Eight years ago, Indian American siblings Medhnaa and Kushaan Saran of Vienna, Virginia, traveled to India and visited Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s ashram in Jaipur for survivors of child labor and human trafficking.
“We didn’t know why the children were there,” Medhnaa Saran told India-West, explaining that many of the children had visible injuries. “They all had social anxiety and were afraid to speak to us.”
It was later that the Saran kids found out they had met children who had been rescued from factories where child labor is practiced. “We knew we had to help,” said Medhnaa, who with her brother began fund-raising, collecting clothes and sports equipment to send to the kids. She and her brother make annual visits to the ashram. “I feel like the kids are my brothers and sisters,” she said, noting that she is able to experience first-hand the progress the children make emotionally and physically.
“When they first come to the ashram, they are distrustful. They have been kidnapped multiple times, and not sure whether they have been kidnapped again.”
“But then at the ashram, they just blossom,” said Medhnaa, who is in 10th grade.
“These kids have no parents, but they have such a great attitude,” Kushaan, a high school freshman, told India-West.
The Saran children founded the Touch of Life Foundation in 2016, asking fellow students to serve on their board of directors. Each year, the Foundation has raised about $25,000 from school bake sales and a Diwali Party. At this year’s event, each guest will light a diya to send good wishes to a child at the ashram.
This year, the Diwali party will be held on Nov. 16, at the Sherwood Community Center in Fairfax, Virginia. The Touch of Life Foundation is a 501 (c) 3 charity. 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the children at the ashram, said Medhnaa.
In an interview with India-West last November, ahead of the screening of “The Price of Free,” a documentary based on his work, Satyarthi spoke of the scourge of human trafficking and child labor around the world, predicting that about half a million children globally are trapped in some form of indentured servitude.
Satyarthi and his wife have personally rescued about 87,000 children in India. He explained that parents are lured into giving up their children by traffickers who offer up false promises and much-needed cash. The children are then taken to far-off areas where parents cannot locate them.
Girls are sold for Rs.1-2 lakh – $2-4,000 – for marriage to much older men. Girls sold into brothels are bought from parents for a price of Rs. 2-4 lakh, Satyarthi told India-West.
The social activist, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 with child activist Malala Yousafzai, said: “Children should not be responsible for the poverty of their parents. They should be free to go to school, to play cricket or football. It is the moral responsibility of all of us to ensure that children around the world are free.” He encouraged people to thoroughly examine the products they purchase to ensure that child labor was not involved at some stage before the finished product.
Kushaan told India-West that — over the years — he has found a special connection with Kinsu, who grew up in the ashram but is now an engineer. Kushaan also hopes to be an engineer.
Medhnaa said she is most inspired by Amar Lal, an orphan at birth, who was rescued at the age of five from child labor. Amar Lal grew up at the ashram and is now a civil rights lawyer. He recently won his first case three months ago, advocating for a girl in Delhi who was a victim of sexual abuse.
Medhnaa and Kushaan hope to make the issue of child labor and trafficking more visible. “Trafficking is in every neighborhood in the U.S.,” said Medhnaa, noting that massage parlors frequently use trafficked labor. Young people in gangs are also victims of trafficking and indentured servitude, she added, noting that children can rarely escape gangs one they’ve been recruited in.
The Sarans have worked to include the issue as part of the curriculum throughout their district. They are next aiming to do the same at a statewide level.
The organization can be viewed online at touchoflifefnd.org