News / USA

    Summer Trip Sparks US Man's Quest to Save Thailand's Stateless People

    Srinuan  Saokhamnuan (left) poses with her Thai citizenship I.D. card, with Phubet Ekrmanaskarn (center) and Suebsak Eaimvijarn (right). (Joseph Quinnell)
    Srinuan Saokhamnuan (left) poses with her Thai citizenship I.D. card, with Phubet Ekrmanaskarn (center) and Suebsak Eaimvijarn (right). (Joseph Quinnell)
    Faiza Elmasry
    A college photography assignment in Thailand turned into a lifetime mission for Joseph Quinnell.

    Instead of simply documenting the problems of child labor, prostitution and human trafficking plaguing Thailand's stateless population, the University of Wisconsin junior decided to be part of the solution.  

    His summer learning experience grew into a quest to help these young women - mostly Burmese refugees - get health care, education and legal recognition.

    Invisible children

    During his first trip to Mae Sai district in northern Thailand in 2005, Quinnell visited a school run by a non-profit organization.  When a group of youngsters ran past, the volunteer showing him around said, ‘These children do not exist.’

    “I said, ‘What do you mean?’" Quinnell remembers. "She described it, saying that these were children who, at this moment, were really unaware of their situation. But soon, around third or fourth grade, they would be told they were stateless.”
    Stateless children in Thailand peer into the classroom of a school they are barred from attending. (Joseph Quinnell)Stateless children in Thailand peer into the classroom of a school they are barred from attending. (Joseph Quinnell)
    x
    Stateless children in Thailand peer into the classroom of a school they are barred from attending. (Joseph Quinnell)
    Stateless children in Thailand peer into the classroom of a school they are barred from attending. (Joseph Quinnell)

    That was how he first learned about the plight of stateless children.

    “They did not have citizenship from any country, won't be able to get a job, to travel, go to a university, to marry, to own property," Quinnell says. "Basically these children would not be able to dream of a future for themselves.”

    Much of Thailand’s stateless population consists of ethnic minorities who fled the military regime in Burma. Neither immigrants nor refugees, they have no legal status.

    Their children, even those born in Thailand, inherit their parents’ statelessness and hopelessness, becoming an easy target for human trafficking and child labor.

    “There are 12- to 15 million stateless people worldwide," Quinnell says. "It is estimated that Thailand has the largest population of the stateless people; two to 3.5 million.”

    Part of the solution

    When Quinnell returned home, he decided to be part of the solution. Hoping to put a face on statelessness and raise money to fight it, he exhibited his photographs around Wisconsin.

    He also helped create a program which sends state university students to Thailand.

    “They would visit NGOs on the ground and work on the issues of statelessness and human trafficking," Quinnell says. "They would provide art, dance, theater and music classes to children at these NGOs.”

    Help through education

    Education is also at the heart of The Thailand Project, a non-profit Quinnell co-founded three years ago. His co-founder, Susan Perri, says their education program offers scholarships for two stateless students to attend the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

    “We worked with Thai government officials and U.S. officials and NGOs on the ground in Thailand to get all the paperwork ready for these stateless students to come back with us to study in the U.S.”

    'Bird in a cage'

    Barred from attending a university in Thailand, Srinuan Saokhamnuan never even dreamed she would be accepted at an American school. The 24 year old was born to stateless parents who came to Thailand from Burma. Having no citizenship, she says, is a painful experience.
    Stateless children cheer as Srinuan Saokhamnuan prepares to fly to the U.S. from Thailand for the first time. (Joseph Quinnell)Stateless children cheer as Srinuan Saokhamnuan prepares to fly to the U.S. from Thailand for the first time. (Joseph Quinnell)
    x
    Stateless children cheer as Srinuan Saokhamnuan prepares to fly to the U.S. from Thailand for the first time. (Joseph Quinnell)
    Stateless children cheer as Srinuan Saokhamnuan prepares to fly to the U.S. from Thailand for the first time. (Joseph Quinnell)

    “I just felt like I am a bird, that I have to stay in a cage all the time because I could not go anywhere," Saokhamnuan says. "My parents could not get good jobs. They could not be like a doctor or teacher.  They can work only in factories and they get paid really less than Thai people.”

    She feels fortunate she stayed in school and was eligible for the program.  Now majoring in  communications and public relations, she says stateless kids don't usually make it very far in their education. Their parents usually pull them out of school to work or to be sold.  

    She says that's what happened to one of her friends.

    “Her mom actually was a prostitute," Saokhamnuan says. "She also sent her daughter to be a prostitute before sixth grade. It was the only way to make money.”

    Rewarding results

    Saving Saokhamnuan and others from that fate, says Quinnell, is the rewarding result of collaborating with other non-profits.

    “Last summer she was granted Thai citizenship," Quinnell says. "Then her case actually snowballed into more than 400 stateless young men and women being granted Thai citizenship.”

    Since receiving Thai citizenship, Saokhamnuan, who graduates in 2014, has been dreaming big.

    “I want to go back to Thailand and work with some non-profit organizations to help people," she says, "to give them the opportunity to go to school.”

    Like Quinnell, Saokhamnuan believes education is a critical tool in breaking the cycle of hopelessness stateless people are trapped in, giving them hope for a better future.

    You May Like

    New EU Asylum Rules Could Boost Rightists

    New regulations will seek to correct EU failures in dealing with migrant crisis, most notably inability to get member states to absorb a total of 160,000 refugees

    More Political Turmoil Likely in Iraq as Iran Waits in the Wings

    Analysts warn that Tehran, even though it may not be engineering the Sadrist protests in Baghdad, is seeking to leverage its influence on its neighbor

    Goodbye Ketchup, Hello Sriracha!

    How immigrants are triggering a great transformation in American cuisine

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Rulingi
    X
    May 03, 2016 5:16 PM
    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora