When David Black returned home from finally seeing first-hand the realities of the cause he’d fervently supported from afar for years, just one gentle question from his wife, Alana, broke him.
“How was it?” she eventually asked, as they walked into their living room from the airport.

“That was it,” David recalls of that day in 2009. “I just sat on the couch and wept inconsolably. I said: ‘Jeez, we’ve got no idea how lucky we are in this country’.”

The Dunedin Central Rotarian acknowledges he is, if nothing else, a pragmatist. When it comes to building the groundswell of backing, and capturing enough hearts, minds and resources to combat the atrocities at the crux of his crusade, he’s under no illusions: his project is no ‘easy sell’.

“Slavery’s bad enough. It gets worse when you add ‘child’, but put ‘sex’ in the middle of it, and, sometimes, people just don’t want to know.

“I think it’s just so emotional,” he says. “It’s just too uncomfortable, too confronting. So, it’s better for some just to terminate the conversation, rather than get into it too much, because you might actually start feeling something for this cause.”

The scale of human trafficking, and all its terrible tendrils – including child sex slavery – is, for most, incomprehensible. Undeterred, David has committed to memory a slew of shocking statistics that he recites any chance he gets in his never-ending bid to cast light on humanity’s darkest, most depraved depths and the very victims whose plight remains largely hidden.

“The money spent on slavery is estimated to be $US150 billion per year, with the amount attributed to child sex slavery put at around $US100 billion.

“These figures are detailed by non-government organisations like Walk Free and Nvader and are based on known data – remember, though, a lot of this slavery and trafficking is underground to avoid the attention of the authorities.”

To put it into perspective, he cites Rotary’s massive investment in the near-successful eradication of polio.
“In the past 30 years, we’ve spent $US1.4 billion fighting polio. Over that same period, it’s estimated around $US3 trillion’s been spent by paedophiles on child prostitution.

“We’ve immunised two billion kids – which is fantastic, and I hate to use the polio analogy, but, in the same period of time, over that 30 years, there have been more than 368 billion child rapes committed. That’s based on what we know about the number of kids involved in prostitution – about 4.5 million across the world at any given time. That’s just the known ones.

“And, the stats tell us, there are an estimated 2.2 million new children abducted into child prostitution every year. That’s because the brothels need to keep replenishing their supply. It is, like any other business, a supply and demand industry.”

Confronted with such excruciating and unfathomable numbers, there are those who openly question the point and highlight the seeming futility of it all. Undeterred, David refers them to the eponymous parable that, philosophically, guides his project – and helps keep him sane.
IN the wake of a massive, violent storm, a young man takes a walk along a beach early the next morning.

As he makes his way along the coastline, he notices a figure in the distance reaching down periodically, and casting his arm out toward the waves.

As the figure draws closer, he realises it’s an elderly man.

They meet and exchange pleasantries.

“That was a very big storm last night,” the older man notes.

“Yes, it was quite fantastic. I could hear the surf pounding,” the young man replies, before querying what’s drawn the older man to the beach at such an early hour.

“Ah, all of these starfish have been washed above the high-tide mark,” the older man explains, “I’m just throwing them back in the ocean; otherwise, they’ll die. We need to save them.”

The younger man looks at him, rather incredulously.

“But, there are millions of them. You can’t possibly make a difference.”

To which the elderly gentleman stoops down, scoops up another starfish and throws it into the surf.

“Well,” he says, smiling softly, “I sure made a difference to that one.”

“And that,” says David, “is how Project Starfish was born.

“If you thought about the millions and millions of children affected, and the billions and billions of dollars spent on child prostitution all at once, you’d just sit in a corner and rock.

“But if you think of it as everyone can save one child – you can educate them, give them a future – that’s actually quite an achievement,” he says.

“If you do nothing else in your personal life or your work life of substance except save that child from a life of sex slavery they would otherwise have had, then I’d say that’s a very worthwhile achievement.

“I’d be pretty happy turning my toes up knowing I’d made one child’s life sustainable.”

FOR a calling that has consumed more family time and holiday leave than he’d care tot up – and another easy 20 to 30 hours a week when he’s got a new initiative on the go – David’s initial involvement 14 years ago came quite by chance, and started all rather low key.

