Blog
19
Jul

Welcome Kathryn & Jennifer to Dagbé

We are incredibly excited to announce the addition of two new members to the Dagbé team.

KATHRYN BURRUSS

Director of Operations

Kathryn joined Dagbé in 2015, after being introduced to the organization by former colleagues. She has previously been involved with development projects in Uganda and Colombia, with her work focusing on program development and evaluation.

She holds a BA in Economics from Seattle University and an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago. She currently lives in St. Petersburg, Florida and works for Eagle Asset Management.

JENNIFER ESCHELBACH

Director of Finance & Partnerships

Jennifer joined Dagbé in 2015, after being introduced to the organization by a member of the board. She received a B.A. in French, and a minor in Music Industry from the University of Southern California. She also completed a 6-month study abroad program in Paris. Jennifer has worked in the fashion industry for 8 years, and is currently an Ecommerce Buyer for a major women’s retailer in Los Angeles, CA.

14
Feb

This Valentine’s Day, Give Your Heart To Humanity

This Valentine’s Day, consider replacing chocolates and flowers with a gift which makes a significant difference in someone’s life.  By donating to Dagbé, your donation funds…

  1. Education – tuition, school supplies and clothing
  2. Unexpected roof repairs from a recent storm which damaged the community’s meeting room
  3. Our thriving poultry farm which now has 26 chickens, 17 roosters and 15 chicks
  4. Efforts to document every person in the city, an important initiative which combats human trafficking
  5. Other anti-child trafficking efforts and remediation, for example the costs of mental/physical health exams for survivors
  6. Future plans of building a bakery, creating income and jobs for many in the community
  7. A home for those who do not have one, often times kids whose parents have passed away
  8. Apprenticeships – we have five apprentices and another five registering soon
  9. Our garden, which is currently dormant, will provide tomatoes and other produce after the upcoming rainy season
  10. The overall goal of creating a sustainable sub-economy in Ouesse, Benin with citizens who have the knowledge, means and resources to grow businesses and educate the next generation

An Interview With Our Founder Sebastián Seromik

Service and volunteering have to be about the human person if they’re going to bear any fruit.

Sebastián Seromik

Hello Dagbé Friends,

A new year.

New beginnings are a great time to reflect on your roots.  As a new member of Dagbé, I have more questions than answers, so I thought we’d start there.  First order of business: the beginning.  I sat down to interview our founder Sebastián Seromik and pick his brain about Dagbé.  A transcript of our conversation follows.

Looking forward to a challenging and rewarding year ahead.

Cheers,

Cassie

 

Photo Dec 21, 1 21 14 PM

Q&A with Dagbé Founder Sebastián Seromik

Cassie: As we’ve discussed before, I feel honored to be part of this board.  So I want to start by saying thank you.  And then I’ll kick off with a few questions about you.  Where are you from?  Where did you go to school?  Where do you live now?  What are you doing now?  Ok, I guess that’s more than a few.

Sebastián: Haha, well thanks, Cassie. We’re also really grateful and excited to have you join the board.  I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I studied business at the University of Michigan as an undergrad, have a master’s degree focused on social and professional ethics from Boston College, and am currently finishing an MBA at the Yale School of Management.

Cassie: And I know somewhere in between school you decided to join the Peace Corps.  Tell me a little about that.

Sebastián: I joined the Peace Corps right out of college at 22 years old. When thinking about the next step after college, I felt that I needed to serve others in some capacity. I had been receiving all of my life and needed to take some time to give back. I looked around at different volunteer programs and was drawn to Peace Corps because of its international outlook. It also didn’t hurt that UofM has strong ties to the Peace Corps – President Kennedy announced that he wanted to form the Peace Corps when campaigning on campus!

Cassie: I’m definitely starting to connect the dots now.  And where does Dagbé fit in this story?

