Tag Archives: stories from the field

Where I Belong: Our New Video!

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At The SOLD Project, we’ve been putting together a film project, and I’m happy to announce that it’s now live and ready to view! As you probably know by now, our students are selected for our program because they are at risk of being trafficked and sold for sex. Some of our students are highlighted as being at risk because they are stateless: that is, they don’t have any citizenship in any country. Whether because they are the children of Burmese refugees or because they are ethnic minorities that have been discriminated against, they have been denied citizenship and all that comes with it: access to public education, healthcare, legitimate jobs, etc.

This film is the story of two of our students, brothers, who happen to be stateless. When I met Surachat, he blew me away:

He said his hero was Abraham Lincoln.

He takes every opportunity to learn English, he is polite and modest, projecting a sense of sincerity and earnestness to improve himself. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch his and his brother’s story, and if you feel so inspired, to share it with others, using this link.

Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from hardships. It’s the capacity to bounce back. Our new film highlights the power of this capacity in action, encouraging us all to dream and strive for our dreams each day.

If you’re moved to help Surachat and Surachai, please check out our MATCHING CAMPAIGN where every dollar you give is matched 100% by going to DONATE NOW.

Field Report: A Special Trip for Kids Who Can’t Travel

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International law defines statelessness as a lack of citizenship. In Thailand, many people born near the borders of Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, or in hill tribe villages lack documented citizenship and are therefore considered stateless. Without citizenship, they do not enjoy the same rights as others, even if they were born and have lived their entire lives in Thailand. As one might expect, this means they have limited access to healthcare and education. What one might not realize is that it also means very restricted ability to travel. Stateless individuals here are not allowed to travel outside of their home province.

The right to travel, even to a place as simple as another state, is something many of us often take for granted.

But for the undocumented, it is something they cannot do freely.

However, certain exceptions can be made and special dispensations given if an organization or school takes a group on a field trip––so that is exactly what the staff at The SOLD Project did.

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Win, who was once stateless himself, is our Thailand Mentorship Program and Legal Advisor. Growing up without citizenship, he understands the unique challenges children face and also how to work hard to overcome those challenges. He persevered and ended up graduating law school and just this year passed his exams to become a lawyer. He wanted to give our stateless scholarship students some extra motivation to continue to study so he arranged a weekend field trip to Chiang Mai to visit Chiang Mai University and participate in some fun activities. Stateless children are often discouraged from studying because it is assumed they will not be able to get jobs outside of their village. They are not given the same opportunities or diplomas as Thai citizens, so they face constant pressure to drop out of school to find more immediate, though more menial work, or they lose the motivation to work hard when so much hard work appears fruitless. Win’s goal is to keep them in school and show them that if they work hard and persevere, it might be possible to attain the same opportunities as others.

The field trip turned into a successful weekend of mentorship, friendship, bonding, and fun! It started off with two vans full of staff and 11 students, driving the 3 hour windy mountain roads to Chiang Mai. Along the way, we stopped to eat lunch at a National Park. The kids immediately ran to the bridge across the river and started snapping selfies and enjoying the beautiful environment.

After lunch the road trip continued until we safely made it to Chiang Mai. The first part of the adventure was a trip to Ratchaphruek Garden. The kids and staff enjoyed walks through the flower gardens and seeing all the different buildings, gardens, flowers, and exhibits.

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The second day started with a full morning of entertaining selfies at the 3D Art Museum. Even the shy kids started to come out of their shells while being encouraged to take selfies sitting on magic carpets or hanging off bamboo trees! New friendships were made and pictures were shared along with lots of smiles and laughter.

Next stop was Chiang Mai University. Since a few of our staff present, Lux, Worn, Khae, and Bee, are proud graduates of CMU they took the lead in showing the students around. They each talked about their experiences and the different programs and choices the students could have.

After lunch at the Univeristy dining hall, the students each partnered with a staff member and to have a chance to ask questions. Then they headed back to the van to go up to Doi Suthep to end the day with a beautiful view of the city. That evening, the group went to a local market to get dinner and celebrate Khae, the director’s birthday. The kids surprised her with a cake and everyone enjoyed socializing and shopping.

