CHIANG RAI – The Thailand Project, a non-profit agency based in Wisconsin, aims to instil hope through education for stateless people in the Kingdom
A genuine passion to help and a determination to match led Joseph Quinnell and Susan Perri to take a leap of faith when they set up the Thailand Project, a non-profit agency based in Wisconsin, six years ago to instill hope through education for stateless people in Thailand. Together with partners, they work closely on various initiatives to address issues that arise from being stateless, chiefly human trafficking.
With few rights to fall back on, stateless children, like the one in this photo, have to be content with just being able to peer through a fence into the classroom of a Thai government school.
The two Americans, in their 20s, have proven through sweat and tears that where there is a will there is a way. Quinnell, a photojournalist and Perri, a graphic designer, say a life of service to people with little means to repay the good deed shown towards them has been both therapeutic and emotionally uplifting. The purpose of the aid programme was never to continue giving scholarships to study in the US, say the Americans, but rather an attempt to engender equality in Thai education.
Quinnell was introduced to stateless people in 2005, when he visited Thailand to conduct research on human trafficking, child labour and prostitution in Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district. Through the help of an NGO he was introduced to stateless people in Thailand. Coming from the US, the experience was rather unsettling because he had never heard of a person who didn’t belong to any country.
“The children really didn’t have any hope for the future because without citizenship, its very difficult to get into Thai government schools or travel let alone get a job. All these rights that we take for granted, they didn’t have, and this group of children that I met were just becoming aware of the fact they were different,” said Quinnell.
With a far from bright future, in both employment and education, these children seemed destined to live a life of little hope, which the young American found emotionally disturbing. So when he went back to the US, and was half way through completing his university education, he wanted to do something to inspire the stateless people he had met. He paired up with Perri, who visited Thailand for the first time in 2008, setting up their first initiative that began with getting students from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) to visit Thailand during their winter breaks to experience the issues of statelessness and meet children at the highest risk.
Their eventual goal was to offer scholarships to study in the US as a humanitarian aid for stateless people in Thailand, in the hopes that a university degree would help them to get citizenship. The main criterion was that they had to be born in Thailand but not have Thai citizenship.
They raised over $50,000 to provide two first-year students scholarships to study at UWSP, and in summer 2008, they came to back to Thailand to present them to the two students.
The candidates were picked by Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities Center (DEPDC) to study in the US. Fongtip Boonsri and Srinuan Saokhamnuan, stateless women who were born in Thailand, but trace their origins to Burma, were chosen. The young women were selected for their dedication to education and their desire to contribute to their communities.
Quinnell explains: ”We raised the money for both scholarships for the first year without knowing if it was actually possible. But it was never done before, so we felt we should give it a try. From the work that I had done in Thailand, we held a photography exhibit that travelled around the state, that helped to raise scholarship dollars. I was able to show some of the problems and show some of the faces of these kids. We gave lectures and Susan organised a fund-raiser.
”People took a gamble on us, they believed in the idea of bringing hope to people who don’t seem to have a future. We thought if we could pull this off, it could have the potential of giving people hope and get the ball rolling for stateless people to have equal access to university education in Thailand.
”Our American donors gave in the hope that this would set a precedent for people to come forward to help. We had a gut feeling that we just wanted to help _ without knowing how difficult the whole procedure would be for stateless people to get any rights to education in a country,” laughs Quinnell. ”Our being naive actually helped us!”
Quinnell and Perri had a total of 90 days to get permission from several branches of the Thai government for Fongtip and Srinuan to have the freedom of movement and leave Thailand for their education, but to also re-enter. They also required US student visas from the American Consulate in Chiang Mai to enter the United States.
They were surprised to find that Fongtip was granted Thai citizenship and a Thai passport within the next three months. This largely due to the fact that she had applied for one a while ago. The scholarship helped in expediting her case. Srinuan _ who previously didn’t have the opportunity to have her case see the light of day _ was granted a one-year Alien Travel Document that could be renewed and a Thai visa to re-enter the country. Both were granted student visas by the US Department of State.
After studying English for two years, both young women began their freshman year. Both are studying communication arts and both hope to use their skills and abilities to assist the stateless population in Thailand and fight human trafficking after they graduate with their bachelor’s degrees. Their estimated date of graduation is summer 2014.