Sebastián: It was during my Peace Corps service. There was a clear lack of care for children who were in difficulty – orphans, victims of abuse, etc. One day, when saying hi to the local police (it’s common in Benin to walk into a building and say hi to people if you are walking past it) I realized that they had 7 Togolese children, from 8-15 years old in the jail. They were trafficking victims and there was nowhere else for them to stay. I had become close friends with a community organizer and one of the representatives from the Ministry of the Family in town. We all sat down one day to discuss what could be done and they wanted to build a center and start an organization that cared for children in crisis situations. That’s how we started the work.

Cassie: Was this your first experience with a non-profit organization?

Sebastián: My father has worked for non-profit organizations since before I was born, and as a result I have been around them all of my life. I have seen the way the mission of the organization drives the way it works and I have seen the sacrifices that organizations make in order to accomplish their missions.

Cassie: When did you first travel to Benin and what was your first impression?  Did you have any fears or concerns about being placed in West Africa?

Sebastián: I arrived in Benin in July 2007 with the rest of my “class” of Peace Corps Volunteers. We arrived late at night, but I remember waking up the next morning and feeling a sense of peace. There were things that reminded me of some of the poorer areas of Mexico that I had seen but mostly Benin was an entirely new experience for me.  I never actually had any fears about being placed in Africa. I was extremely excited from the moment that I heard the Peace Corps would be sending me there.

Cassie: I’m curious about your living situation. Tell me more about that.

Sebastián: I lived in Ouèssè for about two years. My house was in a neighborhood (quartier) called Adougou and was a three-room house with a long porch off of one side. The town had no electricity or running water, so once the sun set I had to rely on kerosene lanterns for lighting. I would finish dinner and take my guitar to the porch outside where I would play guitar in the dark for a little while before going to bed.

Cassie: What was most challenging about adjusting to life in West Africa?

Sebastián: The greatest challenge was to remember that I was the one visiting their country and that I could make those adjustments. It’s tempting to arrive somewhere and become frustrated about what is different and begin to think, “They should be doing things this way.” It’s in our nature to want others to adapt to our way of doing things. But if you try to do that in another country, you’ll quickly become very upset. Even though it’s challenging, it’s important to adjust that mindset from the outset so that other adjustments are easier to make.

Cassie: What was your assignment or goals while in Benin?

Sebastián: I was a Small Enterprise Development volunteer, which meant that I worked with local trade associations to train them in basic accounting and marketing practices. Beyond that, we were encouraged to get involved in other projects if we had the chance. I taught music theory classes, guitar classes, started a penpal initiative between a Beninese school and a US school, helped start a softball team with middle school students, worked on geography projects with primary school students, and provided consulting for small businesses in the region, among other activities.

Sebastian Being Honored

Cassie:  Wow, you definitely stayed busy!  Were you able to fit in any travel during your time in West Africa?

Sebastián: I traveled throughout most of Benin during my time there, including one safari trip to the Pendjari National Park in the northwest. I also traveled overland to Ghana a couple of times for very short one or two day trips. Finally, my sister and brother-in-law adopted a little boy from Ethiopia during my service, and I had the chance to fly to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to meet my new nephew.  That was an incredible experience.

Cassie: I’ve seen a few photos from your adventures, and they’re incredible.  I’m really excited to share.  Ok, I want to switch gears a bit and try to understand what a day in the life was like.  Tell me about a typical day.

Sebastián: I would wake up, pray, and have my morning coffee. My parents know me too well – their care packages consisted of ground coffee that I would prepare every morning using a French press that fit with my Nalgene water bottle. I would typically head out into town in the morning to talk with friends and townspeople and purchase anything that I needed from the market. On my way back I would often stop to visit Victor, my work partner on the children’s center project, and talk business. I would then work for a few hours at home, eat lunch, and then walk down to the work site to see the construction progress and have the workers explain the process to me. When I would return I would often find the neighborhood kids playing on my porch. I would work for a couple of hours inside while they played outside and then as the sun was setting I would make dinner. After dinner I would play guitar and read for a while and usually be in bed by 9 or 10pm. It’s amazing how much earlier you go to sleep without electricity!

