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Melissa WheelerMelissa Wheeler

Melissa Wheeler: Reaching Across Cultures

She crosses the busy Hong Kong street hugging a plastic sack that contains everything she owns. A bus roars by, whipping the pale blue sari headscarf across her brown face. She eases herself through the wrought iron gate. Her thin arm, angry with thumb-sized purple bruises, reaches up to push the buzzer. An electronic click unlocks the door and she begins a slow climb up the dark, narrow stairs of the women's shelter.

"Hello, are you Indri?" Melissa Wheeler, says softly. She gently grasps the young woman's elbow and guides her through the door. "Welcome to Bethune House."

Indri's dark, doe-like eyes dart nervously around the small space. The room is dominated by a scarred wooden dining table and seven mis-matched chairs. A black fabric couch and two plaid overstuffed chairs slump along one wall next to a spindly end table and a lamp with a shade that's too big. On the hearth above an unused fireplace rests a brightly painted statue of the Virgin Mary. The white walls, framed in bright lavender trim, have recently been painted and the paint smell mixes with the aroma of garlic, onions and ginger emanating from a closet-sized kitchen.

"You can put your belongings over here," Wheeler says, stepping into a narrow sleeping room and pointing to a green iron bunk. Colorful blankets and bedspreads cover thin mattresses of the eight bunks that crowd the room. Another four bunks fill a converted porch next door. Although there are beds for 24, the shelter often houses 30 or more women, many sleeping on pallets or couches. Cheap suitcases, cardboard boxes and plastic sacks like the one Indri carries are piled on top or crammed under the beds. A row of battered lockers leans precariously against the far wall.

Another Indonesian woman, Siti, who has been at the shelter for three weeks, looks up from her needlework project and beams at Indri. "Welcome, little sister," she says, her rich Indonesian accent lilting her words. When the woman says something in their native Bahasa, Indri laughs and visibly relaxes. Wheeler leaves her young charge to settle in.

"So many families and recruitment agencies take advantage of these women," explains Wheeler, who is starting her second month as part of the United Methodist Church Global Justice Volunteers' Program that sends 18- to 25-year-olds to work for two to three months in various social justice organizations across the globe. Three days a week, Wheeler works here at Bethune House women's shelter; the other three days, she works for Mission for Filipina Migrant Workers, a legal clinic that offers help to abused workers. "These women come to Hong Kong from countries like the Philippines and Indonesia to work as maids, cooks and nannies and send money to their families back home. They often support whole families, including their elderly parents."

In an effort to bring more money into the Philippines, the country's government operates a program that sends Filipino workers to 180 countries. The women, many of whom are college educated, come because they can earn more money as domestic workers in Hong Kong than they can as nurses, secretaries or teachers at home. Ranging in age from 20 to 40, many are wives and mothers who must leave behind their husbands and children. "In Hong Kong alone, there are about 123,000 Filipino people working, most of them women. We have about 85,000 Indonesian migrant workers."

Recruitment agencies that arrange for foreign domestic worker transportation and placement require the women to sign iron-clad employment contracts and insist they live in the employers' homes where there is little oversight. It's a situation ripe for abuse. Laws regarding minimum wage, days off and other conditions are routinely ignored. "The most common complaint we get is underpayment. No one tells the women what the minimum wage is, so they often don't know they're being underpaid. The recruitment agencies tell them they have to work seven days a week or they'll lose their jobs. They're treated like slaves."

Sometimes the abuse becomes physical like it did for Indri, whose employer didn't think she worked hard enough so he beat her. Siti was also physically abused. "Siti was allowed to sleep only four hours a night," says Wheeler. "She had to work such long hours that she fell asleep while she was ironing a shirt and damaged it. Her employer branded her with the iron."

Laughter erupts from the tiny kitchen. Four women - two residents and two staff members - are crowded into the tiny space. Despite no oven and only a two-burner stove, they cook three meals a day for the shelter's residents and staff.

