NRI Paresh Patel may today own a sea-facing mansion overlooking the Bay Area in San Francisco but he was not to the manor born.
He hails from a small village in Gujarat where he was living with his family where ends were difficult to meet as his farmer father struggled to provide for his family of four. Being the eldest child, young Paresh had not even reached adulthood when his father was approached by “Salim Bhai” – the supposed merchant of dreams, who promised to take Paresh to Mumbai – the city of hope – and “change his life”. Unwittingly, his father reposed faith in Salim Bhai and packed young Paresh to Mumbai with the hope of a better future, not knowing that that was the last he saw of him.
On reaching Mumbai, Paresh was startled to discover the harsh realities of Dharavi- the largest slum cluster in Asia, where he was huddled with other kids and made to slog all day long. After ja few months, they were shifted to Chennai and sent to Sri Lanka. Paresh says “There were some 30 kids and some of them were as young as 8 years old. Every evening, we would all be taken to the airport and return for reasons unknown to us but which now, I think, was because Salim’s men were unable to smuggle us out. The nights in Chennai were awful. We were given a new identity every day and made to forget even our real names. We would be ruthlessly woken up in the middle of the night and be asked our names. If we told our real names as against the pseudonyms, we would be beaten black and blue. Our fake identities were imprinted in our subconscious mind so as to make us travel on a fake passport and different personal information”. Eventually, the fateful night came and Paresh and the rest of the kids made to it Sri Lanka from where they were illegally transported to Switzerland and subsequently, to Canada.
Paresh was caught in the big, bad web of child trafficking, unknown to his naïve mind.
Paresh says in a choked voice “When we reached Canada, there were many other children from different parts of the world and we were some 50 of us who were kept in a 14 feet by 20 feet room with sealed windows and doors, and just one bathroom. We were imprisoned there for months on end and every day, we were given only tea and 2 slices of bread for subsistence. There, I met a Pakistani lad who had been trapped for four years! There were innumerable other stories of despair, stories of young minds and bodies who were incarcerated to be sold for child prostitution or labor. One night, we were all huddled in a bus and taken to a riverside where we were tied in tires and dragged on a river on a boat to be transported to the USA. On a freezing, windy, wintry Canadian night, we set sail for America and the moment we entered the American waters, we were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and in the chaos, I was separated from the others. I saw children falling in the water. I don’t know if they made it or what happened to them. But I made it to American shores”. Paresh was all alone in an alien country with no money, no family, nothing. With the help of some people, he managed to call his family – a first since he left home nearly four years ago. He traveled to San Francisco where an Indian motel owner gave him a job. He would sleep behind the lobby desk and at times, in a room if the guests left early and was paid a paltry 200 USD per month, far less than the market rate. He worked in housekeeping as he did not know English. He taught himself English and later enrolled in the San Francisco State University where he took evening classes and completed his Bachelors in Computer Science. Life was still very difficult and Paresh continued to live in despair. Paresh rues “I often wondered the purpose of my existence and thought to myself if this is all that life had to offer me. I was determined to change my circumstances as I had big dreams”. Paresh was invited to the Coral Reef Resort in Alameda by the manager, who used to frequently come to the motel where Paresh worked. When he went to the resort for the first time, Paresh was blown away. Though he had no money, no bank account, and no legal right to own anything, he declared that he would one day own the hotel.
After weeks of contemplation, Paresh approached the owner of the hotel with an offer to buy the place but was kicked out as it was not on sale. Not the kind to give up easily, Paresh persisted and after googling “how to buy a hotel” and “how to make an offer for a hotel purchase”, he prepared a Letter of Intent and armed with his fourth offer of 7 million dollars, after having started at 5 million USD in his first offer, he made one last bid to buy the hotel and set out to meet the owner, knowing fully well that he ran the chance of being kicked out the fourth time as well! Paresh says “When I went to meet Mr. Ray, the owner, I was expecting him to yell at me as he did the last three times and not surprisingly, I was turned away at the reception itself and the receptionist warned me that he could turn me in to the cops and asked me to leave. Just as I was preparing to leave, Mr.Ray heard the receptionist rebuking me and told her to send me in. When I went in, he turned to me and said to my utter disbelief ‘Ok, young man. The hotel is yours. Go arrange for 25,000 dollars to be placed in escrow as a deposit in the next three days and just take it’! Mixed emotions raced through me as I had zilch money on me but I was determined to give my best and approached everybody who had promised to help me but to my horror, I had no backing. In fact, I was warned to not buy the hotel as it was underperforming due to several problems which I was not too concerned about at the time as I was confident of getting it right once I bought the hotel”. One thing led to another and Paresh went on to own not just that resort but four more hotels in America. Also, as luck had it, the Clinton regime gave citizenship to the illegal immigrants without papers and Paresh became an American citizen after many years.