Invercargill born-and-bred, he’d been raising his young family in Wellington until job restructuring when he moved to Dunedin brought him, serendipitously, into the presence of then-president of the Rotary Club of Dunedin Central Bob Clark.
Bob didn’t miss the chance to sign up the young professional. Back in 2002, one of David’s first Rotary roles was chair of the club’s International Committee, involving overseas projects.

“I didn’t know much about Rotary at that stage, so I went to the Rotary website and saw the name of this project: ‘Children of the Golden Triangle’.”

On further researching the cause – which is now known as ‘Rescue Mission for Children’ – he learned it focused on saving youngsters who were at risk of being abducted and sold to brothels as sex slaves in parts of South-East Asia.

“I had had no involvement whatsoever in fighting for a cause like that previously, but, for some reason, when I saw it, it just resonated with me,” David recalls.

The request for help on the Rotary website called for sponsorship for children at the centre in Mae Suai, Thailand. So, the club treasurer started sending an annual $400 cheque over to sponsor one of the centre’s children. Job done? Hardly.

Curiosity got the better of him, and, before long, David was corresponding with those at the Thai coalface to better understand where the sponsorship was going and the impact it was having. It would turn out to be not only an eye-opening education, but the beginning of what has become his humanitarian opus.
AT the operational heart of the Rescue Mission for Children, in northern Thailand, is Asa. The centre’s co-founder, she, like her young charges who live at the centre, is from the Akha tribe – a people who are among the planet’s most powerless and displaced.

“They are stateless. They have no status, no citizenship,” David explains. “They have no legal right to live in the world, so they’re not respected in any way, shape, nor form by the people in Thailand.”

Despite such systematic and relentless oppression, violent opposition is not in their nature.

“They’ve been around for 500 years and, in that time, throughout history, they’ve never formed an army, and there’s never been anything they’ve responded to with conflict. If there is conflict, they tend to up sticks and go into the jungle,” he says.

“And that’s why the Akha people are spread throughout the hill lands of six countries: Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China.”

David likens Asa to Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Asa’s that sort of person and commands that sort of mana with the Akha people, because they know she’s trying to save them.”

But for her father’s foresight, though, Asa likely would have suffered the same torturous fate of so many of her Akha childhood friends: abduction … rape … assault … death.

“At the age of six, her father took her down and put her across the fence into the local school and left her there,” David says.

“She didn’t know why at the time, but her father knew that education was going to be the key to their daughter surviving.

“After the initial trauma, she got into school and classwork and education, and she absolutely thrived. She was a star pupil.

“At the age of about 12 or 13, she came out of school and went home to her village to visit her parents. The first sight she was greeted with was one of her very good friends being dragged away at gunpoint by a trafficker.

“And then she found her best friend lying in a hut, dying of full-blown AIDS. She’d been in a brothel situation, and was raped to the point where she contracted HIV.

“So, Asa committed, from that very young age, her entire life to saving her people, because if she didn’t do it, no-one would.”

While the children who come to the Rescue Mission for Children today are brought by their Akha parents, historically Asa has put her own life on the line to save abducted youngsters.

“In one case, she rescued about 18 Akha kids who had been snatched by traffickers in Burma. They had rounded up these kids, and they were going to be sold into brothels,” David says.

“Asa went in there, dressed as a peasant, and came across the traffickers. They were drinking moonshine whiskey. They got to the point where they were so intoxicated they passed out, so she got the kids in the middle of the night and took them to safety.

So, she has done some very dangerous – and very brave – stuff.”
TODAY, the Rescue Mission for Children is home to 37 Akha children, who live there during the school term. It’s here they are fed, clothed, nurtured, taught life skills and sent out during the week to schools in the local Mae Suai community, returning to their families during holidays.

The centre is overseen by an Australian-based board; its survival relies solely on donations and fundraising.

“All of the infrastructure at the centre has been built mainly by volunteer church groups and Rotary clubs from around the world – there are Rotary logos all over the place. But 20-odd years later, the place is starting to get pretty run down,” David points out.

Planning and initial construction for 14 new classes at the centre started in 2011, so up to 540 children could receive vocational training onsite, but funds dried up grinding progress to a halt. Dozens of Akha children who would benefit from being at the centre have been identified, he says, but there are simply not the funds or facilities to cater for them.

Child sponsorship is crucial to enabling children to come to the centre, and part of David’s role is to secure sponsors so more can receive the care and education they need to give them the skills and empowerment to create positive futures.

