Creating a Refuge from Child Slavery in Ghana

Johnbull Omorefe speaks with Professor Christine Mahoney (left) and the Semester at Sea students about the mission of City of Refuge Ministries.

About an hour north of Ghana’s capital, down a meandering red dirt road which cuts through thick green vegetation, lies the City of Refuge Ministries (CORM), the dream-turned-reality of Johnbull and Stacy Omorefe. Semester at Sea students traveled with Professor Christine Mahoney on an EntrepreneurSHIP service field program to learn more about the non-profit that works to rescue children from child slavery and prevent human trafficking.

Both foreigners to Ghana, the Omorefes first met in Ghana and after marrying in the United States decided to return to the country to make a difference. They began rescuing children from forced labor on Lake Volta, the largest manmade lake in the world. Children working for a fisherman master on the lake don’t receive an income or an education and are subjected to long hours and disease. Many times the children find themselves in this lifestyle of hard labor because they are trafficked into the industry by desperate single mothers or other family.

CORM comes into situations involving child slavery and offers the fishermen masters a way out. Although child labor and human trafficking are both illegal in Ghana, the Omorefes don’t put the law into play. They explain to the masters the way in which a child’s life can improve if they come to the City of Refuge and also ask for permission from the family member who put the children into the initial situation. After delicate negotiations, they are often successful in gaining freedom for many children.

Brian Stewart from Morgan State University looks at the colorful hands on a piece of artwork created by the Australian non-profit YGAP who helped to fund the constructions of the classrooms at the school and begin the water business. During the service visit Brian also donated earnings from his shipboard social entrepreneurship venture, Coffee For a Cause, to CORM.

Currently 36 children rescued from child slavery in the Volta region live on the small compound in separate homes for boys and girls. They attend the Faith Roots International School, a school located on the grounds that was founded in 2011 to educate the rescued children. It has since grown to serve children from the surrounding community as well, who attend with the help of sponsorships.

The Omorefe’s entrepreneurial spirit has spread to the non-profit’s water purifying business, Save a Child. They process plastic sachets of water, more common in Ghana than plastic bottles, that are printed with messages educating about the issue of human trafficking in Ghana. Half of the profits are funneled back into CORM and the water benefits the community by providing clean drinking water and employment for single mothers. They also empower single mothers in other entrepreneurial ventures such as making and selling clothing and goods.

Furthermore, CORM has worked with YGAP, an Australian social incubator that raises funds to channel to local social entrepreneurs to solve social issues. The funding received through YGAP has aided in the creation of classrooms and the water business on the CORM’s campus.

A student holds a sachet from CORM’s “Save a Child” water business. The sachets are printed with information about human slavery and the mission of CORM.

After speaking with the Omorefes and touring the City of Refuge, students had the opportunity to get their hands dirty and contribute to the mission. Elizabeth Nelson from the University of San Diego explained the activities for the day, “At CORM we were able to play a larger part in the organization and give back to the campus itself rather than having only a brief interaction with the kids. We were assigned different tasks that included cleaning up the classrooms, re-painting the basketball court, painting an outside patio used for worship, cleaning up the fields, and helping the kids write scholarship letters to their sponsors back in the United States. The CORM visit was fulfilling and I thought this trip was a cohesive blend of allowing us to interact with the kids as well as make an impact on the organization, so all sides got to benefit from our time there.”

For Graham Edwards from the College of Charleston, visiting CORM was like coming home. After his sister Maude sailed with SAS in Fall 2010, Graham and some of his family members did an independent week-long visit in 2011. “Going back and seeing the progress from the past few years of hard labor was incredible. When we first laid lines on the basketball court, the school and new houses for the kids were in the beginning stages of development. Only the foundation was visible, and a few walls of the school and orphanage. The compound as a whole is almost complete and the school is up and running and educates over 250 kids. It was surreal to see it all in person once again, from rubble it had risen.”

Mickey Sobel from San Diego State University also learned about CORM from his sister who visited while she was sailing with SAS and who will be returning to intern there this summer. When asked why he wanted to visit, Mickey explained, “I went for several reasons. The first being I thought it would be an amazing experience since as of now my career goal is to somehow be involved in the international adoption system. But I had also heard great things about the family and children and wanted to meet the family my sister would be living with over the summer.”

