SBF Executive Director Thomason Varghese, who described the campuses with nurses and nutritionists on staff to restore the victims back to health. There is an academy for children K-9th grade, with top-grade teachers who help them thrive.
“Our homes and campuses are joyful places — a place where children thrive,” said Varghese, speaking from the academy on a recent morning over the din of laughing school children in the background.
Varghese, born in New York to Indian parents, moved from Philadelphia to India in 2012 with his family to dedicate his life and career to SBF’s mission. His wife, Leena, is now the principal of the academy. At times, it is difficult to explain to his three young boys, just 9, 8 and 5 years old, that the children they are helping don’t have a mom and dad to take care of them.
“But I’m glad my children get to see this life, and that not everything is a beautifully groomed suburb,” he said.
Sex slavery in India, he notes, is actually a residual of British rule, and was a system set up by the British military to service their troops. And while progress is being made, with the numbers maybe a fraction of what they once were, much more is still to be done. The sex trafficking trade is spreading out more throughout India, due in part to the Internet and the easy accessibility. SBF is fighting back, creating another 70-acre campus for rescued women, as well as for men and boys recovering from drug addiction, teaching them sustainable, organic farming.
“This is where we count on international awareness … the support, especially for our school, has been tremendous,” he said, speaking loudly, because suddenly strong young voices filled the background as children sang in unison the “Jana Gana Mana,” the Indian national anthem.
“They will sing in Hindi, Marati and then in English,” Varghese said proudly, trying to explain in part why they continued for so long. “The best and the brightest will always find a way … but here, everyone has a chance, everyone is thriving.”

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