Helping Thailand's child victims

By Jessica Elgot, September 8, 2011
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Justifi volunteer Orit Tal working in a classroom during the Jewish organisation’s trip to Thailand

Justifi volunteer Orit Tal working in a classroom during the Jewish organisation’s trip to Thailand

The northern provinces of Thailand are a long away from Rabbi Jamie Cowland's Bournemouth roots. But he says that working with some of the planet's most damaged children in Chang Mai province has helped him to appreciate the values of Jewish leadership and social justice activism.

Many of the children have been victims of sex traffickers. Others are homeless and at risk of being sold into slave labour.

Rabbi Cowland spent 10 years working for Aish UK in London. He made aliyah in 2004 and for two years has run Justifi, a social action organisation taking Jews to Chang Mai and Chang Rai to volunteer with groups helping the victims of trafficking. His first trip to the region left a lasting impression.

"I worked with an organisation which looks after homeless children at extreme risk of being sold into labour or the sex trade. Some are three-years-old.

"One of the children in the home was deaf and he couldn't speak. He took me by the hand and took me to a ruined truck and pointed to my camera and made me take pictures of him driving the truck. The people looking after him have no idea what he has been through. They said he never smiles. I took the pictures and showed him them on my camera, and he smiled. The team there were ecstatic. They couldn't believe how happy he was."

However, the boy is currently unaccounted for. "We helped fund the kid to go to a special school, but he's now missing. That's shows how precarious life is for these kids."

The trips, which run every summer, give participants the opportunity to work with three organisations.

One of the British volunteers was Katie Silver, 25, a charity worker from London. She said: "One of the most inspirational parts was meeting the people running the organisations.

"They have given up their jobs and their lives to help these victims. The horrible reality of poverty really struck me. Families send their 11-year-old girls to work as prostitutes because they cannot afford to eat."

Rabbi Cowland said he was mindful of being a help, rather than a hindrance, to charities working in such a sensitive field. He added: "We are working with people who have already been rescued. People imagine go-go bars and sex shows. We don't go anywhere near them - that would be weird."

It was an "inspirational experience to work with leaders doing something amazing in their own community. But most organisations can't manage an influx of foreigners coming to help for a few days. For a week, it is very difficult.

"We observe, we teach in a school, we hang out with the kids. We have built classrooms and a playground.We want to return people to their communities more committed to tikkun olam."

Rabbi Cowland has taken 25 volunteers on two trips over the summer. "It's very varied, from 18-year-olds to people in their thirties who have been working.

"The participants can be religious, non-religious, men and women. It's very broad. But most are social-action minded and interested in a Jewish approach to this stuff."

He wants to give Jews "the opportunity to get more involved in social justice issues. What does Judaism say about poverty? What does Judaism say about slavery?

"But mainly it's focused on leadership. This is about taking responsibility and trying to be a light to the nations, using Jewish values and fighting for what's right."

    Last updated: 11:16am, September 8 2011