Urmi Basu, champion for at-risk girls and young women in Kolkata, India has been awarded the 2012 Jesse & Helen Kalisher Humanitarian Award. In the face of overwhelming poverty and the associated risks of the sex trade and human trafficking, Ms. Basu and the organization she founded, New Light (www.newlightindia.org), stand firmly in support of those most at risk of being harmed.
Ms. Basu founded New Light in 2000 with $200. She continued her work despite serious objections and resistance from her matrimonial family. Today, New Light provides shelter, food, healthcare and education for hundreds of at-risk women and children. “What New Light really provides,” Mr. Kalisher observed, “is a chance at a life free of abuse of all types.”
“Every act of violence can be overcome with tolerance and compassion,” Ms. Basu said, adding that, “What matters is not how much we do, but that we at least do something.”
Mr. Kalisher noted that his mother Ilse Kalisher shared the same philosophy. “When I was a child, mom often pointed out that what mattered most was that we take small actions on the theory that if everyone around us did the same, we would have significant impact on the world around us.” Mr. Kalisher added that his mother’s reaction to a crime wave in Washington Heights where they lived was not to stay indoors, but just the opposite, to go outside in the hope that if everyone stepped out onto the streets, the criminals would disappear.
In India, a nation where nearly half the women are illiterate, where the World Bank reports 800 million people live on less than $2 a day, where Human Rights Watch reports 15 million children are bonded laborers (sold as collateral on a debt), and where other reports place an estimated 1.2 million children and nearly another 1.8 million women work in the sex trade, the work of Ms. Basu and New Light is critical not only in the direct assistance it provides, but in the example it sets and the leadership it offers for other like-minded people and organizations.
In 2001 and 2002, Mr. & Mrs. Kalisher traveled through countries in the Middle East, East Africa as well as in India. “I was particularly struck by the lives of women in many of the countries we visited,” Mr. Kalisher said. “There’s a challenge in many countries in which women are second class citizens and it’s shocking that this is simply accepted by so many people around the world, indeed here in the United States, as the status quo.”
Three years ago, Mr. & Mrs. Kalisher decided to recognize someone who has done something miraculous and under-recognized, for humanity and to reward them with the gift of art. “It's a small way for us to say thank you and to show our appreciation and respect for the tough choices that someone has made,” Mr. Kalisher said. “It’s our way of showing support and for being heard,” he added, pointing out that this year’s honoree, Ms. Basu, has made significant sacrifices in order to better the world in which we live.
“I am honored to accept this award,” Ms. Basu said from her office in Kolkata. “Art plays an important part in life and it’s a good lesson to us all, to see artists speaking up with their voices in support of helping others.” Ms. Basu said she looks forward to welcoming Mr. & Mrs. Kalisher back to India on their next visit.
The Jesse & Helen Kalisher Humanitarian Award includes a gift of a limited edition, hand signed collector’s print of one of Mr. Kalisher’s photographs (www.jessekalisher.com). Ms. Basu chose an image from the Taj Mahal that Mr. Kalisher captured when he was there with Helen in 2002. “We spent three days at the Taj Mahal,” Mr. Kalisher said, “watching the light change and waiting for perfect moments.” The image Ms. Basu chose (#2601) is one that Mr. Kalisher said he, “captured just before sunrise as the sun lit the sky and bounced off of high clouds, but had not yet peeked over the horizon.”
The previous recipients of the Jesse & Helen Kalisher Humanitarian Award have been Dr. Jeffrey Wigand who was instrumental in exposing lies and fraud within the American Tobacco Industry and Nobel Laureate, Leymah Gbowee who successfully led a peace movement in Liberia.