The next day after breakfast, the kids piled into the vans to head back to Chiang Rai. On the way, the kids discussed the trip, shared photos, slept, and some even attempted van karaoke. Overall the trip was a remarkable new experience and the kids were given an opportunity to make new friends, bond with their mentors, visit a university, and travel to a place they otherwise would not have been able to go. This is just one example of how staff here on the ground continuously put the children first and invest the extra time and energy to travel and even stay overnight in order to give the students every positive experience and opportunity possible.

*Please note: Photos included here with identifiable faces are only of staff members, to protect the identities of our students.

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Lisa Winterfeldt is our International Liason, helping to bridge communication between our U.S. and Thai offices. She has experience teaching children with needs at various schools in the U.S., and in teaching with an international school in Bangkok.

Growing Leaders, Part I: Ketsara

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On October 13, the people of Thailand lost their beloved king of 70 years. King Bhumibol was respected and revered for his compassionate leadership. With humility and compassion, he would visit even the most remote and poor villages, working with local communities to develop numerous projects to protect and lead his people to a better future. In mourning his loss and honoring his legacy, we are reminded what great leadership looks like. 

kade-copyThis month, we would like to shine a light on a great leader here at The SOLD Project: Ketsara Thutsunti. I have known Ketsara for the year that I have been involved with The SOLD Project, and every day I am blown away by her compassion, work ethic, leadership, and the daily impact that she has on the children here. Ketsara is special. She has a servant’s heart that shines through in everything she does. Not only does she model leadership through her own actions, but she mentors young people, both scholarship students and others in the community, teaches them how to be leaders, and gives them guided opportunities to practice taking on leadership roles.

Ketsara grew up in a hill tribe in Northern Thailand. She was never encouraged to study because her father didn’t understand the importance of education for female children.

This did not discourage Ketsara, and she continued to work hard. She received a scholarship when she was in primary school from Compassion International and she went to a boarding school in Chiang Rai. In grade 5, she was given the job of classroom assistant. At first she was shy, but she felt it was an honor to be chosen, so she took on the responsibility. Sometimes they had meetings with other grades and helped to plan activities like sports day, etc. This was her first leadership role, and she naturally fit the position. Ketsara went on to get her Bachelor’s degree from Rajabhat Chiang Mai University and took a job working as a project coordinator for New Sky, working with HIV positive clients. This job gave her experience and confidence to reach for other and higher positions. As she grew in her own leadership, she followed her dream of becoming a Sunday School teacher. She was nervous that she didn’t have the education and skills necessary, but because of her past experiences and opportunities, she felt confident in moving forward. After getting married, she took a job working with the Office of Child Protection, where she began to teach the 3-3-5 program, which teaches children how to recognize and prevent child abuse. Eventually, that brought her to The SOLD Project, where she now teaches 3-3-5 in local schools, runs a leadership council group at the Resource Center, and works with an international children’s rights organization, ECPAT, to run a Youth Partnership Program. She now uses her own experiences to help guide the students into being successful young leaders.

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Several of our scholarship students were chosen to participate and have attended 2-3 day long camps where they have participated in team building and problem solving activities, learned how to lead group activities, put on skits and plays, and learned about the problem of online exploitation. Together with Ketsara, they have successfully run programs at the Resource Center for the community, put on a skit for a large group of peers, planned and set up a booth at a local community event where they educated peers through questions and prizes about trafficking and the dangers of online exploitation. What started as a group of young hesitant students has now developed into a group of young leaders.

 

In village communities, kids from low-income families don’t often have opportunities to be a leader. In their understanding, leadership is relegated only to those with education, money, or respected family names. Leadership amongst youth, and especially young women, is a very recent concept. Ketsara is helping to break past these perceptions every day by guiding the children into leadership roles.

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3-3-5: This is a program in the schools that helps children become aware of their rights and what to do to stop and report abuse. This program reached 779 kids in the year 2015 and Kade is now teaching other staff and the leadership students how to facilitate trainings to have an even larger impact.

