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Indentured In America: An Island Couple Finds A Way Home

By Walter F. Roche Jr., Baltimore Sun Staff and Willoughby Mariano, Orlando Sentinel

MURILO, Federated States of Micronesia (September 17, 2002 - SunSpot.net/Baltimore Sun)---The place Happy and Mineko Chochol call home isn't just a third of the world away, it is another world.

On the island of Murilo, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Chochols live with their six children in a one-room, cinderblock house with a tin roof, lighted with sunshine by day and a flashlight by night. Pigs, chickens and dogs wander the tiny dot in the Pacific Ocean that about 200 people call home.

Murilo is a 60-mile trek across open ocean from the main island of Chuuk. On a sunny Saturday in March, it took Happy Chochol 11 hours to make the trip.

Over and over the 18-foot motorboat nosed up steeply as it fought 7-foot waves, then slammed down with a spine-cracking thud. The trip, which began at 2 p.m., ended in darkness after midnight.

As the boat neared Murilo, the pilot radioed ahead. Chochol's family and dozens of others lined the shore with flashlights to guide the boat the final quarter-mile. They cheered as it was pulled up on the beach and its drenched occupants wobbled ashore.

Broken promises

The Chochols, homesick and eager to see the family they'd left behind, returned to this isolated place in early August 2001 after two years working in a nursing home in the United States, some 8,000 miles away. It was an adventure they'll never forget because of dear friends made -- and promises broken.

They had journeyed to the United States hoping to capture a piece of the American dream and bring it back to share with their parents and the five children they'd left in their care.

The Chochols were lucky to make it home. Many of the thousands of Pacific islanders lured to America to work at low-wage jobs in nursing homes and amusement parks are stranded when recruiters break promises to pay their return airfare.

Because of clever legal maneuvering by the company that recruited them -- Medical Placement Services Inc. of Bonita Springs, Fla. -- they almost shared that fate. But thanks to the fund-raising efforts of a couple who befriended them in the tiny Iowa town of Knoxville, they were able to come home.

Mineko Chochol said that when she and her husband were recruited by Medical Placement Services -- owned by recruiter Donald Finn -- they signed a contract on July 15, 1999, that contained a "return transportation" clause: "MPSI agrees to provide client with a nonrefundable one-way airline ticket to Micronesia upon client's successful completion of his or her two-year contract for services."

"We heard they would pay us to come here and they would pay our ticket back," said Mineko Chochol.

But while they were working in Iowa, Medical Placement Services was legally dissolved on Nov. 14, 2000. A few months later, a letter from the company's attorney, J. Edward Goff, said the company had folded and couldn't pay for airfare. Medical Placement "had no assets and no known liabilities," Goff wrote on Feb. 3, 2001.

Johnny Hebel, the man who recruited the Chochols in Micronesia, acknowledged that the promise of return airfare was broken "when the program bankrupted."

But Finn had not left the recruiting business. He was simply operating under the name of another of his companies, Guardian Solutions Inc. The two firms operated with "the same employees, in the same offices, using the same supplies and equipment," Finn said in a sworn statement on July 28, 2001. He testified that he owned 100 percent of the stock in both companies.

On many company documents the firms are listed together. Some recruits, though not the Chochols, signed contracts with both.

Guardian Solutions filed for bankruptcy early this year, stranding more islanders. Finn filed for personal bankruptcy about the same time, after alleging that an associate had tried to pirate his business.

In a recent interview, Finn insisted that he had never promised recruits return airfare, despite the clear language of the contract, signed by a former associate, Dennis DeMichele. He accused former employees of making that promise without his knowledge.

Ironically, had the Chochols died, at least part of the cost of transportation home would have been paid for under a separate contract with the nursing home. The operators agreed to pay $500 toward the shipment of their remains to Micronesia.

Ruth and Philip Laughlin were the Iowa couple who befriended the Chochols and organized a local fund drive to pay for their return flight to Micronesia. They also helped the Chochols with correspondence with Medical Placement Services, an experience that led the Laughlins to conclude that the firm engaged in "modern-day slave trading."

The Laughlins led a similar fund drive the year before when the Chochols had had to make an emergency trip home because one of their children had sliced a finger with a machete while opening a coconut. When the finger became infected, the girl had to be taken to Weno. She eventually lost part of her finger.

"We just kind of got involved," said Ruth Laughlin, a retired nurse who worked at the Westridge Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where the Chochols were employed. "We've learned so much from them. We thought we would be teaching them, but they ended up teaching us so much."

Laughlin said that when the Chochols arrived they were not prepared for life in the United States. They spoke little English and had no idea how to deal with routine chores like shopping. On Murilo, they survive on fish or shrimp that they catch.

"They had little awareness of our culture and little or no understanding of what their job responsibilities would be," said Laughlin, adding that workers recruited from such remote areas "really need mentors."

She said the Micronesians were treated poorly at the nursing home. Some nurses refused to work with them, and others were "unfriendly, rude and impatient," Laughlin said.

Fonder memories

At home on Murilo, the Chochols and their children still enjoy fruits of the journey to America. But the television, VCR, toaster oven and other appliances are used only on special occasions. Gasoline for the generator is expensive and must be brought over in canisters from Weno.

On a Sunday morning in March, Nathaniel, 2, who was born in Iowa, roamed the house with a roll in each hand. Mineko Chochol said her son had trouble adjusting to the diet on Murilo. Now he has a belly.

At midmorning, the bells at Christ the King Church began ringing across the island and the residents of Murilo gathered in the open-air building. Residents sat or knelt on the concrete floor while children played quietly.

The Chochols say they have no plans to return to the United States but are looking forward to a promised visit from the Laughlins next Spring.

Mineko Chochol said that besides the Laughlins, what she most misses about the United States is McDonald's.

"Ruth told me she could send me anything, but she couldn't send McDonald's," she said with a smile. "I like the hamburgers."

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