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.
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.
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.
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.