Working to free people from modern day slavery
It can be dangerous work, but somebody's got to do it. A brave former Queenstown couple, now living in Wellington, quit their well-paid jobs in 2015 to help free families in modern day slavery. Katharine (Pfeffer) and Dave Hockly share their story with Sue Fea.
A former Queenstown professional couple, who tossed in well-paid jobs in 2015 to live on the edge helping to free the oppressed in India, say the experience forever changed their lives.
Former Queenstown lawyer Katharine Pfeffer laid it on the line when her digital marketing consultant husband Dave Hockly proposed in 2013.
She would be fulfilling her long-held dream of doing volunteer work for International Justice Mission, and if he wanted to marry her he would be coming along.
Not only was she powerfully convincing, but so was the cause.
After reading the book by the founder of IJM, Gary Haugen, that had first inspired his new wife, Hockly was instantly sold.
At first, smitten by his beautiful blonde bride, he wasn't really aware what he was getting himself into, but before long Hockly says he was fired with the same passion as Pfeffer – to see the poverty-stricken families freed from slavery.
The couple returned last year from 10-months working with IJM to infiltrate the labour slave underworld from a secret location in India.
They were based in IJM's largest field office in the world with about 70 workers.
Mostly professional people just like them, from around India and the rest of the world, they had also volunteered their professional skills to work full-time on the cause.
Pfeffer was preparing documents for some high-profile cases, and before the couple left India early last year they worked on IJM's largest ever anti-slavery operation, which set 550 people free.
"I think we were notified by the local authority in this case, and we had to work quickly," says Pfeffer.
"I was on the operations team. Everybody immediately sprung into action."
She helped prepare the legal documents for that rescue.
"I also handled the communications for the raid between the people on the field and our office, providing updates to our headquarters in Washington DC."
Hockly remembers the excitement of the upcoming raid well.
"It's such a cool memory. We had a big staff meeting and the director said, 'This could be nothing, or the biggest thing we've ever done'," he says.
"We all just prayed, and teams of people worked with the local authority on the paperwork through the night for three nights and four days. It was a crazy whirlwind."
Pfeffer and Hockly weren't allowed on site for the rescue to protect them, but Hockly met the masses of Indian families at the train station where IJM booked out multiple carriages to transport them back home.
These poverty-stricken families had been trafficked from the neighbouring state of Orrisa, one of India's poorest regions.
They'd been trapped working in a brick kiln, indebted to their slave masters, unable to pay back the small amount they'd been coerced into borrowing from him to travel to what they thought was prosperity and a job.
"Nearly 200 kids were living and working in that facility," says Hockly.
He handed out food and water to the families.
"When you actually see these people and their families, how happy they were to be going home, the faces on the smiling children and how little they had, it's just heart-breaking and joyous all at the same time."
"Forced labour slavery uses deception, like threats or violence, to coerce someone to work for little to no pay," says Pfeffer.
"Slavery has been outlawed in India, but millions of men, women and children are working as slaves in brick kilns, rice mills, garment factories, fishing operations and many other industries."
There's a lot at stake. More than 1000 enslaved people were freed by their office while they were working there.
"Unfortunately the poorest people in our world are extremely vulnerable to violence because they're poor," says Pfeffer.
Throughout the developing world, justice systems are so broken and dysfunctional that the poor people these systems should protect actually have no defence whatsoever.
The Hockly's job was to work with the local authorities to help change this.
As westerners they weren't allowed in the courtroom for their own safety as at times local IJM staff would find themselves confronted by perpetrators outside the court.
"In a heart-breaking situation earlier this year a local IJM staff member in Kenya was kidnapped and killed following a court trial, says Pfeffer.
"That really rocked the IJM team and all of us, but it fired a renewed determination in the workers to fight even harder for justice and empowered them to do more," says Hockly.
"I think we were a little naïve about the dangers of the work. While you're there the things you do kind of seem safe, but often they're not."
The whole experience has made Pfeffer and Hockly grateful for an incredibly blessed life.
"It's made us realise that good things aren't always super glamorous," says Hockly.
"They can take lots of time and effort, and not necessarily seem exciting, but wow, what an end result."
Hockly's role included raising funds for basic concrete, thatched-roof, one-room shacks for the freed families to live in.
"It cost about $1200 to build a house. Once people have decent shelter and land to work, they're not so desperate and vulnerable to trafficking."
A strong penchant for food of any kind, landed Hockly in bed extremely ill a number of times, with violent vomiting and diarrhoea.
"Dave's just always hungry," says Pfeffer.
"He would just see a roadside stall and have to eat some Tandoori Chicken."
After a number of bouts of food poisoning, Hockly suffered severe gastroenteritis, collapsing and passing out in the bathroom one day while Pfeffer was at work.
"By God's grace I eventually managed to drag myself back to bed until Katharine arrived home to get help."
The only time Pfeffer says she got really sick was from her own cooking, using frozen chicken.
However, once the locals hooked them up with the best food and they adjusted their "heat" scale, they fell in love with the food and the spices.
"India's just so dramatic - so good, but so bad at both ends of the scale," says Hockly.
"The whole experience is like a sensory overload. India is just nuts."
In a city of millions of people they lived in a basic, concrete apartment, thankfully with air conditioning, in temperatures of 34degC, which, due to the average 70 percent humidity, clocked in at nearer to 44degC.
"For a lot of people in our street, we were the first white people they'd ever met," says Hockly. India is full of huge contrasts.
"Behind our building were slums and people living in the most depressing circumstances, and across the street was a designer store right next to a cow pen."
For Pfeffer, the most rewarding part was working with people who sacrificed so much to do the work.
"They were all highly skilled, educated people. A number had Masters Degrees and a few were working on their PhD's. They could've done anything they wanted, but they spend years working for ow pay to free the oppressed in their own communities. They were so inspirational."
She missed the outdoors.
"It would take six hours to get to a place where we could go for a two-hour bike ride."
However, the incredible friends they made at their church and workplace made it all worthwhile.
"Raja, our workmate, was a bonded labourer as a child himself, working 16 hour days in a brick kiln."
For Hockly his "fix" came from manoeuvring the little motorbike they bought at high speed through the chaotic traffic masses of the central city streets.
"The best analogy is it's like a river, and you're in the current, and you just merge into it and go as fast as you can," he says.
"It's kind of like a video game dodging potholes, cows, chickens, babies and people. I absolutely loved it. It was so loose," says Hockly.
"That was my fix – my physical outlet."
"I hated it. It was so scary," says Pfeffer, who would be hanging on for dear life on the back.
With no earnings for 11 months, they lived off their savings, and support from home.
This included sponsorship from their Queenstown church, Freedom Church, Lindsay and Ailsa woods from LA Social Club, and a monthly boost from Pfeffer's former boss, Queenstown lawyer Graeme Todd, in exchange for Hockly doing his law firm IT work from India.
The couple initially spent a month training in Washington DC at IJM's headquarters on their way to India.
Now working back in their hometown of Wellington – Pfeffer as a lawyer for Simpson Grierson and Hockly for digital agency, Springload – they're quick to pay tribute to the real heroes in this story – IJM and the oppressed.
"If anyone's considering volunteering or donating to an organisation like IJM, we say, 'do it'! It's worth every sacrifice."