On his inspiration
Paresh shares “Today, I am financially successful but my biggest regret in life still is not having to be able to meet my father before he died. Just a year after my father passed away, I acquired my first hotel. I think my dad would have gone to heaven and told God to do something to uplift my life as he was very worried about me! I remember, when we were kids, we had no money but my father would selflessly take care of the village cows and feed them every single day. I think I am reaping the benefits of his good karma”.
“My inspiration in my life has always been my father. He was a man of great dignity, and yet no work was beneath him. He was a man who had more than his share of bad luck, and yet he never stopped having faith. He taught me how to be a man, and how to shoulder responsibility, through quiet example. I remember his silhouette still, tilling the land endlessly, sweat dripping off his forehead, just working and toiling and sweating, fighting for tomorrow”.
On child trafficking and how he is trying to do his bit
Paresh quips “I think there is a reason for everything that happens to us though I am still to fully come to terms with all that I experienced at such a tender age. I pray and hope nobody has to go through what I did”.
Being a victim of child trafficking, Paresh is still seething under its impact. He says “I am traumatized even today and wake up many nights sweating profusely. I know there are many people like me in SF alone who are yet to be reunited with their families and I pray for them every day. I try to do my bit for society to ensure that no family goes through what mine did. I support communities in Assam, India from where maximum children are trafficked. The main reason why people get unknowingly caught in this quagmire is that they have no means of a livelihood. I have a school in Assam where we teach people how to weave and make handloom and handicraft stuff. We help them sell their wares in the U.S and in India too, to help them make some money”. Paresh also supports many charitable causes and runs Helping Hands through which he supports animal shelters and people in need. He says “I try to give back to the society and to this country because wherever I am is because of this country – the United States of America. India is the country of my birth and America is the country which gave me my life and I will die for both of them any day”.
Advice to people who are in seemingly difficult situations
“Never give up. There have been many times in my life when the darkness of depression invaded my psyche and I lost faith in the future or even in humanity. But one must keep moving on and as long as you do, one day, things will be better. As the famous poet-singer, Leonard Cohen wrote: ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in’. Don’t be afraid of the cracks and fissures; let the light in. Because it is there. It is there” Paresh says.
On how governments can deal with child trafficking
Paresh says”The question we must ask is ‘Why does human trafficking happen’? And the answer is simple. There are so many people in the world who lack the basics – food, shelter, and the opportunity to make a livable wage. More than two hundred years after Jefferson wrote the words that all men deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we live in a world where people are denied those things. What the governments of the world need to do is to ensure that the basic needs of their citizens are met. We are paying too high a price for those needs not being met. If my father had believed in a sustainable future, there is no chance he would have said goodbye to his son. The root cause of human trafficking is poverty; we must more effectively wage the war on world poverty”.
On his mission
Paresh feels that his mission is the pursuit of happiness. He shares “For so many years when I was working for less than the legal wage at a hotel, I fought for the happiness of my family – to raise enough money to elevate their standard of living. Then, for a while, it was my own happiness, whether through relationships or comfort. But that never sustained me, never drove me, never rewarded me. And so I began seeking global happiness. Nothing gives me as much joy as the smile on someone else’s face. It is our responsibility to end as much global suffering as we can. I know others dream of going to Mars, or owning building-size servers cataloging every human thought, or providing social media to everyone around the world, but my dream – no less grandiose – is to speak at the UN to band together and to guarantee food, shelter, healthcare, and education to everyone around the world as an undeniable right. That, I think, leads to the end of not just human trafficking but hatred, terrorism, and yes, suffering.