Barber’s essay nets $10G for enslaved children

Suzanne Axelbank won $10,000 for child laborers in Ghana and $10,000 for herself in an essay contest. This week, a Ghanaian social worker with the International Organization of Migration, Eric Peasah, met Axelbank in the Bronx. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Axelbank

In Ghana, there are children that live in slavery, Suzanne Axelbank wrote in an essay to Oriental Trading, a toy marketing company. Children sold to crook fisherman as apprentices. Children from poor families.

Axelbank, who owns and operates Someplace Special, a Bronx toyshop and children’s hair salon, won Oriental Trading’s 2008 “Make the World Fun” contest – $10,000 for Ghana’s fisher-kids and $10,000 for herself. She and Eric Peasah, a Ghanaian social worker with the International Organization for Migration, appeared on Bronxtalk, Bronxnet’s flagship television show Tuesday, October 28.

Axelbank’s salon caters to children with special needs. At Someplace Special, kids play with model trains while Axelbank snips away.

Two years ago, a magazine brought Axelbank face to face with the brutal realities of forced labor.

“I work with children every day,” she said. “I love what I do. I just couldn’t believe that kids go to bed crying, go to bed too burnt out to cry. These children live without joy.”

Axelbank learned more about Ghanaian child trafficking from the Oprah Winfrey Show. The kids go to work on Lake Volta, an enormous inland reservoir. They miss out on school. Often, the children are beaten.

“The fishermen promise to provide food, clothing and education,” Peasah said. “They don’t.”

Abused and far from home – most hail from Ghana’s coastal region – the kids rarely run away. They slog through 18-hour days, diving to untangle fishing nets over and over again. Because Volta Lake is man-made, its cold waters conceal a submerged forest.

According to Axelbank, many fisher-kids drown.

“It just breaks your heart,” she said.

Eventually, Axelbank got in touch with IOM, Peasah’s outfit. IOM rescues fisher-kids from bondage, offers psychiatric support and enrolls them in public school. It also accepts donations like books and pencils.

“I wanted to send something different,” Axelbank said. “I thought, ‘these children need to have fun.’”

Leafing through an Oriental Trading catalogue for blowup vinyl animals and sport balls this June, Axelbank noticed an advertisement.

“It was this contest – “Make the world more fun.” That’s exactly what I wanted to do. So I wrote an essay, pressed send and promptly forgot about it.”

To Axelbank’s surprise, she won. On Wednesday, October 29, Oriental Trading presented IOM with $10,000 and $10,000 to Axelbank, who also held an arts and crafts fundraiser for the fisher-kids at her salon.

“I feel really good when I mail the children something and get a picture back,” Axelbank said. “There’s a large Ghanaian population here in the Bronx. But it doesn’t matter where you’re from. People think slavery is over. It’s not, and that’s bad for everybody.”

Now Monroe College’s Students in Free Enterprise club has pledged to pitch in.

“I’ll keep doing what I can,” Axelbank said. “And try to spread the word.”

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