My Jewish Armenian Heritage Fuels My Human Rights Activism

In the fight against modern slavery, tikkun olam takes a village.

When I began to organize for human rights, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was a sophomore in high school, with no connections and no idea how to reach a larger audience. What I did have, however, was awareness of the human rights crisis that was modern slavery, a hopeless frustration towards the leaders who acted like this issue did not exist, and a connection to a shared history of confronting injustice that stretches back millennia.

I first learned about modern slavery while researching for my high school debate team. The term, as used today, covers the utmost forms of exploitation, including human trafficking, forced labor, and even instances of forced marriage. As I researched, I learned there are currently 40.3 million victims worldwide caught in domestic work, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing and many other sectors. Working for hours in grueling conditions with no pay, many have their passports withheld, are coerced by the threat of violence or trapped in illegal debt bondage.

It is an issue that is also rapidly worsening, largely due to the climate crisis, global inequality and economic inequality. Despite this increasing urgency, however, efforts to rehabilitate survivors, hold corporations who profit off of forced labor accountable, and aid those at higher risk of exploitation are hardly ever made a legislative priority.

I was barely a teenager when I first encountered these issues. The lack of awareness coupled with widespread apathy made it seem like there was almost no hope in turning the tides in a battle we were already losing.  I couldn’t understand why something so pervasive and so horrific received so little attention.

But I was also no stranger to how unjust, and apathetic, the world can be.

As a Jew and an Armenian, I was raised on stories of how my great-grandparents on my mother’s side fled Germany during the Holocaust, leaving my great-grandmother the sole survivor of her entire family. How my great-grandparents on my father’s side fled the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide, finding safety in a world that, nonetheless, refused to prevent the death of an estimated 1.2 million others. Like so many, I was raised with their stories, and with the dangers of what happens when people turn a blind eye, justice goes unpursued, and people turn to silence instead of action.

Determined to not be another silent voice, I began reaching out to like-minded activists and organizations. I planned a week of action against modern slavery, where I was able to unite people around the globe — from the U.S. to Nepal to Honduras to Canada — in a campaign grounded in education, lobbying leaders both local and national, and pressuring companies to clean up their own supply chains. From there, I led a Day of Awareness ahead of the 76th UN General Assembly to draw attention to the fact that our world leaders must do more to make this issue a priority. I currently lead the International Coalition Against Modern Slavery, which connects individuals and groups from around the world in monthly mobilizations aimed at fostering awareness and action around forced labor and human trafficking.

Sometimes, my outrage at the widespread apathy and lack of action can turn to despair, as I wonder why it is so hard to move people into action. But then I look back to those who came before me, and remind myself of the value in continuing the fight against injustice that my ancestors furthered by crossing the Atlantic.

As Jews, we are raised with the idea that everyone has a part to play in bettering the world. I remember in middle school, sitting cross-legged in a stuffy room surrounded by dozens of other Jewish youth at summer camp while a rabbi explained to us how in 1965, when Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked if he had time to pray upon returning from the Montgomery civil rights marches, he responded, “I prayed with my feet”. How in the early 20th century, tens of thousands of Jewish women employed by factories banded together to strike for better working conditions.

Over time, I’ve grown to realize that tikkun olam takes a village. Advocacy work, in whatever form it may come in, cannot be fueled solely by anger. To be sustainable, advocacy work also requires love for our world, and hope for the possibility of what a more humane, equitable tomorrow could look like. This was the legacy my ancestors left me as well, as they fled one world with hope for the future.

We are that hope, and despite the enormity of this crisis, we all have the power, and responsibility, to make a tangible impact.

Join the International Coalition Against Modern Slavery to learn more about the issue and ways to get involved. Contact your elected officials about making this issue a higher priority. Make the move to more second-hand and fair trade purchases, and learn more about organizations that empower survivors of human trafficking and those who are at risk. Our actions matter, and together, they can change the world.

Lela Tolajian

Lela Tolajian (she/her) is a 19-year-old human rights activist from California. She has led a Global Week of Action and a Day of Awareness to call on world leaders to combat forced labor and human trafficking. Lela also founded a Global Coalition Against Modern Slavery and continues to speak out against the issue.

Read More