This is the first of a two-part series. The Brookings man who is sharing his story asked The Pilot to hide his identity and identify him only as “M.”
Oregon has one of the highest per-capita ratios of illegal human trafficking for labor or sex in America, especially in the Portland metropolitan area, according to a report released by the Oregon Department of Justice.
Sitting in a Brookings restaurant across the table from me is a local resident we’ll refer to as “M,” to protect his privacy. He also asked that no pictures be taken of his face.
Sitting with “M” is Oasis Shelter Home advocate Mellanie Caldera, who has been helping him transition back to freedom after he eluded his captors. On speaker phone is an interpreter; “M” originally is from Thailand and doesn’t speak English.
The man in front of me is tentative about sharing his story with the press. It is a painful look back into a chapter of his life he’d just as soon forget, but he knows that others are now caught in the same web of bondage that once held him and so “for them,” he says, he wants to speak out, hoping doing so might possibly contribute to their freedom.
His story begins in his home town of Lampang. It’s a mountainous Thai village where he helped his family tend their rice farm. A good student and quick learner, “M” attended local schools and after the 10th grade, moved away from his parents’ home to get a better education.
By the time he completed the 12th grade, he had become fascinated with cooking and enrolled in a culinary school to become a Thai master chef.
After returning to his home, his skill in the culinary arts quickly advanced him to the head chef position at a local hotel.
At about the same time, he met the girl who would eventually become his wife. The young couple began making plans for their wedding.
Somehow, word of “M” and his culinary abilities reached the far shores of the U.S. and Oregon.
“M” picks up the story, his interpreter pausing here and there to listen to his native Thai and repeat it back to us in English.
“A man I didn’t know contacted me and explained he had heard of me, that I was famous, and he wanted me to go to work for him at a restaurant in the U.S.A.”
He says the man asked if “M” would meet him at a certain hotel, where the man would outline his proposal. The man added that the job “would be very, very lucrative, much more money than I was making in Thailand.”
The man’s proposition intrigued the young chef. He talked it over with his fiance and his parents, both of whom voiced reservations about “M” leaving Thailand to work in a faraway country.
“I assured them it would be okay,” “M” told me through his interpreter. “I told my fiance that we could make a lot of money in a short amount of time, and when I got back we would be set for our future.
“And after all, it was the United States. Surely I would be safe there!”
With his family’s reluctant agreement, “M” arrived at the hotel, where he was informed by his contact that the restaurant where he was to work was in Lake Oswego.
And, he was told, the pay would start at $2,000 in U.S. dollars a month, which “M” said is about four times what he could make in Thailand.
Not only that, the man, who struck “M” as congenial and sincere, sweetened the deal by promising “M” he would have a free, upscale room and free meals. The man told “M” he would be working six days a week but could do “whatever I wanted to do on my day off.”
So valuable an employee would “M” be, the man said, that “he was even going to gather all of the required paperwork - visa, Social Security card and passport - together. And because I was such a great chef, he would fly me to Oregon free, and someday back to Thailand free as well.
“M” said yes.
Arrangements were made, papers delivered, tickets purchased. Upon his arrival in the U.S., “M” was greeted at the airport by “what I thought was a very nice woman” who helped him through the process of entry into the U.S.
He later would learn the nice woman was one of the trafficker’s two wives.
Arriving at a pleasant hotel for his first night’s stay in Oregon, “M” thought everything was on track for his new career. “I was so excited,” he said.
The following day, the woman explained that “M” would be relocated to a private residence where he would have his own room, until the owner of the restaurant could arrange for permanent housing.
Shortly after arriving at his temporary quarters, said “M,” the woman’s demeanor changed significantly. No longer smiling, she pointed to a stark room with only a sleeping bag crumpled in the corner, and declared, “This is your room.”
“There was no bed, no furniture, nothing,” he said. “I thought it was odd, but figured they didn’t have time to furnish it. So, I took the sleeping bag they provided and went to sleep.”
Early the next morning, “M” was roused by shouting and someone pulling on his shoulder. “Get up! Get going!” he was told. “You have work to do!”
A bewildered, jet-lagged “M” was pulled to his feet and shoved towards the restaurant kitchen where he would work. And work. And work.
He would be joined by two others who shared his circumstances. The trio would work the kitchen from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., with no rest periods and only a few quick bites of food … and then, only on the rare occasion when the restaurant’s pace of business slowed.
Rather than serving as a Thai chef, “M” had been relegated to chopping vegetables and meats, busing tables, cleaning up the trash.
He said the restaurant’s owner would appear at a moment’s notice “screaming insults and obscenities at us.” “M” said the man was “very mean, not only to us, but to his wife as well, often hurling plates against the walls of the kitchen, then ordering us to pick up the shattered shards off the floor.”
As for the wage paid to “M,” the traffickers’ first installment was but half of what he had been promised. Then, his subsequent pay was docked to “reimburse them” for the airfare, his meals, his lodging, and the costs of getting his documents.
Ultimately, “M” said, the traffickers simply worked him all hours of the day and night, taking all of his pay for themselves.
He and his two co-workers were in Oregon as slave labor.
So the three plotted their escape – only to find their handlers always a step ahead.
The restaurant owner told “M” and his co-workers that their visas, passports and Social Security cards had been destroyed. If they tried to escape, “I will report you to the police, and you will be arrested and thrown in prison for being illegal aliens!”
Saturday: The second half of “M”’s story, including his arrival in Brookings.