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UCLA student hopes to make change after losing father to coronavirus

Evan Sentoso, a rising fourth-year cognitive science student, is intent on advocating for labor rights in light of his father’s passing. But Sentoso is still grieving over his loss. (Courtesy of Evan Sentoso)

By Anushka Chakrabarti

June 23, 2020 1:03 pm

After losing his father to the COVID-19 pandemic, Evan Sentoso is intent on advocating for workers’ rights.

Sentoso’s father, Harry Sentoso, passed away at 63, two weeks after he started working at Amazon in late March – during the company’s hiring spree following high demand for essential and non-essential items. At the time, Amazon did not heavily enforce masks and social distancing, Sentoso said.

Sentoso, a rising fourth-year cognitive science student, reached out to Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, after his father passed away for guidance on how to prevent workers from facing a similar situation. Sentoso took a labor studies course with Wong in the fall.

Wong said he was moved when he first heard Sentoso’s request.

“It really touched me,” Wong said. “Even in this very tragic family situation, he was looking beyond and seeing that there was something wrong here and that he needs to do something to make sure that other people will not suffer a similar fate.”

Wong also gave Sentoso a labor studies perspective on his father’s experience with Amazon.

“The fact that we have one of our own students suffer as a consequence of the callous disregard for worker safety at the hands of this massive corporation … is something that needs awareness,” Wong said.

Wong said Harry Sentoso did everything right in the traditional sense: he immigrated from Indonesia to the United States, got a master’s degree and raised two sons. Yet, he passed away from COVID-19 a few weeks after getting the job at Amazon to support his family, Wong said.

Sentoso hopes to continue sharing his father’s story to advocate for labor rights. (Courtesy of Evan Sentoso)

Wong said he offered Sentoso an internship at the UCLA Labor Center to further his labor rights activism. The Labor Center offers internships to students who are passionate about worker justice issues, and Wong saw Sentoso as an ideal candidate, Wong said.

Wanting to protect other workers from his father’s experience, Sentoso said he shared his father’s experience with the Los Angeles Times and KTLA hoping to raise awareness about the lack of protection some workers face.

“Sharing my story and listening to other people battle with COVID-19 is a way to be in this fight together,” Sentoso said.

Sentoso plans to continue to share his father’s story, learn how to raise awareness for labor rights and research how to unionize workers to institute change for labor rights through his internship.

“Offering my voice and sharing my dad’s story I think can potentially be powerful,” Sentoso said. “Especially in a time of emergency, where people’s lives are at stake.”

But Sentoso is still grieving.

Immediately after his father passed, Sentoso said he and his brother cared for their mother Endang Sentoso, who contracted COVID-19 soon after her husband. The two monitored her condition and practiced strict hygiene, such as disinfecting various surfaces in their house and washing their hands to aid her recovery. They also practiced social distancing and wore masks, creating an impossible nature to grieve, Sentoso said.

“Grieving immediately after my dad’s passing was almost non-existent,” he said.

Sentoso said he and his brother tried to take the loss of his father day by day, but felt trapped in a world of perpetual darkness and isolation.

Sentoso takes walks around his neighborhood, but seeing places he and his father used to frequent – like the neighborhood park or his high school – sometimes causes him to break down, he said.

Once, when Sentoso and his mother waited in line at 99 Ranch Market, an Asian grocery store, they bursted into tears. The market housed memories of the family going on grocery trips growing up, Sentoso said.

“You don’t expect to have these breakdowns, you just kind of do,” he said. “It’s not something you can control.”

His mother has since recovered and Sentoso has found ways to cope with his father’s passing.

Since most of his extended family is in Indonesia and because of the need for social distancing, Sentoso did not have much in-person support from his family and friends, but it would have helped tremendously, he said.

Talking about his father’s life over video calls isn’t the same, Sentoso said.

Some of Sentoso’s family and friends found ways around social distancing regulations to support him.

A few of Sentoso’s high school and college friends surprised him with care packages and food. He once received face masks from a friend in Maryland. Sentoso’s cousin, who lives 20 minutes away from him, regularly visited Sentoso’s house to make sure Sentoso and his family were well-fed.

Joshua Lee, a rising fourth-year economics student and one of Sentoso’s closest friends, said he and his parents frequently dropped off meals at Sentoso’s house to help support.

Lee would also talk to Sentoso when dropping food off. He remembers talking with Sentoso once for an hour. Talking to his friend in person about non-COVID related topics, like the next school year or apartment life, was nice, Lee said.

Sentoso is grateful for his friends and family who reached out to him.

“I couldn’t have asked for such a supportive … and caring group of friends,” Sentoso said.

Sentoso said he hopes that by sharing his father’s story, he can raise awareness on how corporate America should better protect its workers’ wellbeing.

Sentoso said he is sure that his father would have wanted him to move forward.

“My dad definitely would have wanted me, my brother and my entire family to … keep fighting even in the most difficult of times,” Sentoso said. “I am determined to continue and follow my dad’s footsteps and hopefully make the world a better place.”

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Anushka Chakrabarti
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