By Rich Figel
There are so many worthy causes at this time of year that I almost feel guilty about asking you to consider one more. But the people I'm going to tell you about aren't "Ellen" show type families who have had some hard luck and can't afford certain luxuries or vacation trips to see her in person. Compared to the ones who write Ellen for help, these people have very little. They have endured more than most of us can even imagine. Yet they ask for nothing except the chance to work for a living... and to be with their families.
I'm referring to immigrant farm workers who were victims of human trafficking schemes. Having filmed some of them for the 808HALT.com coalition project to increase awareness about this growing international crime problem, I found it difficult not to become personally moved by their plight. However, you should care too because without immigrant laborers, I don't believe we can have sustainable agriculture in Hawaii. When you go to a farmers market or grocery store, think about who actually grew that produce and picked the fruit. There is a human cost to the food we eat.
Through the good folks at the Pacific Gateway Center, I'm helping to put together a Christmas wish list from 60 families of farm trafficking victims, who have been reunited in the past year or two. They had to be certified in order to be given refugee status by the U.S. federal government, which then allowed their spouses and children to come to Hawaii. When I interviewed some of them for a 808HALT video I'm producing, I asked how long they had been apart. They nodded at the translator and answered in Thai. The translator solemnly said: "Eight years."
I looked at their kids, who were now in their early teens... some around nine or ten... and it took me a moment to compose myself. They were smiling now, although I could see the pain in the eyes of the men and their wives. It was the same stoic expression I saw in Samian, a Thai farm worker I interviewed last year for a segment that aired on my Career Changers TV show. After we finished filming, he gave me a stalk of apple bananas and two green coconuts as an expression of gratitude. His simple gift touched me because I knew it was all he had to offer his guests. So last December, I asked his PGC caseworker -- Nora (Andy South's mom) -- if there was something I could get him and his two boys for Christmas. Samian asked for a rechargeable flashlight for himself, a handheld electronic game for his youngest son, and a nice shirt for his teenage son. I may not be Ellen, but I was happy to be able to fulfill his modest wish list.
Anyhow, there are 59 other families just like Samian's that have humble requests we're hoping to fulfill this Christmas. Thanks to PGC, a few of them now have their own 5-acre lots they are farming and are selling their own produce. They live in old rundown plantation houses in Kunia, which unfortunately PGC cannot do improvements on until they get approvals because they are so old they are covered by historic homes rules. None of the families are complaining though -- in fact, PGC has been getting requests from Thai trafficking victims on the Mainland who heard about the PGC Farms concept. The problem is PGC hasn't been able to get other landowners to lease them lots at affordable rates to expand this program.
If you would like to be a part of the Christmas project, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're asking each person to pick one family member to get them a gift, drop it off at PGC, and send us a photo of yourself so we can forward it to the recipient -- because it's important that they know others care about them. These immigrant workers were brought here under false pretenses and abandoned, separated from loved ones for years, and only now are they beginning to see the promise of America.
And that brings me to my parting thoughts. A community activist, who I respect, claimed there are plenty of local people who would be willing to work on farms if the pay was better and they were given decent benefits. She cited MA'O Organic Farms as an example. Hey, I love what MA'O is doing -- but they offer scholarships to the young people who work on that farm, and not all of them want to be farmers for the rest of their lives. It reminds me of the old satirical op-ed piece in the Onion by a fictional farmer's son pleading NOT to save the farms because he didn't want to be stuck doing that kind of work. The truth is most of the immigrant farm workers hope their children get a good education so they won't have to work in the same fields they toil in.
So while it's nice to talk about sustainable agriculture and buying local, the question really is how much are you willing to pay for it?
Programming Alert: OC16 has added more primetime slots for Career Changers TV! You can catch our Christmas episode daily at different times. Please visit our website for the viewing schedule, or check out segments from past and current shows on the CCTV YouTube Channel.