Speaking to Rotary District 9980’s magazine, In Gear, shortly before leaving for his visit to the Rescue Mission Centre in mid-November, David stresses the importance of doing everything that’s needed to get the remaining classrooms and facilities finished.

Educating Akha children isn’t just a matter of opening up vocational opportunities for them, he says – it can be a literal lifesaver, a gateway to securing the very identity and status that raises them above the statelessness that currently renders them such vulnerable targets – easy pickings for traffickers.

“The more children who can go into the rescue centre and be educated, the more who will earn citizenship, and the more who will be protected from being abducted into slavery.

“Education is key in so many senses. Historically, they have had children come to the clinic with full-blown AIDS, children they were unable to help, save taking them to a purpose-run clinic for AIDS patients.

“We have had traffickers going up into Akha villages in trucks and buses, saying: ‘We’ll give your children jobs in hotels and restaurants’. They give the parents a few baht – which, for a subsistence farmer is a lot of money – and, they think: ‘My God, our kids are going to have a future’. And that’s the last they ever see of them.

“Rather than being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, we’re saying we’ll get these kids educated and get them citizenship, which will mitigate the risk of abductions and sex slavery, and give them a chance at a vocation that’s not going to end up in the backstreets of Bangkok. That’s the key for us.”
THE 53-YEAR-OLD risk management and health and safety specialist concedes chances are slim human trafficking and child sex slavery will be stamped out in his lifetime, but he is determined it must, ultimately, be stopped.

“I may only have 20, or maybe 30, years of active service left within Rotary, and I know, realistically, I might not see an end to child sex slavery, so I need to do some succession planning – it’s just normal business sense, and the best thing for Rotary to do is get younger people in and involved in these issues.”

Cue one very special group of young Rotarians – Rotaractors and Next Rotary Generation (NRG) members who have quickly become about as passionate and determined as David to make a difference in what is one of the most challenging and gruelling of global humanitarian challenges. Dunedin Interactors might not be making the trip, but they, too, have weighed in with fundraisers to do their bit to help make this mission a reality.

The nine Rotaractors from Dunedin, Auckland and Norwich in the United Kingdom, together with NRG members, joined David and two other Rotarians in travelling to the Rescue Mission for Children to see for themselves the work Asa and her team are doing to not only ensure the Akha children under their watch survive, but thrive.

As well as extending an invitation to the president-elect of the Rotary Club of Chiang Mai to visit the centre during their stay, David also arranged a series of meetings with senior figures in organisations that specialise in fighting trafficking and slavery, including the United Nations Collaboration Against Trafficking in Persons, the ILO Child Exploitation Project and the Nvader team of investigators and lawyers who hunt down and prosecute paedophiles.

“What I’ve tried to create for them is an immersion experience. So, I’m exposing these young people to as much as they can take to give them a full understanding of the extent of the issues involved in child sex slavery and human trafficking,” David says.

During their 21-day trip, the Project Starfish team also travelled to Siam Reap, Cambodia, to compete in a fundraising half marathon/10km walk for Hagar, an organisation that restores the lives of women and children left devastated by severe human rights abuses.

Hagar put on a pre-race dinner to which the Project Starfish team was invited. There, they were due to meet people who had been through rehabilitation after surviving trafficking and slavery, and gained new vocational skills in order to get jobs and build good futures.

“Some of these survivors are now at a point where they’re strong enough that they can share their story and help others. We’re going to be part of that experience – and feel very privileged to be,” David said in the lead-up to the trip.

“The young Rotarians are going in as eyes wide open as it is possible to go in to this trip.

“We’ve had regular meetings as a team, and I’ve explained to them what they’re going to see, and that it’s going to be confronting emotionally. It’s their journey, but I’m there to support them – we will be supporting each other.

“At the Rescue Mission Centre, they’re going to experience the positives: the children who are being proactively brought into a situation where they’re being cared for and educated, which, at some stage in their education, will allow them to get citizenship – and that legal citizenship status will mitigate the risk of them being abducted.”

While at the centre, the Rotarians planned two priorities: work hard and spend quality time with the Akha children there.

“The last two trips I’ve made there (in 2009 and 2012) have been, largely, research-based, engaging with organisations and spreading the word – this is the first one with hands-on project work, so it’s going to be really great.

“We’re planting 800 guava trees, and a number of banana palms in the orchard, establishing a water culture system, and we’re also running a dental clinic for the kids who are at the centre.