 

Often when she first introduces the kids to leadership opportunities, they are hesitant. They know that being a leader means more responsibility and they aren’t sure they want to join. They are nervous they may not know other students, or will be uncomfortable with extra responsibility. Ketsara encourages them. She explains that it is a new experience and they will build skills that will benefit them in high school and university. Afterwards, the students come back and tell her that they loved the experience and they feel proud of what they have accomplished. She now has other students coming to her and asking if they can participate too. Her experiences growing up have given her understanding and she can speak from the heart and her own experience to encourage the kids. She knows that having a supportive community is critical to their success.

Seeing the students build their confidence and self-esteem is another reason these programs are so important.

Many children in the villages don’t hear positive encouragement from their families, and praise embarrasses their sense of modesty. Furthermore, respect for elders does not allow children to express emotions, but instead diligently obey their parents. Parents often worry if they show emotion or express appreciation or pride in their children, it will make them appear weak or even worse, make the children forget their place in the social structure. Therefore, many children are left wondering what value they have. Ketsara believes this needs to change and she works to help the children see their own value. She involves the families, especially the fathers, to encourage and promote change. She would love to see fathers supporting and building positive self-esteem in children even when they are young. To do this, she works with local organizations like Baan School to run Family Camps, where families are encouraged to be open about and share emotions and together build relationships and learn the value of quality time together.

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Students interested in learning about and participating in leadership programs were invited to be a part of a leadership council that meets monthly. The members include a chairman, assistant, secretary, treasurer, and public relations. They plan activities in the community and also take part in service work. Ketsara has provided materials and activities to help support the students and help them grow. Last month, the students made blueberry pie at the Resource Center for the children.

Ketsara wants the kids to become young leaders. She wants them to develop skills that will serve them into the future. When asked why she thinks it is important to teach the kids to be leaders, she responded:

“If kids learn something good and practice it, then they can teach others as well. I want them to gain the confidence to be a leader so they can feel comfortable teaching others. If they learn when they are young, they can take more leadership roles as they grow up. They can share what they learn and be a role model for others. The more experiences they have will help their perspective grow and their self-confidence will grow. Then they can follow their dreams and do their talents and feel important and valued.”

Thank you Ketsara, for all that you do!

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Lisa Winterfeldt is our International Liason, helping to bridge communication between our U.S. and Thai offices. She has experience teaching children with needs at various schools in the U.S., and in teaching with an international school in Bangkok.

Why Is Homeland Security Chasing Pedophiles?

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Reporting From the Field

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I recently had the privilege of attending a conference where one of our partner organizations, Thai law enforcement, representatives from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and staffers of U.S. Congressional members committed to fighting trafficking all participated. In the meeting, law enforcement officials briefed the Congressional staffers on their most recent counter-trafficking efforts and they shared their successes in investigating and prosecuting cases of known traffickers, with a shared determination to bringing traffickers to justice both in Thailand and in the traffickers’ home countries. The collaboration is ground-breaking, and it appears to be effective. What initially struck me, however, was how much talk was devoted to capturing and prosecuting pedophiles.

I find it very heartening that trafficking is now framed as a security threat and a threat to U.S. interests, as it is symptomatic of a system in which corruption is endemic, it contributes to the breakdown of the rule of law, and it even appears to be linked to terrorism, which explains why it falls under HSI’s purview. From the TIP Report to awareness-raising campaigns to training members of other industries (such as the transportation industry and first responders) to recognize potential victims, Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State have made great strides in tackling the problem and we are very grateful for and appreciative of their efforts.

But where do pedophiles fit in the larger picture of trafficking? While clearly it is important to stop child exploitation wherever it exists, does chasing pedophiles fit more under the purview of local law enforcement or does it really hit at the heart of trafficking? Does chasing pedophiles merely pad the number of cases and have the appearance of making a contribution to ending trafficking writ large? Or are pedophiles simply the low-hanging fruit of counter-trafficking efforts?

