First, The Thailand Project (TTP) heard 30. Then it heard 100. It has now been confirmed by Thai government officials that 400 stateless individuals have been granted Thai citizenship as a direct result of TTP scholarship student Srinuan “Aor” Saokhamnuan’s successful appeal last summer. And that number is still growing.
“This is the largest number of stateless peoples in Northern Thailand to receive citizenship at one time,” said Phubet Ekrmanaskarn, head of the Stateless Division within the Mae Sai District Office.
Saokhamnuan’s first steps towards citizenship began in 2008 when she was awarded a Higher Education as Humanitarian Aid scholarship from TTP, a nonprofit founded by Joseph Quinnell and Susan Perri while they were undergraduate art students at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP).
TTP’s mission is to combat statelessness and human trafficking in Southeast Asia through education and advocacy. Statelessness is the condition of lacking citizenship from any country. Without citizenship, stateless individuals are denied rights. They have limited or no access to education, health care, work, ownership of property, or freedom of movement. In Thailand, stateless populations are at the highest risk of human trafficking and exploitation.
Saokhamnuan was born into statelessness and grew up in a small Thai village where year after year, she watched children her own age disappear one by one. She had already been sold once, but was rescued by her stepfather before any harm could come to her. She became one of the few who were able to attend a Thai government school from kindergarten through sixth grade.
“My family couldn’t pay for me to go to school, but my village leader paid and sometimes my teachers would help,” Saokhamnuan said. “After sixth grade, most stateless children are done. They work, or are forced to marry for money, or become prostitutes. My mother wanted me to stop school and start working, but my oldest sister fought for me.”
When Saokhamnuan was 13, social workers visited her village where she was immediately flagged as being at extremely high risk for human trafficking. She was offered full-time shelter and schooling at a nearby N.G.O.
“They gave me a diploma that I graduated high school, but I didn’t really graduate. It wasn’t real school,” she said.
Scholarship and beginning the case for citizenship
At the age of 19, Saokhamnuan was awarded a Thailand Project scholarship to study in the U.S.
“I didn’t believe my education was good enough and I didn’t think I’d be able to travel,” she said. “I couldn’t speak English. Joseph and Susan were always working and problem-solving, but I had zero hope. Zero. I kept working with them, but I thought there was no point to it. Why do they work on this? It’s impossible.”
But the impossible became a reality when the Thai government granted Saokhamnuan a travel document to study abroad and the U.S. State Department issued her a U.S. student Visa.
“Aor’s case remains the only one that we’re aware of in which Thailand and the United States gave such extensive travel permissions to someone who does not have a country. It was amazing international cooperation in the name of higher education and human rights,” said Quinnell.
Saokhamnuan began her studies at UWSP where she studied English as a second language for two years and then started working toward a bachelor’s degree in communication-public relations. During every academic break, Saokhamnuan, Quinnell and Perri would travel back to Thailand to continue work on her citizenship case.
“When I first met Joseph and Susan, I thought they were crazy. But the first year I traveled back to Thailand, I was sure that I would get Thai citizenship. I thought Susan and Joseph can do it. I was so excited!” Saokhamnuan said.
But success in Saokhamnuan’s citizenship case did not happen. Disappointment crushed her spirits and she felt that the current head of the District Office, whose signature was required for her case to move forward, was not going to help. “I cried a lot. I would try to tell myself that it was OK. I still have a little bit of hope.”
If at first you don’t succeed
When the group tried again the following summer, things only got worse. Saokhamnuan was arrested and held for several hours because her travel papers were believed to be counterfeit. A policeman called her a liar and demanded money in order for her to be released. She refused to pay and eventually the chief of police allowed her to go home.
“I felt the effects of being stateless more than before. In the U.S., I felt equal. I could travel anywhere and I was just like everyone else. Every year I was more confident,” Saokhamnuan said. “Maybe I don’t have citizenship, but I have education. Education opened my mind. I began to see things differently. The world became bigger than I thought.”
Even with Saokhamnuan’s new-found strength, Quinnell and Perri were concerned about her spirit. They watched from one month to the next as the Thai District Office asked Saokhamnuan to supply new witnesses, more paperwork, new photos, and more meetings with the head of her village. Saokhamnuan’s Thai citizenship appeal case was growing thick with evidence, but nothing seemed to matter. Once one request was met, another request would be made.
In the Mae Sai District Office, wherever Saokhamnuan’s stack of evidence and paperwork moved to, she would sit across from the desk it was on or outside the office it was in. District office staff workers gave her dirty looks on a daily basis and told her to go home. Saokhamnuan began to crack.
“I called Joseph once and I said, I don’t want to sit here anymore, I want to go home,” Saokhamnuan said. “And then Joseph and Susan came and sat with me. I couldn’t have done it without their support. They would always push up and carry me even if I couldn’t walk anymore. They would each hold one of my arms to keep walking.”
Finally, the head of the District Office agreed to meet with Saokhamnuan to discuss her case. She thought, “This is it. It is going to happen today.” But when she met with him, he only allowed her to speak for about 10 seconds before cutting her off to tell her she had to start completely over.
