Maui refugee represents Hawaii at national event

In 2013, Valdir Solera Jr. came to Maui expecting to learn about hydroponics. Instead, the Brazilian stumbled onto a human-trafficking operation under the guise of a tomato farm.

After three miserable months of long hours and low wages, he was kicked out, and with the help of authorities was able to acquire a visa to stay in the United States. But becoming a refugee turned his life and career goals completely upside down.

“If I can come back in time, in 2013, I would decide never to come here,” Solera said.

But in his new life, the 27-year-old has found new purpose: Changing the perception of refugees, and doing what he can to make sure no one else has to suffer through the same ordeal. Last week, Solera represented Hawaii at the 2016 Refugee Congress in Washington, D.C. He was one of 51 delegates chosen – one from each state and the District of Columbia – to address a worldwide crisis that has gained a growing spotlight in recent years.

“We think (refugees are) poor people coming to the United States for making money,” Solera said. “They’re not. They don’t have options. They’re doctors, they’re engineers, they have kids and families. . . . Many times, they lost everything.”

The Refugee Congress is a nonprofit advocacy group created by refugees, for refugees, according to Christopher Boian, public information officer for The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2011, the UNHCR hosted the first congress.

At this year’s event, delegates shared stories and heard from speakers from the White House and a host of federal agencies. They tackled the issues that led many refugees to resettle in the U.S.: religion, sexual orientation, women’s rights, politics and more. Solera met a former Peruvian judge who faced death threats because she signed a law that the government didn’t like. He heard from a woman who lived in a war zone and was sold into a camp, raped by soldiers and finally escaped while pregnant. There was a man from Pakistan whose enemies tried to pay al-Qaida to kill him.

Solera said that the Refugee Congress “changed my vision about refugees,” showing him the many different threats people are forced to flee from.

The young Brazilian has his own story – one that “you think it doesn’t happen much” in Hawaii. In 2013, Solera began an internship on Maui. He was studying for his bachelor’s degree in biology and was excited for the chance to learn about hydroponics.

“All students want to come for an internship in the United States because it’s very technologic,” he said. “The big companies in Brazil, they like us to do the internship outside the country because it’s very good for education.”

His university, UNIFEB (Centro Universitario da Fundacao Educacional de Barretos), connected him to a sponsor, the International Farmers Aid Association, a U.S.-based organization managed by a Brazilian. On Aug. 18, 2013, Solera arrived on Maui and began his internship at Haiku Farms. Within the first couple of weeks, he realized that something was wrong. Instead of learning about the seven different types of tomatoes grown on the Haiku farm, he and the three other interns were cleaning trash off a cropless piece of property in Lahaina. They were told to spray bottles of unlabeled pesticides without wearing protective gear.

The owner “never talked with me about the tomatoes,” said Solera, who ended up working 12 hours a day, six days a week, making just $1.49 an hour. Solera peppered the owner with questions, wondering why they couldn’t leave the farm or visit friends. The furious owner finally stuffed Solera’s belongings into a trash bag and kicked him off the farm Nov. 23, 2013.

At the time, Solera spoke little English and knew hardly anybody. He and another intern who got kicked out hitchhiked to another town and met up with another Brazilian national. Solera called the police, but they told him they couldn’t do anything. Finally, he went to the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, which explained to him for the first time that he was a victim of human trafficking. They helped him apply for a T-1 nonimmigrant status petition and, a year and a half later, he qualified for the visa.

It was the end of his nightmare, but also the end of the life he’d always known. Back in his hometown of Barretos in Sao Paulo, his university put him on academic probation, and his sponsor, the IFAA, demanded $20,000 reais (which at the time was about $10,000 in U.S. currency) from his family members, which they refused to pay.

Solera was the first to report the sham internship to authorities, and the university, IFAA and the farm underwent federal investigation.

“Everybody is mad with me because I report,” he said. “They say bad things about me. My teachers don’t talk with me anymore. All my academic life and professional life is damaged.”

Solera can’t return to Brazil because he fears he won’t be able to return to the U.S., and he can’t continue his university studies because he doesn’t have the money and wants to learn more English.

He said that many refugees are like him – they don’t have a choice.

But, in the U.S., resettling refugees has become a contentious issue. Some have expressed fears that terrorists would slip in with the refugees. Others have pointed out that the U.S. has a widespread homelessness problem and cannot afford to accept many refugees.

Gov. David Ige raised some hackles in November when he announced that Hawaii would welcome Syrian refugees, before adding that it was highly unlikely that they would come to the islands.

Solera believes learning the stories of refugees will be important in changing the perception people have of them. Refugees cannot be judged by a few bad apples, he said. Some had good jobs in their home countries and can contribute to American society. He added that putting a support system in place for refugees could prevent homelessness. One of his friends applied for the same visa but didn’t understand English well enough to follow instructions. He now lives in his van on the road.

While in Washington, D.C., Solera spoke with Hawaii legislators U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard about helping refugees and giving the federal government more tools to stop human trafficking. They discussed educating local officials about directing victims like Solera to the right agencies.

Now, Solera has become a bridge for other Brazilians in Hawaii. He started a Facebook page to connect them with housing and jobs. He also works as a tour guide and an environmentalist, and volunteers weekly at Hookipa Beach Park to protect endangered sea turtles.

“I cannot go back (to Brazil) because everybody in my town thinks bad things about me,” he said. “I want to prove it’s not true.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.