Cassie: I suppose that’s one way to get more sleep.  Maybe I should try that.  Speaking of food, I’m so curious to hear about what you ate.

Sebastián: For breakfast, people in Benin often have a type of porridge called bouille which is made from cornmeal. For lunch and dinner, the meals were often very similar. The most common meal was called pâte (pronounced “pawt”); it was also based off of cornmeal and had the consistency of mashed potatoes. You grab a chunk with your hand and dip it into a sauce that is usually tomato-based with peppers and onions. Another common meal, and one of my favorites, was pounded yams called igname pilée. It’s yams mashed like mashed potatoes and dipped into a sauce – my favorite sauce was a peanut sauce. Usually a small chunk of protein accompanied the meal – most often fish, but sometimes chicken, sometimes bush meat, and sometimes a cheese called wagashi made and sold by the Peuhl ethnic group.

Cassie: What is your favorite memory of your time spent in Benin?

Sebastián: Wow, what a difficult question.  If I could only choose one memory, there’s one in particular that sticks.  While I was raising money to build the children’s center, I would travel every Monday morning to Parakou, a city two hours away that had internet access. I would work all day and through the night, and all of Tuesday – usually 24-28 hours with short breaks to eat and maybe sleep a couple of hours. Tuesday afternoon I would head back to Benin. On Monday mornings I would wait for the taxi at a makeshift gas station (the gas was sold in different sized glass containers of varying capacities). The family that ran the gas station was a young couple and their four daughters, between 2 and 10 years old. Each Monday morning I would wait with them, chatting with the mother and father and playing games with the daughters while they excitedly told me about school, their dog, and anything else. Every Tuesday afternoon those little girls would wait for me to get home and run to give me a hug when I got out of the taxi. It was an amazing feeling of belonging thousands of miles from my family, from my country, and from the community I’d known all of my life. It was those moments that made me realize that I did belong and I was loved even over there.

Cassie: I would be grateful to feel a sense of belonging in a place that is half a world away.  That’s truly incredible.  What was the most meaningful relationship you developed in the community?  Was it the relationship with this family?

Sebastián: No, I would have to say it was my relationship with Victor, the director of our center in Benin.  We not only worked together, but he opened his home completely to me. His family became my family; they invited me for meals, they supervised my home while I was traveling, and he even named his baby son after my father.

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Cassie: In what ways are you most proud of how Dagbé has helped the community in Ouèssè?

Sebastián: Dagbé was established with a clear mission.  We are not about numbers or having an expansive reach. We are dedicated to the human person – to changing lives. I am most proud that our staff and everyone who works there is recognized within the community not just as an aid worker but also as a family member or mentor to the children that we serve. Our staff realizes that they are not simply providing a roof for the children and somewhere to lay their heads, or food, or clothes. They’re also providing the comfort and compassion that a family and a home do. That is what I am most proud of and what I hope that people take away when they hear about our work.

Cassie: What is the greatest lesson you learned from your time in Benin?

Sebastián: I learned that making a difference is about being present to the person in front of you. I realized very quickly that I wasn’t going to change the world, eradicate poverty, or end child trafficking. What I could do, however, was walk alongside the people that I was with in that moment in life, listen to them, meet their needs when possible, but also just be with them. Service and volunteering have to be about the human person if they’re going to bear any fruit.

Cassie: I don’t know if I have ever heard someone summarize the value of service more perfectly. Thank you, Sebastian.


How Dagbe is responding to the Ebola threat in Benin

Benin’s Ministry of Health is reporting unconfirmed cases of the Ebola virus in the country, believed to have been brought by travelers from neighboring Nigeria. In response to the growing threat, Dagbe is mobilizing our staff to educate communities of central Benin to take precautions against the disease.

The dirt road leading to Ouesse in the central region of Benin

Benin shares a border with Nigeria and is situated in close proximity to the Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, where several cases of the virus have now been confirmed. The Benin-Nigeria border is relatively porous, and the central Benin region where we work is positioned near cross-border trading routes. We’ve cited this proximity to the border as a contributing factor to local child trafficking issues; it now also serves as a threat to the spread of the virus.

