There Wouldn’t Be a (Merry) Christmas Without Seafarers

By: 
Roberto Vazquez
LEFT TO RIGHT – Ruben Datu with fellow sailors, Tony Antonio and Butch Amar, playing mahjong on Christmas Eve at the International Seafarers Center.

It’s the sunset hour, on Christmas Eve. Rain has fallen steadily throughout the day. The sky is dark and heavy, shaped with ominous clouds.

Under the gloomy canopy, a cacophony of sounds rises from the asphalt jungle. Cranes bearing cargo containers creak and groan, air brakes hiss like pistons, and laden rigs growl as they rumble to destinations, both near and far.

The Long Beach Cargo Terminal, located at the corner of Pier E Street and Pico Avenue, is a stone’s throw from the International Seafarers Center (ISC). Guy Fox is the chairman of the board of the ISC, a non-profit charitable organization that’s served the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles since the early 1980s.

Fox reflected on the holiday season and a supply chain that’s been backlogged for more than a year and said, “Without the seafarers, there wouldn’t be a Christmas.”

Sailors face physical and mental fatigue doing highly dangerous, low paying duties over prolonged periods of time. To address the fatigue, stress and restlessness, the center provides all merchant marines a place to relax. Sailors can sleep, socialize, watch television, cook, do laundry or use a computer to contact family and friends.

For one sailor at the ISC, this Christmas Eve is a painful one. Ruben Datu is spending the entire day with fellow sailors, Tony Antonio and Butch Amar, playing mahjong. They’re waiting for the stroke of midnight and the arrival of Christmas to help Datu avoid feeling lonely and sad. Datu’s wife died less than three weeks ago, after a series of strokes and a five-year hospitalization.

The three Filipinos talked, laughed and discussed current events, including the devastating effects of Typhoon Rai, which killed more than 300 people in their homeland.

They also spoke about the backlog of foreign flag vessels waiting to unload, due to COVID quarantines, and the growing sense of isolation. They cited several factors, including the lack of Wi-Fi signal on the vessels, being unable to contact family members for months at a time, and being unable to leave the ship. Datu said, “Some sailors become depressed, violent and need counseling.”

At the center, or on a vessel, seafarers can receive counseling and spiritual guidance from Reverend Samson Chauhan, who said, “Any sailor, any country, any denomination … all sailors are my brothers and sisters.”

Due to the quarantine issue, Chauhan must personally visit the foreign flag vessels.

Chauhan stated, “Pray for us. Be mindful of the important service these sailors provide the supply chain. This is important because there is a human toll.” He added, “They leave their families at home for months at a time and only North America and Europe provide this type of center for international sailors.”

In addition to Chauhan, Pat Pettit and Merry Jo Dickey represent the heart of the ISC operation. They are a two-person welcoming committee for the men and women far away from the comforts of family and home.

Pettit is the center’s manager. According to her, the ISC serves both American and foreign flag seafarers. However, due to the pandemic, it’s only been American seafarers for more than a year.

Another sailor spending Christmas Eve at the center is Harvey Carvajal, from Newark, New Jersey. Carvajal served 12 years in the U.S. Navy before joining the Seafarers International Union. Life has not been easy for Carvajal since an early age. He confided, “I’m on my own. My mother left me. I never married and I don’t have kids.” He added, “This year I shipped out on three different ships. Most of the year, I was gone.” Carvajal is staying at the center until his new assignment arrives.

Carvajal makes donations to maintain the facility and cover transportation costs, since the center frequently transports sailors to and from their assignments.

He said, “I’d rather give it to them than Uber.”

Hearing this, Pettit smiled and said, “I tell them, ‘You don’t owe us anything’ but we accept and are grateful for any donations.”

Pettit, better known as “Mom Pat”, has been with the ISC since 1982. She recalls how it all began. “It started out as a little trailer, then a mobile home, then a portable office was donated.” As she packaged gift bags, Pettit said, “This is my Santa’s workshop.”

Pettit’s been around a long time, enough to see changes. She said the foreign flag vessels are still 95% male, whereas the American vessels now include 25-30% female.

Merry Jo Dickey has also seen many events in her 30 years at the center. Dickey is the full-time, resident attendant and said, “No two days are ever the same.” Dickey has also witnessed the spirit of the seafarers.

She stated, “Seafarers are a unique group of men and women. They’re hard working and selfless. The international seafarers work such long hours, six months to a year. Everything they do, they do for their families … India, China, the Philippines…”

Dickey, who was born on Christmas Day, added, “I love this place. I think it’s the best place ever. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. There’s not a lot of money, but this is my calling, what I’m supposed to be doing.”

For these grateful seafarers, the center is the best Christmas gift ever, indeed.

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