Gail Greenwood Ayres — Kushi Begum 25 years later


Can it really be 25 years ago? I don’t remember feeling particularly young or inexperienced as a reporter at The Daily World, when Kushi Begum and I walked into each other’s lives. But I was just 25 years old when I first met her.

Although I wasn’t the reporter to write the initial story about the discovery of the horrific abuse going on at a remote farm in Oakville, the story soon became mine to follow. And follow it I did, writing dozens of stories.

I remember Kushi as a sweet little girl and remember exchanging shy smiles with her little niece, Yasmin, and even playing a little game of peek-a-boo, as I interviewed older family members. Today they are both older than I was then. They are stunningly beautiful grown women, who are smart and strong and who will make a difference by shining the light on human trafficking.

In 10 years working for daily newspapers, I felt truly threatened — scared ­— about five times. Three of those times were writing about this family from Bangladesh. I received threatening phone calls at work and even one from Bangladesh at my little apartment where I lived alone. I was warned to be careful by an out-of-the area attorney who was physically shaking in fear himself.

A hallmark of evil, I’ve learned, is confusion. And for a long time, as if the horrors of the abuses of all kinds that they had already endured weren’t bad enough, chaos somehow followed the ups and downs of this family trying to become whole and healthy.

Over the years, when I’d run into Bob Martin and Betsy Seidel, they’d keep me posted on Kushi. At first the news was good — she’s in Girl Scouts, she’s a smart student. But then some of the reports — even through Betsy’s upbeat version — were harder to hear. “She is struggling with wanting to harm herself.” “She is needing to go away to get some help.” “She is involved in difficult relationships.”

Because the Kushi I had spent so much time talking to and writing about was a bubbly little girl, whose life had such promise despite what she’d been through, I could hardly bear the reports.

One more admission: I have a strong memory of being at the Immigration Office in Seattle with Kushi about to leave for Bangladesh to clear up some immigration issues. It wasn’t clear if she’d be returning. At that time Bob and Betsy couldn’t be with her. I was allowed to be there and as I watched this little girl get ready to get on an airplane for a long flight accompanied by a man she didn’t know, I broke any semblance of objectivity and hugged her and reassured her that she’d be okay. There was no one else there to do it and it seemed like the appropriate thing for someone who has worked their way into your heart.

And then I got in my car to drive back to Aberdeen and wept and prayed for this little girl and her family, pleading that something good would come of it all. And now 25 years later, I find myself crying again, for I feel like I’m now witnessing what I’ve always known to be true — even the most horrible situations can be redeemed.

It’s like the childhood game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” — Love and forgiveness beat abuse and evil every time.

Unlike the game, however, sometimes it takes awhile to see the victory unfold. But in watching Kushi Begum for 25 years now, I feel like I have a front row seat to seeing it occur. As they shine a light on what they’ve been through, the darkness is dispelled.

The story isn’t just about Kushi. A whole community, from health professionals and attorneys to law enforcement officials, counselors, foster parents and friends were there for a hurting family. When it “took a village,” the folks in Grays Harbor stepped up.

I’m particularly entranced with Bob and Betsy, who started this journey thinking that they’d buy a few clothes and help some hurting kids learn English. Their calm, consistent doses of love administered over time — sometimes the soft variety and sometimes the tougher kind — coupled with Kushi’s grasping the power of forgiveness — will continue to give life and hope through Kushi and Yasmin as they continue to shed light on human trafficking and the reality of becoming whole after being abused.

Kushi, who now goes by her full name, Khurshida, would love to speak to your group. You can contact her at voicetoendslavery@gmail.com.

Gail Greenwood Ayres is a former Daily World reporter who now works as a freelance writer and lives with her family in the Brady area.