For the first three years of the scholarship neither of the girls, in their early 20s, spoke, wrote or read any English. So they had two years studying English in the US, and last year they started their academic classes. They finished their freshmen year and will be going on to their sophomore year.
Srinuan and Fongtip head off to the US to begin their college education as a group of stateless children cheer behind them
. Their website helps to encourage people to support Fongtip and Srinuan education. While their second year is already completely funded, the remaining two years for both students still require financial backing of about $82,000 (2.5 million baht), covering everything from tuition to board and lodging.
Meanwhile for both women, the scholarships played a pivotal role in obtaining Thai citizenship, which according to Fongtip has helped her to live with her head held high. Among the numerous benefits she cited include not getting arrested for travelling without identification.
”When I was stateless, each time I saw the police I was scared. We dreaded having to travel because of the fear of being caught. I feel now I have control over my life as never before. For starters, I can now own property, get healthcare from the government and be eligible for all sorts of services, and for that matter protection from the government. What gets me excited is that I can now vote and choose my own government leaders and the party which I desire to lead the country.
”Being able to participate in the electoral system is great. My vote can play a significant role in helping to change laws which I might not agree with. Having been stateless before has given me greater empathy for people in similar situations. But above all, I feel greatly appreciative that through this scholarship I have been able to get a real education, not just non-formal education, which would give me few opportunities for a bright future. Being a full-time student has helped me to concentrate on my studies completely, and for that I am very thankful.”
Fongtip notes on a more personal level her new found freedom has facilitated her with being able to share her personal experiences in Thailand with students and teachers. She compares herself to a bird which was once caged but now is free to roam wherever she desires.
Studying in the US has opened her eyes to a world she knew little about. While there are numerous positives she can spend the entire day talking about, she also realised that the country also has its own problems. It’s not just in Thailand that people face all sorts of adversities, but also in developed countries. Fongtip says she was surprised that most of the Americans she encountered had little knowledge of trafficking, or for that matter statelessness. Whenever the opportunity arose, she spoke candidly about these global issues in different forums, highlighting Thailand’s struggle with it.
”This God-sent opportunity has opened a bright career path for myself. In the past I thought my biggest achievement would be to become a teacher, but even with that, I had little confidence of accomplishing it. Obtaining the scholarship and Thai citizenship has changed the course of my life entirely. Today I aspire to higher goals in life, which include being able to work in organisations that help stateless children and protect them from human trafficking. I have experienced and understand what it feels like to be stateless, so I know I can help others. I also can speak English and it will help me work with international agencies.”
For Srinuan, the entire experience has been a dream come true. From being a stateless person with an uncertain future, today she is able to go to school and get a good education, not to mention be able to encounter upclose the American culture and traditions which took time getting used to.
One of the glaring differences that she experienced in the US was that everyone was treated equally.
” During the second year of my scholarship, I really was able to get a better idea of the need to think positively about myself. Being treated equally made me realise that I am as significant like the people around me. It was not just the subjects that I was learning, but more importantly, I was learning how to treat people with kindness and respect regardless of their background. I felt more like a human being _ like I should have the same rights to do things as everybody else.
”Studying in the US has made me into a new person. I feel more confident to share my opinions, travel, or do things that I want. I feel like this because Americans treated me like a human being. I am equal to them despite being stateless at the time.
”I have to confess that when I returned to Thailand during my school break, I didn’t feel as comfortable and confident to do anything because I was stateless and didn’t have the freedom to do things that I wanted to do even though Thailand is the country where I was born.”
After waiting for 23 years, Srinuan finally received Thai citizenship this year. Thanks to The Thailand Project, today she has been granted both a Thai passport and a US student visa for five years. After obtaining the scholarship, she felt confident and mentally strong to face the future, getting citizenship has given her the leverage to voice her opinions and make a difference in the society she was born into.
”If one doesn’t have [(Thai] citizenship they will feel like a prisoner,” said Srinuan. ”People can take advantage of you and you are not able to get out of that vicious cycle that can go on from one generation to the next.” After getting her identification card, she says everybody treats her really differently in Thailand.
”They [Thai officials] speak nicer to me and respect me now more than before. If I didn’t come across The Thailand Project I believe my life would have been without hope. Joseph and Susan are good examples of what it means to be strong and stand-up for what you believe in!”
Visit The Thailand Project’s Donate page for all donation information: http://www.thethailandproject.org/donate.html