As I am not privy to the details of these investigations, I don’t want to speculate on whether the pedophiles they have caught are also traffickers, selling children to others as well as exploiting them for their own use, let alone whether pedophile, which is a clinical diagnosis, is even the correct term for these child abusers who may or may not have been professionally diagnosed. Nor do I wish to criticize law enforcement efforts from my limited vantage point. It may be true that HSI collaborates only on cases that clearly fit the trafficking mold, while other agencies devote their resources to other kinds of child exploitation. These distinctions weren’t clearly expressed in the meeting. I merely raise the question because, as an NGO committed to preventing trafficking, I believe we have a stake in trying to find out exactly how trafficking happens, whether and how the nature of the beast is shifting, and whether law enforcement is chipping at the fringes, or striking an effective blow.

The fact that I, as someone who has been working in the field for several years, am raising these questions serves to illustrate the murky and complex nature of trafficking, which is rife with presumptions and stereotypes that don’t always match reality. Law enforcement officials might have good cause to focus on pedophiles, but the lack of clarity on this topic illustrates three reasons why trafficking is such a complicated phenomenon, and why it’s often difficult to coordinate prevention and intervention efforts. These three factors are as follows:

There is no heart of trafficking. The question of whether chasing pedophiles gets to the heart of trafficking is a loaded one–it presumes there actually is a heart of trafficking. Globally, exploitation is rampant because it is both profitable and easy to hide. It attracts anyone willing to use a child to make a buck; it’s not just the stereotypical mafia-run enterprise you see on TV. It’s also families selling their own relatives, it’s friends encouraging other friends to join them in making quick money, it’s children offering themselves as their only escape from something they consider worse, it’s mom and pop operations selling fruit in the front of their store and children in a locked room at the back. More and more now, it is going online, where it can be even easier to hide. There is no head of the serpent to cut off, no heart to strike. If it is true that individuals working alone contribute just as much as, if not more than, traditional organized crime, then perhaps law enforcement’s only hope is to catch enough criminals that it sends a message to others that, finally, exploitation is no longer worth the risk.

Communication is vital, and difficult. While law enforcement is not beholden to NGOs nor responsible for issuing regular progress reports, having better clarity about the nature of the problem would help foster inter-agency collaboration. Just as it would be much simpler if traffickers were a network with a centralized head at the top, so too would counter-trafficking efforts be more efficient and effective if those working in this space operated as a network in concert with each other. But that is not how it works at this time. Efforts are being made to move in this direction, but not nearly enough. Law enforcement efforts are, to some extent, piecemeal, and so are anti-trafficking efforts–especially where we work. There are no clear channels of communication, and the protection of privacy and personal safety means many actors must work with some degree of secrecy. This means each organization tends to work in their limited domains and tries to fight the problem where they see it. For us, the kids we see are most vulnerable to the lure of selling themselves and being encouraged (though not exactly forced) by people they trust to sell themselves. But if law enforcement sees the problem as primarily driven by pedophiles seducing and coercing children, then there is a clear disconnect between prevention and intervention efforts. We need to find ways to advance greater communication between law enforcement and the NGOs that wish to help. If law enforcement has real cause to be concerned about pedophiles as traffickers, then we need better communication so we are not just shooting in the dark, or worse, working at cross purposes.

We need systemic responses. Aside from the lack of centralized networks, another major reason we tend to work in piecemeal is that the causes of exploitation are so vast, and the willingness of governments and civil society to combat it does not match the scale of the problem. Until we can hit a striking blow to the causes of exploitation, NGO and law enforcement efforts will constantly be playing a game of catch up. Until we as a global society really investigate the tough questions about what causes demand (including psychological and emotional needs) and can provide healthier alternatives, there will always be someone there to supply. Until we can effectively deal with poverty, displacement, racism, undocumented peoples, corruption, and marginalization, we will always be putting people in places of vulnerability and stripping them of options. This is how we as a global community are complicit. If we continue to say these problems are not our problems, then we continue to contribute to the problem of trafficking.

Unless we deal with the systems that perpetuate exploitation, making it so easy and lucrative, we’ll be stuck chasing individual traffickers and pedophiles. Until then, that may be the best and the most we can ask of law enforcement.

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Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Blog Editor for The SOLD Project. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.