Two years ago, Belle Staurowsky hopped on a plane to India armed with just a Hindi dictionary and a mountain of good intentions.
Her mission? To make a difference -- a true difference -- to young girls in a country she'd never set foot in, speaking a language she didn't know.
Staurowsky, 48, of Oakwood Hills in McHenry County, who is a first-degree black belt in karate, is the founder of the Green Tara Project, a one-woman nonprofit organization that teaches self-defense to girls who are victims of or are at risk for human sex trafficking. Staurowsky has been on two trips to India, in August 2010 and this past April, both times for four to five weeks, and taught group classes to girls as young as 6.
"I learned all the basic martial arts words, like 'punch,' 'kick' and 'block,' how to count, and words like 'nose,' 'fists,' 'knuckles, 'palm,' 'knee' -- anything you could strike with, I learned the word for," she said.
Staurowsky practices karate at Focus Martial Arts & Fitness in Lake in the Hills and was a gold medalist in kumite (fighting) at the 2009 World Karate Confederation's world karate championships.
The classes she taught in India are an offshoot of "Fight Like a Girl," a women's self-defense class she helped teach at Focus Martial Arts, she said.
Inspired by others
"Green Tara" is a female Buddha figure that represents enlightenment and action, which are the tenets of her mission, Staurowsky said.
It all started in 2009 when she read a column by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times about a 16-year-old girl from Pakistan who had been abducted and raped over the course a year, only to be raped again by police officers when she thought she'd finally been freed.
Assiya Rafiq's story made such a profound effect on Staurowsky that she started searching for more stories and information about human sex trafficking. And then, she decided to do something about it.
"I thought, 'Here I am, I've got so much. I have a house, I am gainfully employed, I have freedom to pursue my love and passion of karate and martial arts,'" she said. "That story inspired me so much."
She Googled social service organizations in India that work with survivors of human trafficking and emailed asking if they wanted her help. They did.
Her first trip was to the state of Bihar in far northeast India, one of the poorest areas of the country. During her second trip in April, she spent time in Bihar and Mumbai.
Because many of the girls had been sexually and physically abused, Staurowsky was mindful of making modifications in her teaching, such as going very slowly and asking their permission before touching them to show them things like how to get out of a wrist grab. If they said no, she just stuck to showing them how to punch and kick.
"One girl had probably about 12 cigarette burns on one arm. Another had her front tooth knocked out, anther had her arm broken and it was never set right," she said. "To look at them ... but look beyond that and see them as a totally whole human being who is standing in front of me and is ready to be lit from within ... that was my job."
She also found herself in slightly bewildering situations like teaching a class in an outdoor corral. "It was 90-degree heat. That was kind of fun. They're moving the cows out, so I'm like, 'OK, so I'm teaching here?'"
Staurowsky uses her karate expertise to teach not just physical but mental skills, said James Goes, chief operating officer for Project Crayon, which runs a shelter for at-risk girls in Mumbai.
"In India or other similar nations that come with a history of a girl being considered 'expendable,' a girl has to overcome more hurdles and stigmas and clichés, which make her a target of violence and abuse," Goes wrote via email. Through Green Tara Project, "a girl not just learns self-defense, she learns to value herself and respect herself more, and this helps the girl inside to not undermine her confidence and her potential."
"The enthusiasm that the program builds within the beneficiaries is unparalleled," Goes added.
Jyoti Nale-Tajane, senior program officer for Save the Children India, agreed.
"When she actually started conducting the sessions, we realized she was not only doing sessions in defensive techniques but also in enhancing confidence building of girls. The girls discovered a new self in them and 'I cannot do this' turned into 'I can do anything' for all the girls," Nale-Tajane wrote via email.
"The sessions helped girls to come out of mental trauma and get back self esteem and respect. The training in self-defense gave them confidence that they are not dependent on somebody else to keep them safe and convey the message that you should not look down on you."
Staurowsky said the young women made an indelible impression on her.
"They were amazing women to work with; they so wanted to learn. They showed up early. When I hit that gate, they were all ready and lined up. They were a joy to work with."
More work ahead
Staurowsky wants to go back to India one more time this year and then plans to expand the Green Tara Project's reach to Nepal. She hopes to do some fundraising via a PayPal link at blog.greentaraproject.com and perhaps recruit more people to teach self-defense with her, although she knows not everyone can afford the commitment.
Staurowsky's home-based job as a business development consultant allows her the flexibility and financial means to take a break for a few weeks. Still, at more than $3,000 per trip including visas and inoculations, plus the loss of income, it's definitely an investment, she said.
The trips also take a great emotional toll.
During her trips abroad, Staurowsky focuses on her teaching while living the experience at its fullest. It is only when she comes back to the U.S. that she gives herself permission to let her guard down, she said.
This last time, she broke down halfway through the 36-hour journey back to Chicago during a layover in Frankfurt, Germany.
"I ran for the women's bathroom and had a mini meltdown," she said. "It's a big emotional assault, but totally worth it."
Human sex trafficking happens every day across the world, even if it's hard to fathom for people who lead comfortable lives in the United States.
"Women have to stand up against the men and say, 'Enough is enough. We are not commodities,'" she said. "They need to take that back to the men until they decide to stop treating them like commodities."