Our team is prepared to do what it can to prevent the spread of Ebola among the populations we serve. First, we have worked with our staff and the kids we serve to ensure they understand how the disease is transmitted, how to avoid exposure, and what to do in the event of a suspected case.

The studio at Ouesse's local community radio station.

Second, we are working in partnership with local radio to educate the community at large on measures to prevent the spread of the disease. Dagbe will launch a grassroots education campaign in villages throughout the area in the coming days, leveraging our network to communicate the precautions. Our partnership with the Radio Rurale Locale de Ouèssè, the primary source of information in central Benin, will amplify our efforts by bringing the message to a wider audience, particularly remote villages and farms.

The people of West Africa are in our thoughts during this difficult time, particularly the region’s healthcare workers who are working to care for victims despite the risks. Bonne santé à tous.

23
Dec

Giving a Hand to Families in Need

We wanted to share a photo of some of the children who we’ve been able to support this year via homestay arrangements. In 2013, we’ve been able to help 34 children through this program. These are often cases where families have suffered the loss of a parent or a serious illness, impacting the family’s ability to provide for their children. These situations would often result in kids leaving school and starting full-time work at an early age, continuing the cycle of poverty.

Our local staff work closely with community members to identify these cases and take steps to ensure the health and wellbeing of the kids affected by the situation. Support is often in the form of food and general care supplies, financial support, and educational scholarships. Our local staff monitors the families regularly to ensure the kids are in a  healthy and safe environment where they can continue to grow and thrive.

Through this program, we’re able to preserve the home environment where kids feel most comfortable, just with a bit more support.


Fighting Child-trafficking: Empowering Change Agents

SAM_8745One of our most important tactics in fighting against child trafficking in Benin is educating the community. Cases of trafficking fly under the radar, and in a country where the sight of children laboring in fields is a relatively common one, many people are unaware just what a child’s rights are what should happen in cases where a child is mistreated.

For the second year in a row, we decided to organize a anti-trafficking training session, directed at community leaders, with the goal of creating a network of change agents able and willing to identify cases of trafficking and respond in the appropriate manner.

This year’s training was held on July 11-13 and dealt with the topics of trafficking, migration, and child exploitation. A wide array of community members participated, including the police commander, social services representatives, leaders of women’s groups, students, and other local leaders. By the end of the training, participants were committed to doing what they could to combat child exploitation and were aware of the steps that they could take when confronted with such a case.

We’re thrilled to be forming such a dedicated group, ready to change the paradigm that has been putting children in the community in dangerous situations for years. Our sponsors and donors make our work possible, and we thank you for your continued support.


Child trafficking in Benin: Difficult choices and devastating consequences

Azandégbé was just nine years old when he was sent to work as a laborer in central Benin’s farmlands. As he tells his story, he describes the tiring work under harsh conditions, and the abuse he endured before running away from the farm where he and his two brothers worked. Azandégbé walked 25 kilometers to the nearest town, where he slept in the market for two days before he was found and brought to Dagbé’s children’s home in the region.

The three brothers attended school for only a few years each and began working at an early age to support their family. Their parents never attended school and worked as farmers outside the town of Allada in southern Benin. When a local man promised the chance to travel and work in exchange for money, the boys jumped at the opportunity, but the resulting situation was far worse than they could have imagined. They were on their own, far from their family, and far from home.

According to one UNICEF study, an estimated 40,000 Beninese children are trafficked each year, most working in agriculture or household labor. Nearly all parents of trafficked children surveyed had little to no schooling, and all children reported working seven days per week with little attention paid to their health and wellbeing.1 The most common form of child trafficking in Benin is labor trafficking, including manual farming labor, and Vidomegon, a common practice where children are placed as domestic servants with richer families.

The three boys back at home.

