All of the roads in Chutima Vucharatavintara's life seem to have led her here, into the arms of a little boy with a broken spirit and diseased body who has never known a love like hers.
They couldn't have met in a colder setting, this giving woman and this needy boy. Their eyes first locked in a stark Immigration and Naturalization Service office where the 3-year-old's fate had been debated by strangers for 14 days.
He was leaning on the hip of another woman, eating a bowl of rice and sauce, when Vucharatavintara--another stranger invited by INS officials--walked in. She offered him her hand and asked if he wanted to go to her, Vucharatavintara recalls.
The Thai youngster reached out and waved goodbye to the bureaucrats. He was suffering from chickenpox, high fever, an ear infection and a hacking cough. But he was smiling.
"I hugged him, and I started crying," Vucharatavintara said. "He was so dirty and in terrible shape. I just couldn't believe it. He just grabbed my neck and put his face on my shoulder and didn't want to see anyone else."
The boy is Phanupong Khaisri, who was smuggled into Los Angeles and now finds himself at the center of an international struggle that some have compared to the Elian Gonzalez saga.
Phanupong, nicknamed Got, arrived on April 11 with a couple who had rented him in Thailand for $250 so they could enter the U.S. looking like a family on vacation. Using fraudulent documents, the man was trying to smuggle his companion into a slave-labor ring and apparently intended to return to Thailand with the boy, authorities said. Got's father, who was HIV-positive, had committed suicide soon after his birth, and his mother is a drug-addicted prostitute in Bangkok who is also HIV-positive.
"When I picked him up, I knew nothing about his background," said Vucharatavintara, 45. "The Thai Consulate told us they needed [temporary] shelter for a boy who had been kidnapped. That was it."
Since April 25, Got has been living with Vucharatavintara, her husband and two sons, and a destitute mother and baby she has also volunteered to shelter in her Highland Park home. Despite an HIV-positive diagnosis and recurrent nightmares, Got is thriving: He has gained 3 pounds, is learning English in preschool, sings to anyone who will listen and likes to pick strawberries from his temporary guardian's garden.
This is no surprise to those who best know Vucharatavintara--a soft-spoken but no-nonsense community activist who, as a young woman, went on a pilgrimage through the Thai countryside to spread the teachings of Buddha. Later, she became a lawyer and, inspired by Gandhi, helped people so poor they paid her with rice, coconuts and bananas.
Eventually she grew so disenchanted with government corruption and her first marriage that she moved to Los Angeles with her son and in 1988 was ordained as the first U.S. nun in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
"Throughout her life, she's always been on a spiritual journey," said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Koreatown-based Thai Community Development Center, where Vucharatavintara heads the parent education program. "She is still on that spiritual track. Whether as a nun, a lawyer, an activist, or a staff member here, I tell her she doesn't need to go . . . close to Tibet to be close to God."
Dubbed "Her Holiness" by her colleagues, Vucharatavintara was an easy choice when the Thai Consulate called the Thai community center looking for a volunteer to shelter a Thai boy who was stranded in Los Angeles. "She was a natural fit," Martorell said.
Vucharatavintara already had an 11-year record of opening her door and her heart to newly arrived Thai immigrants, often sick or elderly--even when she and her family lived in one-bedroom apartments in Los Angeles and Eagle Rock.
"Chutima's home has become a form of respite, a sanctuary for the dispossessed and the downtrodden," Martorell, 32, said, wiping tears from her cheeks. "She has a remarkable way; it's not serendipity.
"She always manages to run into people who are the most distressed, the most in need and who have nowhere else to go. And they end up at her house."
Martorell's agency, open six years, assists hundreds of indigent Thai immigrants each year. During the last decade, large numbers of uneducated and unskilled Thais have migrated to Southern California, where they are often exploited by employers seeking cheap labor, Martorell said.
Unlike other Asian ethnic groups with long histories in Southern California, Thais consider themselves "the minor minority" because their migration to the region began only three decades ago, Martorell said. An estimated 80,000 Thais now live here, with recent immigrants settling mainly in East Hollywood and established community members moving out to the San Fernando Valley and other suburbs.
A Heritage of Service