“The kids have this favourite waterfall up in the mountains they love to go and swim in, so our Rotaractors are really looking forward to going there with them.”

David also planned to scope the work necessary to finish the centre’s extra classrooms and the facilities needed to accommodate more children.

“At the moment the 37 Akha children at the centre are from villages in Myanmar. And the reason for that is that, in recent times, Myanmar has opened its borders to economic development from the Western world,” he says.

“Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with the industry of child sex slavery, what we’ve seen is an absolute spike in the demand for child prostitutes and sex slaves, because you’ve got a lot of Western businesspeople now going there.

“That’s one key focus for us – to see the potential of the vocational training facility. We need funds to get that finished, to get the rest of those classrooms done, so we can take in more at-risk kids. So, when we get back to New Zealand, we can go: ‘Right, how do we make this happen?’”  

David emphasises Project Starfish is not out to replicate the work done by the agencies and organisations that specialise in tackling trafficking and slavery, but, rather, it’s designed as a vehicle to bolster their efforts and provide help and support where it’s needed.

And, while he may be giving a group of younger Rotarians a rare humanitarian and educational experience, it’s not all one-way traffic.

“Oh, it’s been one heck of a steep learning curve for me,” he laughs. “I’m used to dealing with email, and these guys are saying: ‘Oh, we’ve got all these things going on’, and I’m saying: ‘But, I haven’t seen an email on that’, and they say: ‘On no, that’s a Facebook event, and that’s on Instagram, and this is on Twitter.’

“At the end of this experience, these Rotaractors are going to have seen and heard and done some amazing things that will hopefully fan the flame, and then it’s up to them what they do with it.

“I want them to use their social media networks – any way to get the story out globally through Interact networks, through Rotaract networks, to contact clubs and say: ‘Look, share this on your Facebook page with your Facebook friends, get them to like it, so they can share further information’.

“And, if you’re in an Interact or Rotaract club, go and have a mufti day, a work day – even if it’s just some small thing to raise money.

“That’s why I developed Project Starfish. It’s not just to support the Rescue Mission, but to support all the non-government organisations that are working in this area.
They’ve got the experience, they know what they’re doing. The more support we can lend them, though, the quicker we’re going to get to our goal of a slave-free world.”
MANY of the thousands upon thousands of hours David has dedicated to this cause have been spent speaking to his fellow Rotarians, spreading the grim word about the atrocities faced by the children Project Starfish seeks to protect. Some are just pre-schoolers.

After seeking advice from former Rotary International Zone director and Rotary Club of Cromwell member Stewart Heal, David travelled, with the support of his club, to Sydney in 2010 to speak to district governors-elect from throughout New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Half-way through his address, though, he wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake in going.

“You know, you’re talking, and you’re wondering how your presentation’s going?

“But there were people leaving the room, and I’m thinking: this is not good.

“Afterwards, though, without exception, they came up and apologised and said: ‘Look, I’m sorry, I was in tears, I couldn’t stay in the room – I had to leave’.”

As David spoke with people after his speech, a softly-spoken man approached him and shook his hand.

“He said: ‘I understand what you’re trying to achieve – it’s a massive thing. Is there anything I can do to help’?”

The man handed over his business card. David was stunned.

“Oh, you’re Kalyan Banerjee – Rotary International president-elect.

“The story had gone right to the top of Rotary. With his help, I got a booth, pride of place in the House of Friendship at the 2012 Rotary International Convention in Bangkok – one of the biggest they’d had, in front of 38,000 Rotarians.”

At the end of the convention he travelled to the Rescue Mission for Children. As a result of the exposure gained at the Rotary gathering, Rotarians from Australia, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States dropped in to the centre to get a greater appreciation about what was being achieved.

Nowadays, any trip he’s away for on work typically comes with as many Rotary meetings as he can squeeze in around business. It’s a chance to promote Project Starfish, and to ensure Rotarians are in no doubt about the gravity of the plight of many millions of the world’s children.

When it comes to horrifying stories and examples, sadly, David is not short of material. As he says, just when you think you’ve heard it all, you find out there’s worse.

“We are talking children – in some cases very, very young children. We’re not talking about this happening to them once in their lifetime; we’re talking about them being raped 10, 15 and 20 times a day,” he says.

