The girl watched as her older sister left the village, headed for the city. She was not quite a teen, the youngest of three girls.
Before long, the man who took her sister returned. She too could work in Kolkata – wouldn’t she go with him?
She went, but it was not a nice part of town. She could tell. The man sold her to a brothel owner. Bound by her debt, she had no choice.
The years passed. At 19 she had a baby. Her name was Soba and she called her baby Khokon.
Now 31 years old, Khokon is Freeset’s Logistics Manager, a composed yet driven young man whose path could have looked vastly different.
Growing up in a red-light district, Khokon had no idea that his life was not like that of other children. It wasn’t until he started school that he faced prejudice for whose child he was, and the neighbourhood he lived in.
“I was a good student, but my teachers, when I started school, they said, ’where do you live?’. I told them this area and they thought that I am different and they treated my friend and I differently. But I’m not different. I know I’m the same, and I decided to do my best.”
Khokon was placed at the back of the class, but his results proved his dedication, and he was moved forward. “After that there was extra care given to me by my teacher,” he says with a shy smile.
Khokon saw education as the way to break free, and from then on school scholarships covered his school fees. “My teacher suggested I go into sciences, but my family could not pay for the study.”
He contacted two different NGOs – Cini Asha and GOAL – and they each financed portions of his study costs. “I am very thankful to those NGOs.”
Khokon is sombre as he reflects that Soba was not like the mothers of his schoolmates. It was unheard of for her to show interest in his schooling and she was indifferent to whether he even attended. “I saw that [on special occasions] every guardian came with their student, gave them mishti (sweets). My mother never did this.”
But he empathises with her situation and the trauma that shaped her. “Because of what happens in our locality, if you live this life, always seeing these scenarios, you cannot think better, you cannot imagine a future for your child.”
“I’ve never thought that my mum was not good, it was the situation that was the problem, I never blamed my mother.”
When Khokon was 13-years-old, Soba began work at Freeset, one of the first 20 women to be offered a job with the business. She was trained as a seamstress, and slowly, life began to improve.
“That time”, says Khokon, “I knew that from 10am to 7pm, my mother is safe, no quarrelling, safe. She’s not doing what she did before. Her mentality changed, she cared more for me. She would invite me for the Freeset Birthday or Christmas. Joining Freeset made a difference for my mother. She was able to measure what was good and bad.”
When he finished high school, Khokon took the entrance exams for engineering, ranking suitable for a career in civil engineering. However, he had his sights set on computer engineering and opted to study for another year and re-sit. He looks back on this decision as a mistake, as he once again failed to reach the mark.
This was 2007, the year that Soba became ill, and died of cancer of the liver.
“After that my life is totally changed,” says Khokon. “I didn’t know what to do. It was totally crazy. My father did not support me; it was only my mother.”
But Khokon did have his Freeset family, and they were there for him in his grief.
Khokon got married in 2008, beginning work for a cooperative bank, doing daily savings collections on a meagre salary. It was tough and eventually Khokon turned to Freeset CEO Kerry Hilton. “I said, I need a job, anything, I just need to survive.”
“Can you do the packing?”, they asked. “Yes, I said and I did, then I moved onto cutting – tees and jute – I did everything.”
Khokon’s high level of education was recognised. “I shared my life with a manager and I was encouraged to continue studying, but on a full salary.” He began studying for a Bachelor of Business Administration via distance learning, which Freeset funded. Now he’s doing his MBA part-time, taking on one or two subjects per semester.
Every day Khokon uses his long work commute to study for his courses; it’s a total of three hours a day taking metro, train and motorcycle. “I did that for my daughter,” says Khokon, “so that she could live somewhere else.” His memories of his childhood, neighbourhood and schooling affect this choice, “I don’t want her to feel the same.”
The long days don’t leave a lot of free time, but what Khokon has is spent playing with his daughter, listening to music and reading – everything from theology to biographies.
Khokon credits the Freeset leadership with helping him realise his potential. “I had no idea of accounts, but they said – you can do this, just try. It has made my life so different. What I am now is all because of Freeset.”
“[Freeset is] family because they push me to go for further education, that makes Freeset different. Some of the times in my job I work late, and then I’m ordered to go home, go to my family.”
“If Freeset was not here, I don’t know what I would be doing.”
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