Indian woman’s quest to end the cycle of prostitution comes to Mercer Island

New Light workers and children on the roof top that served as a playground for the shelter. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Seven years after I met her in the red light district of Kolkata, the founder of New Light, a shelter for the children of prostitutes, has proven just how much one woman with a vision can achieve. 

I was pretty nervous when I first visited Kalighat, a red light district in Kolkata, India, seven years ago. Women in red saris looked me up and down and whispered to each other as I crawled out of the taxi and made my way down the crowded lane toward a chipped paint archway.

I had read about Kalighat—the desperation, the violence and the human trafficking. I’d also heard about New Light, a shelter where the children of prostitutes could go for a hot meal, treatment for a stomach ache or even a lesson on some aged computers—all while their mothers worked.

I was ready for hopelessness as I navigated the open sewers and climbed the stairs that led to New Light’s rooftop courtyard. Instead, I was met by giggles.

A small group of kids played among pigeons that escaped grabby hands to a brick ledge just out of reach. A tiny girl with a cowlick and a torn yellow party dress tugged my sleeve inviting me to play. A few moms gossiped as their metal bracelets flashed in the sun.

Urmi Basu cares for one of the New Light children in 2006, while her brother Arnab (left) looks on. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Urmi Basu cares for one of the New Light children in 2006, while her brother Arnab (left) looks on. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Amid it all sat Urmi Basu, founder of New Light. She was a tiny woman with a big smile.

She’d founded the shelter in 2000 with the goal of providing a safe place for the neighborhood’s kids. The original space served only a few children, but six years later the shelter had expanded—as had New Light’s mission.

New Light had recently opened a residential school, away from Kalighat, where girls at risk for induction into prostitution could get an education and access new opportunities. In 2006 there were 12 girls enrolled at Soma Memorial Girls Home.

“We have 40 girls at Soma now,” says Basu in the sunny backyard of a Mercer Island home—about as far away from the clamor and poverty of Kalighat as I can imagine.

A lot has happened at New Light since Basu and I last met. The rooftop courtyard has chicken coops now. They also have their own bathroom and a kitchen. More children are being served—210 total—and more residential school projects are in the works.

Last fall, Basu was featured in the widely acclaimed documentary “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Despite the attention, New Light is still a small organization with a $250,000 annual operating budget. They need to raise money to open a boy’s residential home is what brings Basu to the Pacific Northwest.

“We are very focused on establishing very positive male role models,” says Basu, explaining the need to serve boys, as well as girls, by “moving them away from a place where the only role they know for a boy or a young man is that of a pimp, or a trafficker or a procurer or someone that lives off the earning of a prostitute.”

Without intervention, the daughters of sex workers in Kalighat are likely to enter the trade themselves. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

Without intervention, the daughters of sex workers in Kalighat are likely to enter the trade themselves. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

Basu is here as the guest of Herzl-Ner Tamid Synagogue and The Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. Both congregations donated $25,000 to New Light for a pervious project and have sent volunteers to the shelter in Kalighat.

They’ve brought Basu here this week to help raise the last $70,000 needed to secure the boys home.

“They need it and they want it,” says Janet Gray, a member of Herzl-Ner Tamid who has traveled to volunteer at New Light twice, “They’ve seen the model work for their sisters and they want the same opportunities.”

Basu is also here to raise awareness about human trafficking and forced prostitution—a problem she says that “isn’t only happening in India,” but is a global issue requiring a global solution.

A small part of that solution is New Light, with seven years of success stories. Basu tells me one New Light kid recently started culinary school; another just finished his diploma in computer animation.

“Many of the kids that you probably have photographs of, have finished high school,” she says smiling.

I hope the little girl in the yellow dress is among them.

Basu will speak at Herzl-Ner Tamid this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Her talk is free and open to the public.

To read Sarah’s 2006 reporting from the red light districts of Kolkata, click here.

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