As the fresh paint was drying and sponsor letters were wrapping up, the Semester at Sea group began to say their goodbyes to the warm people at the City of Refuge. Elizabeth Nelson noted, “Something that stood out to me about the day was taking a step back and observing my peers interact with the children and feeling such a strong sense of respect for them. Going to the CORM made me really proud to be a part of that group. Semester at Sea attracts an array of different personalities, but service trips like the CORM visit show the commonality that we all share of wanting to give back to the world. We were all nervous about going to an organization that had kids who had been trafficked for labor in the past, but it was incredible to see the sensitivity and sincerity that the Semester at Sea students treated the children with.”

By being able to see the success of the Omorefes, who decided to make a difference by focusing on the important social issues of human trafficking and child slavery, Semester at Sea students left the small oasis in the countryside knowing that dedication, determination, and an entrepreneurial spirit can indeed make a difference. And above all, as explained by Johnbull, “Love is the most powerful weapon.”

Sarah Kelner from Springfield College Massachusetts and Spencer Jordan from Chapman University begin to freshen up the paint on the center of the basketball court.

Three students and Professor Mahoney worked in the administrative office assisting in inputting the term’s grades. Here Professor Mahoney gives an update on their progress to Autumn Buzzell, Director of Education at Faith Roots International Academy, the CORM’s school.

From left to right, Kristin Tate from Springfield College Massachusetts, Leah Staenberg from the University of Georgia, and Maria Ferraz from the Universidade de S‹ão Paulo work to paint the open-air building used for eating and worship.

Catherine Bronzo from the University of California Los Angeles and Courtney Motuzas from Assumption College work with children to write letters and draw pictures for the sponsors that help fund their education.

Kristie Han from the University of Colorado Denver helps two young boys at the City of Refuge with their sponsor letters (left). Mickey Sobel from San Diego State University, whose sister visited CORM on a previous SAS voyage, carries a young boy on his shoulders (right). Mickey traveled independently to CORM the night before the rest of the group arrived and after his visit said, “I would absolutely love to go back. Stacy and Johnbull were great and the children were amazing.”

Spencer Jordan from Chapman University plays soccer with the kids during a break from painting the basketball court.

Jerry Coker from Arizona State University made many friends while working on painting the red boundary lines of the basketball court.

Caroline DiPietra from Indiana University Bloomington and Zoe Cremer from UWC Maastricht bring a bucket of paint to resupply Julianne Reese from the University of Arizona and one of the children from CORM who was happy to help paint.

Grace Truex from Chapman University removes cobwebs from the hallways of the school which had just ended for the term (left). Sarah Kelner from Springfield College Massachusetts puts the finishing touch of a red heart over Ghana on the map of Africa on the newly painted basketball court (right).

Graham Edwards from the College of Charleston hung new nets onto the basketball hoops and painted a red box onto the backboard. Graham had spent over a week at CORM in 2011 with his family. “In a way it felt like I was there just yesterday. When I was walking around the basketball court and patting the faint lines on the cracking cement, and touching the rusty net–the same one I had hung years ago–I realized the true scope of time which had passed since my last visit to Ghana and CORM.”

Zoe Cremer from UWC Maastricht spends time after painting with two girls from CORM. “The children I met were so much more connected to their environment than I was. They had learned how to solve practical problems by themselves, they were independent, they knew who they were and where they wanted to go. Only recently SAS has taught me to look at life in a solution-orientated mindset, but the children had learned this, simply by living closely connected with nature and by being forced to experiment. I was humbled to discover the capabilities of children.”

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About the Author

Krista Rossow

Krista Rossow

Krista Rossow is a freelance photographer, photo editor, and photo instructor. A native Oregonian, she graduated from the University of Oregon with degrees in Spanish and Fine Art. After which she worked in Germany and traveled throughout Europe. Krista then spent a year working in New Mexico for the Santa Fe Photo Workshops. She moved to Washington, D.C., and worked at National Geographic Traveler magazine as a photo editor for seven years. She assigned feature stories and also photographed for the publication. After seeing many parts of the world through the amazing images that came across her desk, she was inspired to transition to freelance photography work. She is excited to join Semester at Sea for the Spring 2014 voyage and to explore more of the world with an enthusiastic group of professors, students, and staff. She hopes to share her love of photography, travel, and yoga with the students on board.