Ratana describes her self as “happy, maybe overly happy, and bubbly.” She is a 19 year old student, full of confidence and excited about her future. She has been studying at Chiang Mai University, one of the best universities in Thailand, for about a month. However, she hasn’t always been this way.
As a child, Ratana was shy and introverted. She found it hard to talk to strangers and hard to make friends, preferring to spend her free time reading books and watching Japanese cartoons. The middle of three sisters, until she moved to university, she lived at home with her parents and her sisters and her nephew. Her family values education, but her parents lacked the opportunity to study. Her father finished 4th grade and her mother finished 3rd, and is unable to read and write in Thai. Her parents were always encouraging of her education, but often lacked the experience to know how to support her. If she had followed in their footsteps, completing only a 3rd or 4th grade education, her choices in life would be severely limited, leaving her vulnerable to trafficking. Despite her parent’s lack of education, Ratana was determined to pursue her dream of attending university.
Ratana first came to The Freedom Story when she was about nine. She came and tried out some of the activities at the foundation, and she liked them. She especially liked that “there was no pressure or stress to try join in an activity.” She soon found that she thrived in this inclusive and encouraging environment.
One essential part of The Freedom Story’s programs includes encouraging children to run activities in the surrounding villages, encouraging empathy, leadership and giving back. “When we went to run activities in the villages, that is when I knew I wanted to do more,” she says smiling. Ratana applied for a scholarship through The Freedom Story and was accepted. She soon started attending activities regularly. She credits The Freedom Story with a major transformation in her personality from such a young age.
“They helped me meet people who have different experiences and different characters, to help me learn how to socialize, and also, when people share their stories, I can learn from that and apply any similar things to my life. Before I was an introvert, who mostly stayed at home to read and watch cartoons. Before I couldn’t talk to strangers, but through The Freedom Story I met more people, met foreigners, and I was able to contact and talk to lots of different kinds of people. But The Freedom Story never forced me to do anything, just giving counselling and advice.”
However, she admits that it was when she was in high school that The Freedom Story was able to come along side her and encourage her to pursue her dreams even more.
As a high school student Ratana knew she wanted to go to university. But she was unsure where to begin, where to go, what to study, how to help her parents understand her goals, all while completing her homework and studying for her exams. She was overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and suffering from insomnia.
“I needed a lot of advice. High school was a lot of work and not much time. I felt like I couldn’t manage that. So I came to get advice. I didn’t know what I wanted to study, if studying Japanese what a good idea or if I should study something else. The staff helped me so much. During my exams I was really stressed. So I would go to the City Center and complain and the staff would always listen!” she says, laughing conspiratorially. “I would talk to my mom and dad but they didn’t understand or really know how to help.”
Using the Chiang Rai City Center and the counselling and mentorship available there, Ratana was able to process her experiences and gain advice on her educational path. This became especially critical when she was accepted to Chiang Mai University. Her parents were extremely worried about her, and were unsure if allowing her to study three hours away in a big city was the right choice. Their preference was for her to study closer to home, even though this meant sacrificing the quality of her education. Ratana’s mother was especially concerned.
“The first time she was so stressed, and her stomach was upset, she couldn’t really eat. She went to talk to P’Khae [The Freedom Story Counsellor] who helped her understand. And it helped my mom understand that this was a good opportunity for me.”
Ratana herself had major fears and concerns: she worried about making friends, fitting in, and living so far away from home–concerns that are shared by college freshman throughout the world. She sought advice from The Freedom Story staff, because she knew they had experienced these things and could give her advice. She is now one month into her university studies, studying Japanese at the best university in Northern Thailand and has made a lot of friends, with whom she plays softball.
“Without Freedom I think maybe I wouldn’t know myself so well. I wouldn’t know if I liked languages, or if I liked talking to other people. I’d be quiet, stay at home, staying alone, and I’d be shy, afraid. I probably wouldn’t study at Chiang Mai University because I’d be afraid,” she explains.
She is grateful for the chance to study as she feels that education is important not just for gaining knowledge but also because it exposes the students to new people, experiences, and expands their world.
When asked about her dreams or goals for the future, she says that she would like to do something similar to The Freedom Story, because she loves helping people. She smiles as she admits that she’s already part of the student volunteer group at Chiang Mai University.
“Thank you so much. Because I can come study here because I have supporters, I have The Freedom Story, I have everyone. If I didn’t have this, I wouldn’t be able to know myself, if I had just myself, or just my parents, my parents can’t really understand what it is like to study to a higher level. In the past, I would want to do things just for myself or my family, now I do things for Watanaseree and other people as well.”
The space available at the City Center, as well as the resources, time and expertise of our staff have transformed Ratana’s life, and have opened up a world of opportunities. Even with the support of an incredible family, pursuing her dreams alone would have been difficult, as no one in the family had gone to university before. With the support, advice, counselling and encouragement from The Freedom Story, Ratana is now able to chase her dreams.
Prevention is a process. The changes in her life evolved over years of experience as part of The Freedom Story’s prevention programs and influence. Solutions to problems as complex as trafficking are not simple; but with time can come change.
Lucy McCray is The Freedom Story’s International Liaison, based in Chiang Rai Thailand. After completing an MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics in 2015 Lucy moved to Northern Thailand to work on the areas of human rights, and anti-trafficking.