Women filter into the common room and occupy chairs around the dining room table or perch on couches. Some wear traditional saris or head coverings. Others wear Western dresses or slacks and blouses. Most of them are young, in their 20's and 30's. Two women pass dishes and silverware. Others pass a platter of spicy beef skewers and bowls of fried rice and gado gado, an Indonesian salad of white cabbage, green beans, sprouts and eggs. As the women eat, the chatter around the table is good-natured, the laughter easy. English, Indonesian and Filipino words tumble over one another, often in the same sentence. Sharing the bond of oppression, women at Bethune make friends quickly and easily.

"Willamette University taught me tolerance that gives me empathy for what these women go through," says Wheeler, as she helps clear the table. She graduated from Willamette in May 2004 with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. "My anthropology training gave me observation skills and exposed me to ideas and cultures different from my own."

Studying in Quito, Ecuador, during her junior year has helped Wheeler adjust to living in Hong Kong, not an easy task for someone who grew up in the tiny Eastern Oregon town of Baker City. The two-room apartment a few blocks away that she shares with Billie, another Bethune volunteer, has no kitchen and the bathroom consists of a squat pot style toilet, a sink and a hose that comes out of the wall. "Hong Kong is noisy and there's traffic all the time. There are lights on all night so it's never dark. When I first came to Hong Kong, I was disappointed, but I've actually come to like it."

After lunch, Wheeler gathers a group of 10 women around the large table for an English lesson. She asks each of them to write a description in English of their boyfriend or husband. The assignment generates much giggling. Suparti, at 32, one of the older women, tries to read aloud the description she's written of her husband. Halfway through, she chokes up and cannot finish. She left behind her husband and her young daughter in Indonesia. She has missed them so much that she risked the wrath of her employer and the recruitment agency by breaking her employment contract. She's owed back wages, but she's foregoing a legal battle. She just wants to go home, but she must wait here at Bethune until her paperwork clears.

The legal work is some of the most frustrating for Wheeler. On the days she works at Mission for Filipina Migrant Workers, she travels to a modest office housed in an Anglican church. There she helps women who have civil or criminal claims against their employers file paperwork, write statements or try to calculate how much money they are owed. Today, she's sitting in a courtroom with Indarti, an Indonesian woman who was regularly raped by her employer. "The wife would go off to work and the husband, who is a member of the Hong Kong Police Department, would return every morning and rape her," says Wheeler, who holds Indarti's slim brown hand. Sitting against the hard wooden bench in the massive British-style courtroom, Indarti looks tiny and vulnerable. It was months before her employer gave her a day off to rest. That was when she met other domestic workers who told her about Bethune House and the migrant worker legal clinic. The Indonesian woman, who is Muslim, was a virgin when she arrived in Hong Kong. "When she goes back to her country and tries to get married, she'll face all these cultural barriers because she's not a virgin. That's on top of all the physical and psychological trauma she's already faced."

Once a worker files a civil or criminal case, they fall into legal limbo - they are unable to work or leave the country until the case is settled. For many, Bethune House and the handful of similar shelters is their only hope.

"It's frustrating because so much is stacked against these women," says Wheeler. "Their home governments don't want workers to protest their working conditions. They just want them to keep sending money back home. The Hong Kong government doesn't want them to rock the boat. The recruitment agencies and families are willing to mistreat them. When they bring a case against their employers, everyone wants them to settle quickly and go away."

Wheeler knows it's unlikely these women will be treated fairly in court or at labor tribunals. Sometimes her presence makes a difference. "It's sad, but because I'm white, the women have more clout if I'm there with them. It makes me uncomfortable, but it comes down to race. It frustrates me that these women are so disrespected."

Soon Wheeler will board a plane for her hometown of Baker City where she hopes to teach social studies. Indri, Suparti, Indarti and the other women she's touched have forever altered Wheeler's view of the world. "I used to think of Asia as one big place, but it's made up of all these different countries, each with its own language and culture. Being here has also made me look differently at the foreign policies of my own country and of big multinational corporations."

It's also made her want to bring a new perspective to her tiny corner of Oregon. "When I become a teacher, I want to help young people learn more about what's really going on in the world. I want to inspire them to get involved."

Wheeler, a 2004 Willamette University graduate, has returned from Hong Kong and is teaching in Baker City, Ore.