“I felt so tired. I didn’t want to work on my case anymore. Joseph and Susan kept saying positive things, but I felt like my body would explode,” Saokhamnuan said. “In the U.S. I can sleep well, hang out with friends, but in Thailand, I was very stressed and I couldn’t sleep and I felt sick.”
Third time’s the charm
Back in the U.S., Quinnell and Perri proposed a deal. “I asked Aor if she thought she could do one more summer,” Quinnell said. “I promised her that if she gave one final push, and her case still didn’t move forward, we would stop working on her case until after she graduated.”
Saokhamnuan agreed and the three of them once again returned to Thailand, but this time with documentary film equipment in tow.
“We had always documented our process in Thailand through Joseph’s photography,” Perri said. “But this time we felt it was important to get the citizenship steps on film. We wanted to be able to document the experience in a more direct way.”
While Quinnell secured legal assistance in Bangkok, Perri and Saokhamnuan met with Suebsak Eaimvijarn, the newly appointed head of the Mae Sai District Office.
Saokhamnuan said, “All I told him was that I study in the United States and I don’t have Thai citizenship. He said, What? How do you study in the U.S.? So I told him about the Thailand Project and how they gave me a scholarship.”
“Srinuan’s case was the first stateless case I had ever worked on,” said Suebsak Eaimvijarn of the Mae Sai District Office. “I didn’t understand how she was studying in the U.S. and also stateless. I told her that I would work on her case. I told her she would have Thai citizenship.”
Srinuan’s reaction was tears and joy, but she did not trust his words completely. “I had learned to keep my expectations low. We had worked for years to get citizenship, but there would always be some problem. I wanted to believe, but I only had a little hope.” Then, she started to see results.
“It all came down to this. We were in the right place at the right time working with the right people,” said Quinnell. “We had worked three years to create the scholarships and then another three years on Aor’s case. The patience and continued support from our donors was amazing.”
Things were moving and the past several years of work were finally paying off. The only roadblock to come was on the day Saokhamnuan was to be issued citizenship. She was told that her I.D. would not have a birth date.
“I told her, don’t do it, Aor,” said Quinnell. “It’s got to be everything or nothing. Without a birth date, you won’t be able to get a Thai passport.”
Saokhamnuan was shocked. She thought that if she said no to their citizenship offer, she may never have another chance. “I thought, what have we been doing this for? We’ve worked for two years! I was not thinking long term. I was just so excited.”
Quinnell persisted and they met with Eaimvijarn to raise the concern. Saokhamnuan had no birth certificate, but all of her school records stated the same date of birth including her record from kindergarten.
“Just do it.” Eaimvijarn told his staff.
No longer did Saokhamnuan have to worry about or hope for her citizenship. It was done. “I was shaking when I was looking at my I.D.,” she said, “A blue card with my picture and everything. I couldn’t let go of it. I wanted other people to see it, but I didn’t want other people to hold it.”
After completing Aor’s citizenship case, Eaimvijarn wanted to do more. He set out to grant citizenship to 400 stateless individuals on the King of Thailand’s 84th birthday. By July 2012 the Mae Sai District Office had done just that.
“I think of the people in the community and how to make the community better,” said Eaimvijarn. “Citizenship will lead to less crime, trafficking, and problems. These are people who will help their country.”
Citizenship rights were given to 400 people under Eaimvijarn’s jurisdiction in Northern Thailand, and, according to Mae Sai District Office officials, nearly 300 more stateless applicants are currently in the process of gaining their Thai citizenship.
“In Thailand, statelessness has a root connection to the problems of human trafficking, extreme poverty, homelessness, hunger, and exploitation,” said Quinnell. “When governments grant citizenship to someone who is stateless, they fight all of these problems. Statelessness is pulled up by the roots and it can’t grow again. From that point on, that individual passes onto their children and their children’s children equal access to education and basic human rights.”
“Individual citizenship appeals are hard fought, but when they are won, they represent the granting of basic human rights – they are crucial to bringing hope to the hopeless, justice to the oppressed, and breaking the cycle of statelessness,” said Perri.
What’s next for The Thailand Project
“We first started this work back in 2005 while we were undergraduate art students,” said Quinnell. “It’s been seven years; an amazing seven years, but it’s never been easy. We’re looking forward to staying in one place for a time while we finish a few of our final commitments and reflect on what the project has accomplished.”
The Thailand Project still has $18,000 to raise towards Saokhamnuan’s final year of education in the U.S., which they hope to secure before the end of 2012. After that, Quinnell and Perri plan to write a book.
“The book will be our primary focus for the next year or two beginning this February. We’re going to share our experiences not only detailing the successes, but also the pitfalls. We’d like the book to be an inspirational playbook for people who choose to use their skills and abilities to help other people, but also realistic in how difficult doing good work is.” said Perri. “We’ll also be completing the filming and editing of the documentary we started in 2011.”
Saokhamnuan is on track to graduate in May 2014. She hopes to use her education to fight the issues of statelessness and human trafficking in Southeast Asia.
“Now I believe that small things can lead to big things,” said Saokhamnuan. “You never know what will happen when you start to do good things.”
For more information about The Thailand Project or to make an online donation, visit www.TheThailandProject.org.