In Benin and throughout the developing world, child labor is a harsh reality that is accepted as an inescapable part of childhood. Although Beninese law sets the working age as no earlier than 14, many children from poor families leave school at an early age to help their family earn money. According to Mme. Hortense Offrin Chabi, regional director of Benin’s Ministry of the Family for the central Zou-Collines region, “Every child has rights. They have the right to attend school; they should not be victims of trafficking nor subject to economic exploitation. Children should not work before the age of 14… Unfortunately, there are people who engage in these practices, in some cases the children’s own family members. “

Nearly half of the population in Benin lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day, and women have on average five children.2 Educational expenses for families with multiple school age children, including fees, supplies, and uniforms can easily exceed a family’s monthly income. But above all, time spent in school and not contributing to the family’s income often represents an insurmountable opportunity cost. While most children leave school to assist with the family’s domestic or farm work, some enter into trafficking arrangements. Family members who place their children in trafficking situations usually have no understanding of the conditions under which their child will be forced to work.

What can communities at the heart of this problem do to combat trafficking? While many socio-economic factors contribute to the difficult choices these families make, awareness of the rights of children and the definition of trafficking is a key step. Dagbé has launched an anti-child trafficking awareness campaign with a network of village change agents in central Benin, partnering with local authorities and community radio to reach rural villages where trafficking is endemic. A pilot training seminar was held with 45 community leaders in 2012 and within 72 hours a shocking case of sex trafficking involving a young girl just nine years old was brought to the attention of local police.

Anti-child trafficking training

What’s next for Azandégbé? He and his brothers want to start vocational training to be able to earn a good living, and they know that farming activities alone like those of his parents will not suffice. Although limited by minimal education, trade apprenticeships can provide boys like Azandégbé with job-ready skills needed start their own business. Azandégbé wants to become a mechanic, and his brothers want to become a taxi driver and a hairdresser respectively. While their childhoods were cut short by the harsh realities of labor trafficking, they still have their dreams. Dagbé’s staff is working with the boys and their family to place them in a vocational training program so that consenting to trafficking is never a choice they have to make again.

Sources

  1. Etude Nationale sur la Traite des Enfants. Rapport d’analyse. UNICEF. November 2007.
  2. UNICEF, Benin country statistics for 2012. 

Empowering Benin’s Young Entrepreneurs

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In Benin, trade apprenticeships equip youth with job-ready skills and experience needed to launch their own business and have a reliable source of income for their families. Dagbé sponsors apprenticeships for teens impacted by extreme poverty that show a demonstrated interest in a trade. Each apprentice is paired up with a master tradesperson called an “Artisan” who shares his or her knowledge over the course of two to four years depending on the trade.

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With an economy heavily dependent on agriculture, most families in central Benin earn a living through small-scale farming activities, including the harvest of corn, peanuts, cassava, cashews, and cotton. Most farmers plant what is needed for their family with a small surplus that they sell throughout the year to cover the family’s living expenses. However, few agricultural processing facilities exist in Benin, so the vast majority of crops are exported in raw form, limiting the price gained by farmers. Prices on world markets fluctuate heavily and one year’s cash crop may be harvested at a loss the following year.

Artisans contribute to Benin’s vibrant and rapidly growing private sector. They include tailors, hairdressers, mechanics, weavers, carpenters, welders, even photographers. For decades, Benin was a Marxist-Leninist economy, and the business community has slowly emerged following a series of free-market reforms in the 1990s. With a marketable skill, these young entrepreneurs are able to launch their small businesses and grow them into profitable enterprises. These entrepreneurial ventures, however small, reduce reliance on seasonal agricultural activities and provide a more stable source of income for local families.

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At the end of the training program, the community comes together during a ceremony to celebrate the apprentice’s graduation. The new Artisan displays the skills he or she has gained during the training, from intricately sewn outfits designed by tailors to flamboyant hairstyles created by hairdressers. During the ceremony, the masterArtisan as well as family and friends contribute to help the young Artisan launch his or her career through gifts of equipment, supplies, and startup funds. Following an apprenticeship, the new Artisan may continue to work under a master Artisan or may set out on his/her own to launch a small business.

