A Simple Gift

I originally posted this piece in my Honolulu Star-Advertiser blog, but felt the story reaches beyond the local audience in Hawaii. Mele Kalikimaka, as we say here in the islands…

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In addition to producing the Career Changers TV show for Oceanic Time Warner’s OC16 channel, I was commissioned to create short videos about human trafficking in Hawaii. Our first one, which can be viewed at www.808HALT.com, focuses on the sex trade and how local organizations are helping survivors rebuild their lives. The second video will be about trafficking related to agriculture. However, it was difficult to interview actual victims for a couple of reasons: they were fearful of being deported if they went public, and many do not speak English.

Through Nora at the Pacific Gateway Center (mother of Project Runway fashion designer Andy South) we were able to sit down with a Thai farm worker named Samian. His tale is similar to many trafficking victims. They had a simple plan. Come to America through recruiters, make enough in the first year to pay off the fee ($15K to $20K each), then send back money to their families during the second and third year. Considering they were making less than $2K per year in Thailand or Laos or Vietnam, you can see why it seemed like a good idea on paper. But there was no way they could ever pay off the recruiters’ fees and make a profit because they also had to pay for food and housing in an expensive place to live.

Samian’s odyssey began over six years ago. He left behind a wife, a toddler and a young son. I’m not sure of exact ages and dates because much was lost in the translation — even Samian had trouble recounting the details. Through Global Horizon, the company that imported these foreign laborers for farm owners, he was sent to Florida… Colorado… New York… Washington state… then he worked in California before he wound up on the Big Island. Of all the farms, he said conditions were the worst in Hawaii. He lived in a 2-room shack with eight men sharing one bathroom. They often went hungry because they weren’t paid what they were promised or only given small increments.

It took years for him to be certified as a trafficking victim. But with the help of immigration attorneys and the Pacific Gateway Center, he was reunited with his two sons in Hawaii. By then, his wife had divorced him, and the boys had grown up in his absence. Can you imagine being separated from your kids for five or six years at such a young age? Yet many of these foreign laborers are willing to leave for two or three years just to provide a better life for their families. That kind of sacrifice is not unusual for them.

My cameraman and I drove up to Samian’s farm on the North Shore last week. Through the Pacific Gateway Center, he was given a small loan to raise and sell fish (tilapia and giant catfish). Unfortunately, it hasn’t been making much money, so he’s attempting to level out the hilly farm land and intends to plant lemon trees and grow bananas. When we first arrived at the farm, Nora wasn’t there to translate and we had a hard time communicating. He would gesture and speak a word or two of English, but to be truthful, I really didn’t have a clue as to what he was saying.

He picked up a folding table, carried it across the field he’s been trying to level by hand (no tractor), then carried over four white plastic chairs to the spot. We just needed to pick up some b-roll shots of Samian and Nora walking around the farm — background stuff. I guess he thought we were going to do another sit-down interview though, so he was trying to find a good spot for us in the shade with a nice view of the valley below. He brought over a plastic wash basin in which he had bottled water for us. I sat and waited for Nora, but she got stuck in a typical North Shore traffic jam, which happens whenever surf is up and the two-lane road gets clogged with residents and visitors who want to see big waves.

After awhile, I walked over to Samian’s house on the farm. It’s really a shack, but he doesn’t have to share it with a bunch of other men, and he has a satellite dish, plus running water and electricity — unlike some of the other places he lived in over the past few years. I noticed he had a stalk of apple bananas propped against the front wall and a green coconut next to it. Probably tomorrow’s breakfast, I thought. When I turned, I saw Samian was moving the table and chairs over to the area where I was now standing, about a hundred yards away. I tried to tell him it wasn’t necessary since we we didn’t need the chairs or table. But he just wanted to accommodate us and make me feel comfortable while we were visiting.

Finally, Nora arrived and began translating to Samian what kind of shots we wanted to get. I asked if he had photos of his family from before he left Thailand. He went inside and rummaged around. Five minutes later, he emerged with a broken picture frame that had some photos of the boys. Nora explained to me that the oldest son (age 18) is living in town now. The 8-year-old is living with Samian on the farm, which is difficult because Samian speaks no English and the boy is trying to adapt to school here. I kept thinking to myself how hard it must be for him and his sons…

After we finished filming, I was about to get in my car and Samian waved at me. He picked up the banana stalk and coconut to give them to me. There had to be at least fifty tiny green and yellow apple bananas on that stalk — and I didn’t know how to crack open a green coconut or what I would do with it if I succeeded. But I couldn’t say no to his act of generosity. I’m not sure if he had intended to give them to me from the start, or if it was just a spontaneous gesture.

When I got home, I shared the bananas with my neighbors and told them they came from a farmer in Kahuku. They have no idea how many miles that man has traveled, how many hours he’s toiled in fields all over the U.S., or how many years he was separated from his children, relatives and friends in a faraway country. Yet he wanted to give me something of his for no other reason than kindness.

It made me think about how fortunate I am. It is a gift I will always remember.

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Addendum: I mentioned that Nora is the mother of Andy South, a finalist on the Project Runway television series a couple of years ago. She was a refugee from Laos, who came to Hawaii after the Vietnam War. The Pacific Gateway Center helped her family get settled before Andy was born. And now she works as a translator for them, assisting people like Samian. (Here’s a video we did about Nora and PGC.)

I wanted to get Christmas gifts for Samian and his sons, so she asked him what they would like. For himself, he wanted a rechargeable hunting flashlight because he sometimes has to check out noises on the farm at night. He said the 8-year-old would like a handheld electronic game, and the older son could use a nice dress shirt. That’s all he asked for.

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