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Feasting on Kindness : Thais Freed From Sweatshop Discover Good Side of Life in America

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They gathered around a picnic table shaded by towering eucalyptus trees in a breezy San Fernando Valley park, four refugees from a horror story. Smiling, laughing, beaming with joy and relief.

They’re free.

And the future is what they are thinking about now. Decent jobs, maybe legal status in the United States or a happy return to Thailand and a long-deferred reunion with loved ones.

“I’ve gotten strength from my experience,” said a 25-year-old man who chose the nickname “Mack” to disguise his identity. “I’m ready to move on.”

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Released from the unrelenting toil of so-called sweatshop slavery and the shackles of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, these former Thai garment workers are tasting the thrill of freedom that authorities say was denied them during long years of confinement and torment at a bootleg factory in El Monte.

The four are among 72 bewildered people bailed out of federal custody by friendly strangers a little more than a week ago. Prison was where they had been taken after the Aug. 2 raid on the converted El Monte apartment compound where, authorities allege, they had been fenced in by razor wire and subjected to forced labor. The INS detained them because officials say all were working here illegally, having been smuggled in with false papers.

Since their release, many of the workers have been feted. Some attended a banquet at the Wat Thai Buddhist temple in North Hollywood. They picnicked in Griffith Park. One group visited Universal Studio’s CityWalk on Tuesday night, then dined at the Queen Mary in Long Beach on Wednesday. Disneyland is on the itinerary for all, maybe as soon as this week.

Now they are enjoying some privacy as well as liberty, divided up into small groups and sheltered by churches and community organizations in confidential locations. Sponsors are trying to shield them, at their own request, from the media pack that swarmed them ruthlessly when they walked out of INS custody in Downtown Los Angeles.

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Even earnest members of the local Thai community--offering sympathy, donations and jobs--complain that they cannot get access to many of the freed workers.

But lying low is a matter of peace of mind, say community activists who secured their freedom. The workers express fears of retribution by someone who might not want them to testify against their former captors. A federal grand jury in Los Angeles last week indicted nine of the alleged factory overlords on charges including transporting and harboring illegal immigrants.

Whether that fear is justified or not, it is part of the trauma of adjustment from abuse to kindness.

All 67 women and five men now have six-month work permits, allowing them to remain in the United States and serve as material witnesses, though many may later face deportation. But before getting back to the grind, they are out to have a good time.

“Most people in Thailand don’t know much about America, but they’ve heard about Las Vegas, Hollywood and Disneyland,” said Na, the name chosen by a 26-year-old woman from an impoverished village in northeast Thailand, who said she has been sewing for a living since her early teens. “I’m really excited about going to Disneyland. It’s like a dream.”

At CityWalk last week, a group of 10 of the Thai workers could have passed for ordinary tourists, indulging in the joy of doing normal things. They were secret celebrities, posing for snapshots with a baby in a stroller and hamming it up with dancers at the Country Star restaurant.

“Little do they know who they’re posing with,” joked the shelter director who supervised the outing.

At Camacho’s Cantina, volunteers instructed them in proper technique for dipping tortilla chips in salsa, using simple English and pantomime. The women countered with a lesson in Thai manners: “Sawadee,” they instructed, clasping their hands with gentle bows in the traditional gesture of greeting. Then came a lesson in hamburgers.

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Later at the shelter they were treated to a video concert of the Thai pop star Tata, the kind of privilege that was denied them at the factory. “The feeling is so new, I can’t really find the words to describe it,” said a woman who identified herself only as Tiew. “It really hasn’t sunk in yet.”

A group of 23 workers sheltered by a Methodist church partied with members of the congregation Thursday night, teaching their hosts classical and folk dance steps from Thailand in exchange for some rudimentary English training.

“Head, shoulders, knees and toes,” was the children’s song that some of them tried to recall amid giggles the next day at a park.

Doing everyday chores has been a delight for the workers. They have cooked meals in communal kitchens, gone shopping in Thai markets and dined in Thai restaurants. They take walks in the neighborhoods of their shelters, careful not to stray too far--yet relishing the freedom to come and go at will.

On Monday they are scheduled to begin health screening, in most cases seeing doctors and dentists for the first time in many years. The leisurely pace of adjustment is soothing, they say, allowing them to catch up on much-needed rest.

Some, however, are restless and expressing a wish: the deep desire to get back to work. “We’re kind of lonely,” explained one woman in her 30s, a mother of two who gave her name as Ou. “We’re used to working all the time. Now there’s not that much to do.”

Ou is among 22 women and one man being sheltered at an Episcopal parish hall in a Los Angeles suburb, their accommodations courtesy of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Their cots line the tile and wood floor of a former auditorium, along with open suitcases displaying simple belongings.

Clearly, they are happy to be far away from the clandestine apparel factory, where authorities said they were held as virtual slaves and paid an average of 69 cents an hour for work that stretched up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week. So numbing was the routine, many say they lost track of days, weeks--even years.

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But many of the workers are determined to return to the sewing machines that have caused them so much misery. Even the most degrading of work had allowed them to send some money back to loved ones in Thailand, where a few dollars can make a big difference in the rural economy.

“Yes, I’d like to go back to Thailand,” said another woman at the parish hall who calls herself Nu. She is also a mother whose two children are in the care of relatives back home. “But not right now. First I must work.”

Next to her cot, one woman at the Episcopal shelter keeps a big brown teddy bear. She hopes to take it home to her 3-year-old son some day.

If the horrors of the El Monte sweatshop were shocking for Americans, it was equally devastating for the workers, who, authorities say, were enticed here by recruiters bearing false promises of prosperity. Yet, gradually, exposure to the outside world is forging a new view of this nation.

“Maybe the reputation of Americans was not so great at first. Some people were saying Americans have bad hearts,” said Bua, 26, who is sheltered at the Methodist church. “But now I love the independence here. The people are very warm at heart.”


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