Since we first launched our Business Training and Social Enterprise program in 2011, we have sponsored six young apprentices, including five in tailoring and one in upholstery.  We plan to expand this program over the next year as a way to empower child trafficking victims to learn a viable skill and prevent future instances of trafficking.

Bon travail / Kud’azo / Good work!


Press Release

Jacob

Dagbé, a new non-profit organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, has launched efforts to assist victims of child labor trafficking in the West African nation of Benin.

Dagbé (pronounced dhag-BAY) works with communities in rural Benin to provide critical services to children affected by extreme poverty, including victims of trafficking, abuse, and orphans. The organization is the only resource of its kind in the local area, serving children who would not otherwise have safe lodging, nutritious meals, quality healthcare and the opportunity to attend school.

“Child labor trafficking is a major issue in Benin, and the country’s relative obscurity means not many people are aware of the problem,” says Sebastián Seromik, founder of Dagbé. “In the central region of Benin where we operate, the problem is particularly acute since the area serves as the farming center of the region. Desperate but well-intentioned families place their children with middlemen who promise work and income, but the result is often an abusive situation where the child is cut off from family, school and healthcare.”

Dagbé began as a project developed by Seromik and other former Peace Corps Volunteers while serving in central Benin. “One instance had a profound impact on me. Seven children were found, trafficked from neighboring Togo. The community was forced to lodge them in the local jail for lack of other safe options.” says Seromik. “I was shocked. They were all alone and the community was ill-equipped to help them. Something needed to be done.” A community-based residential care facility was constructed in 2009 in Ouèssè, Benin and operations have since expanded.

“We’re keenly aware of the importance of our work, knowing that we’re the only organization providing these services in this region,” says Seromik. “Before we came along, children in central Benin had no place to turn to when they found themselves in crisis situations.”

Dagbé has also launched a campaign aimed at preventing future trafficking cases. In July 2012, Dagbé sponsored an anti-trafficking training seminar with 45 participants representing villages throughout the area. The seminar was also broadcast over community radio in local languages, reaching an estimated 15,000 listeners in the most remote areas of the region. “Our goal is treat these situations proactively,” says Seromik. “Our vision is of empowered communities which have come together to end this awful practice.”

In addition to its work in preventing child trafficking and caring for its victims, Dagbé also has programs supporting families affected by extreme poverty, promoting education and youth development, and is also developing a social enterprise initiative aimed at fostering the long-term sustainability of their efforts.

The word Dagbé comes from a term in the local Fon-Mahi dialect which means, “To do good.” For more information on Dagbé, visit their website at http://www.dagbe.org.

VIEW PRESS RELEASE


Dagbé releases 2012 Annual Report

AnnualReport2012

We have released our2012 Annual Report, highlighting our accomplishments in providing critical services to children and families in central Benin during our inaugural year.

In 2012, we continued to provide support to children and families impacted by extreme poverty, establishing a formal 501(c)(3) structure to support the operation of our children’s home in Benin and ensure its ability to provide vital services as the only such service provider in the community.

Our team in Benin led efforts to resolve six cases of child trafficking, including child labor trafficking and one heartbreaking instance of sex trafficking. In these cases, it is imperative that we be ready to act at a moment’s notice to ensure the safety and provide a safe environment for the children affected.

We also launched a pilot training program to address the persistent issue of child labor trafficking in the local farming community. Through this program, delivered in partnership with local authorities and the Radio Rurale Locale de Ouèssè, we trained a network of 45 anti-trafficking agents and reached an audience of 15,000+ via community radio. Dagbé plans to continue this program in 2013.

Highlights of our activities:

  • Provided for the daily needs of 38 children and families impacted by extreme poverty
  • Intervened in 6 cases of child trafficking
  • Funded scholarships and school supplies for over 60 children
  • Hosted an anti-trafficking seminar, heard by over 15,000 listeners via community radio