Survivors of slavery 'still fighting' Sweatshop victims renew campaign at NoHo temple.
NORTH HOLLYWOOD - The woman once known as a slave stood under the protective gaze of two giant Thai temple guardian statues Wednesday, took a deep breath, and smiled.
Nearly 15 years ago, Rojana Cheunchujit Sussman and 71 other Thai nationals were rescued from an El Monte apartment complex, where their lives had been reduced to 17-hour days cranking out garments in sweatshoplike conditions.
They lived behind shuttered windows, padlocked doors and barbed wire for more than a year. They earned no more than $1.60 an hour until they were discovered on Aug. 2, 1995, as part of a pre-dawn, multiagency raid.
Their story became well-publicized as one of the most prominent cases of modern-day slavery.
On Wednesday in front of the Wat Thai Buddhist Temple in North Hollywood, Sussman and some of the others who were liberated with her displayed quilts they had sewn recently, each given a different name to describe their lives since: Freedom, Courage, Justice.
But those quilts also symbolize how the slave trade is still very much a part of the American fabric.
Sussman and others hope a renewed local campaign will raise awareness of the existence of human trafficking to help end it once and for all.
"I don't want history to repeat itself," Sussman said during a news conference, the smile fading from her face.
"I'm still fighting. I still want to tell people that this human trafficking exists."
Though it's difficult to quantify, about 17,500 men, women and children are trafficked into the United States each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Smugglers house them in rancid conditions, while using coercion and brainwashing to make the captives pay their debts through sexual exploitation or hard labor.
In the last decade, Los Angeles has become one of three top hubs for human trafficking, a result of its proximity to the Mexican border and its busy harbor and airport, said City Councilman Tony Cardenas. On Wednesday, Cardenas unveiled a new hotline at 888-539-2373 for anyone who suspects that people are being held in a home against their will.
Cardenas, who described traffickers as an "evil deep within the world who will stop at nothing to take slaves," said he felt compelled to act because of an incident in 2004, when at least 12 girls and women were forced to work as prostitutes in a South Los Angeles brothel to pay off debts for being smuggled.
Also that year, more than 70 illegal immigrants were found living barefoot inside a padlocked 900-square-foot "drop house" in Canoga Park that officials said was crawling with cockroaches.
"As we raise awareness, people will say 'Stop it. Enough,"' Cardenas said.
The monthlong awareness campaign began on Jan. 11 and will end on Friday, Abraham Lincoln's birthday, when the Los Angeles City Council is expected to read a new version of the Emancipation Proclamation updated for modern-day slavery issues.
In addition to the hotline, the Thai Community Development Center is hoping the public will adopt the various quilts to help fund resources for those who are rescued to benefit the upcoming play called "Fabric" about the El Monte incident. "Fabric" will be performed this summer in Los Angeles.
Working alongside several agencies, including the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, the Thai Community Development Center works to find shelter and other resources to help trafficking victims.
"Sadly, the majority of the cases continue to involve the Thai," said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai CDC. "Despite having seen a lot of progress, most of the world is still just awakening to the reality of human trafficking."
Sussman, who was 24 when she was brought to the United States, said human traffickers persuaded her to leave her family's farm by promising an eight-hour work schedule and enough money to help her children attend college.
She said she no longer holds a grudge against her captors.