“And when the abuse stops, they’ve got such intense pain between their legs, they can’t sleep. So, they build up a sleep deprivation, their immune system’s compromised … and the next thing you know, they’ve got something like HIV, because the clients have decided not to use protection, then that’s it. They’re of no value to the brothel owner, so they’re thrown out on the streets and left to die.

“Until that point, though, these children are a very, very valuable commodity, because, unlike illegal drugs or arms that can only be sold once, these kids can be sold for repeat business over and over and over again.”

Many children are abducted into child sex slavery at such a young age, David says, they know nothing else, no other way of life.

“They probably think that this is why they’ve been put on the planet – just to service these stereotypically white, middle-aged males who will travel half way around the world, often leaving a wife and children at home, while they go and commit these power atrocities against innocent children.”

If he was in any doubt as to the extent of depravity that’s rife in child sex slavery, that ended during his first visit to Thailand in 2009. He met up with an ex-pat Kiwi couple, who, in their 80s, ran a safe house for child prostitutes in Bangkok. They took David down to the streets of Pattaya, to the infamous Walking Street.

“There was a scant police presence,” David recalls. “There were young boys playing down at the beach. The woman told us, in a couple of hours’ time, the cops would be gone and those young boys would be up on the street, selling themselves.”

And, if someone wanted a really, really young child, she told David and pointed to a man walking along the street, they need only approach that guy.

“She said he carried a postcard montage of all the sick and depraved stuff you can engage in – you just tell him what you want, a young boy or a young girl, and they’ll take you away, four blocks away from the glitz, glamour and neon lights, to a place where they’ve got these kids literally locked up in cages like dogs.

“For $20 or $30, you can take one of those little kids and you can do whatever the hell you like to them for an hour. That is the reality. And, there’s a market for it.
“It’s all supply and demand, just like every other industry. As long as people seek it, traffickers and brothel owners will round up these kids and sell them.

“People might say: ‘Oh, you should get the police, you should do this and do that’, but you have to be careful and strategic. Put a foot wrong, and all you do is drive it further underground and behind closed doors,” David says.

“Then it’s totally in the shadows, and then you won’t know what’s going on.”
TRUE to the starfish allegory for which his project is named, David continues to methodically break down his goal into methodical, manageable steps.

Involving the younger Rotarians, who made this latest journey to Asia with him, is another vital phase, not just for Project Starfish, not just for the Rescue Mission for Children and the Akha children, but also for Rotary itself.

“You can get Rotaractors to join a Rotary club; that’s easy, But keeping them there? That’s the hard thing,” David says.

“If you don’t give them something relevant, if you don’t ignite that passion and fan that flame, they’re just going to go.

“They don’t want the traditional Rotary meet-ups. They just want to get out there and do it. And they have a great head start, because these guys are so well connected through social media.”

David is the Oceania regional co-ordinator for the Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery (RAGAS) – the 17th, and most recent, chartered “RAG” – which has been established to tackle trafficking and slavery in all forms.

Next year, his aim is to register Project Starfish as a charity in its own right, although he’s adamant it will remain very closely aligned with Rotary.

In fact, David says, what better organisation than Rotary to take on spearheading worldwide efforts to shut down trafficking and slavery once and for all?

“We’ve nearly eradicated polio – what’s going to be our next mission?

“As passionate as I am, I am just one person. I will use every skerrick of resources available to me through Rotary as a global service organisation to get our young people mobilised and inspired.

“We need to get this thing global, and we need to get support. We need to get it out there more widely in the Rotary world, to the Interactors, the Rotaractors, the NRG clubs, the traditional Rotary clubs, so that everyone in our family – which is nearly two million people collectively – knows about it, because, then, we can have a big impact.

“For a start, to undertake a Tier 1 sponsorship of a child at the centre, it’s about $50 a month – that’s for food, clothing, education and medical care.

“If we go to all Rotarians and ask them to do something to make a small difference, and ask the question: ‘Could you go out to all your family, friends, your Facebook friends and, in some way, raise $10?’ They’d say: ‘Of course I could – I could raise $100’.

“Okay – you go and multiply that by the two million people in the Rotary family and you can see where it could head, and the great work you could do. That’s my vision with Project Starfish.

“Ultimately, I want the focus to move away from the horrific histories these children have to one where they have bright, positive futures.

“My question is, as Rotarians, have we got what it takes to step up to the plate and really take on slavery and trafficking?”
Article date: 20 January 2017

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