Kan Yan

Kan Yan (Backward Society Education – BASE): Kan graduated with a BA in Plan II from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. During this time, Kan conducted research on the education of Turkish students in Berlin, interned for the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former-Yugoslavia, interned for the Texas Speaker of the House on state education, and worked part-time for an anti-private prison campaign. After he graduated, Kan undertook a year of exploring, teaching, traveling, and learning languages. He then enrolled in Harvard Law School where he studying for a joint degree (with the Fletcher School) when he undertook his AP fellowship. In 2008, Kan advised a Karen NGO working on land issues within Burma. After his fellowship, Kan wrote: “It was really nourishing in a way I can't quite put into words.”


18 Jun

Tuesday we returned three of the kids at the transit home, Sabita, Ragina, and Binti Ram. I had been curious what the return would be like my entire time at the home. I captured some great footage and was sometimes unable to capture footage because it was too painful.

Sabita, the girl I have become closest to, is 8 years old. She is outgoing and bold. She squeals at me and shouts and makes a range of noises to suffice for my lack of Nepali. We growl at each other and she constantly scolds me for not eating enough (we sit next to each other during meals). She demands the most of me—and everyone else (she’s the bossy one). And she’s the one I like to tickle the most.

Sabita has been working since she was 4. Her father died due to his family’s inability to afford medicine when he became ill. Her mother sent her to work shortly thereafter. She started off in a relative’s house and eventually ended up in a lawyer’s house in Nepalganj. She did all of the cooking and cleaning in his large, three-story home. She did not attend school. When he went to work, he would lock her in. When BASE rescued her, her hands and feet were bloodied by constant wet labor.

I interviewed the kids the night before our departure by candlelight during a load sharing period. Everyone was excited to go home to see their families. Sabita was most excited to see her grandmother.

We are returning these children to their parents who are former bonded laborers. Compared to anything you’d see in the US, they all live in squalor. However the degrees of destitution range greatly between settlements. These liberated laborers don’t have any land and often exist as squatters in “camps” rather than “villages.” Arriving in Sabita’s family’s settlement in Bardiya district, it was hard to imagine monsoon in a place so desperately dry and deforested. Cracks appeared in the ground, and I couldn’t wipe my lens enough to keep the constant dust storm from dotting shots.

As we approached her mother’s home, a woman appeared from a hoard of children and accompanied us. Later I was to learn this was Sabita’s aunt. We sat down in the two room home, and Sabita’s grandmother greeted us. She began to cry. Sabita told her not to cry because she would cry. Sabita kept asking where her mother and little brother were. Her grandmother then said that Sabita’s mother was dead. Kushal, the caseworker, told her not to say that in front of Sabita and led Sabita out. During this, Sabita’s aunt decided she could not follow suit in the lie.

We had surprised them with the return evidently. The case study of Sabita’s family situation must have been conducted with her mother, who had left town. Her aunt revealed that Sabita’s mother had taken up with another man and left town with him and Sabita’s little brother. Sabita has an adult brother who went to work in India to support the family. He was present as well but wasn’t speaking. Apparently, he returned to the settlement to find his mother gone and went to find her to bring her back. When he found her, she refused to return. He told her that he would help pay to bring Sabita back and that she was coming with him. When he returned the next day to pick her up, she had left town again.

Sabita’s aunt relayed this story to us and my brain shut off. I kept zooming in and out more out of habit. My mind was numb. What would happen to this girl I had grown to love? I had heard these stories and worse so often and they seemed so normal. When it happened to Sabita, it felt like something altogether different. When something horrible happens to someone you love, the experiential reality of the event is devastating. It made the policy debates I’d been filming seem totally disconnected from reality.

The aunt explained that she had eight children and couldn’t care for Sabita and asked us to take her back. I looked at Sabita and couldn’t quite understand why she wasn’t totally crushed by these developments. It was tough leaving the house as Kushal signaled to me that we had to move, we were hours late. After explaining the support we would provide, Sabita’s aunt reluctantly agreed to take her. But I couldn’t imagine Sabita having a positive future there. Her family had evaporated while she was out working.

I told her to study hard, that I would be back in a few weeks to see her.


Posted By Kan Yan

Posted Jun 18th, 2009


  • Natasha

    June 22, 2009


    What a powerful photograph and story. If you are to visit her, I hope to read about it and hear about her successes. Hopefully, she will have been able to study.

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