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Human Trafficking: DEPDC

January 13th, 2007

**VIEW**a 4 min. clip from Friends of Thai Daughters
**PODCAST** 25 min. Friends of Thai Daughters movie
**PODCAST** 30min. Sample of DEPDC Child Voice Radio featuring University of Wisconsin Students (medium quality…we had technical issues)

MAE SAI, THAILAND – I am back in the same concrete room in which I arrived five days ago with the same two people, Pi Alinda and Kelly. First impressions are always interesting; I had no idea the understated Pi Alinda is the new director for the Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC) or that Kelly has only been in Thailand since mid November for she speaks Thai with a reckless abandon fitting of her personality. (at left: the border, Burma on the right, Thailand on the left)

The week started off fast, without much downtime after my whirlwind Chiang Mai experience, but now I’m in a holding pattern. 15 students and staff from the University of Wisconsin Steven’s Point (UWSP) are visiting which has taken a lot of time from the short-staffed volunteers. I am also waiting to get in touch with a woman in the Akha village we went to on Tuesday in order to go back for an interview. In the meanwhile, I’ve been processing images and adjusting to a slower-paced Thai lifestyle. That and I’ve been getting to know the community a little better. (at right: Thai customs search bags and vehicles)

DEPDC is an organization committed to prevention of trafficking through education. While there are numerous other programs, the original DEPDC site runs a half-day school with a little over 200 students and provides housing for another 35 students, most of whom attend the local public school. Children are handpicked, based largely on economic status and family relations, from the surrounding communities. This includes small hill tribe villages tucked into the mountains over an hour away. (at left: main street Mae Sai, border checkpoint in the background)

The original DEPDC facility is a 40 minute walk, or about a 10 minute motobike ride, from Thailand’s border with Burma in Mae Sai. Home to the northernmost point of Thailand, a shallow, garbage strewn river is all that separates Mae Sai from Burmese refugees looking for economic opportunity and freedom from persecution by their government. Expats frequent Mae Sai’s streets, many making a visa run to extend their stay in Thailand, however the bustling main street is a 12 hour marketplace largely patronized by Thai. Come evening, the city shuts down. The only businesses still open are a few roadside food stalls, the 24 hour 7 Elevens, and a few bars catering to expats. As an expat, prostitution and drugs aren’t far away; one only need be receptive to the solicitations. I, personally, can’t speak to the follow through though I and two of my friends received offers. (at right: traditional weaving, a viable income generator, is taught at DEPDC)

At DEPDC not all of the childrens’ stories are of desperation. Some suffer from common family ailments; parental drug abuse, domestic violence, simple poverty, things which are not unfamiliar to many Americans. However most students lack citizenship papers, making them ineligible for a government education and even more susceptible to trafficking. (at right: part of a new mural painted by UWSP students)

My work onsite revolved around basic observation and has relied on anecdotes; my initial reception was guarded and my access, while it improved over the week, was kept at a distance. The directors, being highly protective of their charges, were adamant I paint a positive picture and avoid stories of woe and misfortune. This is not hard to do, as the children play, laugh, and learn like any other child; as one of the University of Wisconsin students said, it becomes easy to see DEPDC as a summer camp until you remember why the children are there. However, there are stories, of which I was privy to a few. For instance I was told the mother of one athletic young man, with a rebellious streak and a beautiful voice, is a prostitute. This brings him shame and he acts out; she in turn lavishes expensive gifts upon him. He lives on site. (at left: painting the mural)

“My mother didn’t mean to end up with AIDS,” eight year-old Sureerat Gongsri said in a 2005 documentary funded by Friends of Thai Daughters, a US based NGO run by Maine residents Jane McBride and Patricia Zinkowski. Gongsri’s father died in a car wreck, her mother was a prostitute with AIDS. She brought her ‘Johns’ home and Gongsri became fearful she would be sold for drugs. “I don’t think it’s her fault. She had no other choice.”

“We don’t say bad things to each other,” Gongsri continued, speaking of her fellow DEPDC residents after remembering how she was treated in the government schools. Because so
many other children have similar stories she said “we understand how the other person would feel.” (at right: director Pi Alinda works on a grant with volunteer Kelly while resident children prepare food)

Gongsri’s mother died of AIDS while in prison for selling drugs. “I want to change,” she said. “I don’t want to repeat the same story.”

In 1989 Sompop Jankatra concluded a career as a freelance researcher to found DEPDC; he saw education could prevent the trafficking of children from the poor villages in Chiang Rai province. Jankatra exhibits affection with a kind smile, very tactile mannerisms, and yet has the ability to switch into a stern business man at any moment. This need must serve him well as he’s worked a successful uphill battle with many local and international officials in his crusade to ensure the welfare of the children at the DEPDC facilities, in the Mekong Youth Network (MYN), and the Mekong Regional Indigenous Child Rights Home (MRICRH). Jankatra is relinquishing his director position to Pi Alinda, who started three months after DEPDC‘s inception, so he can replicate the program’s success in neighboring countries. (at left: Sompop Jankatra with some of the DEPDC children.)

Soft spoken, Jankatra firmly voices his conviction.

“We start today….we can not come back to rescue them later,” he said in the Friends of Thai Daughters documentary. “Protect them today because they can not wait until tomorrow. It’s too late.”

Similar sentiment was expressed by 26 year-old UWSP student Joseph Quinnell who met Jankatra during the summer of 2005 while working on a personal project about anti trafficking and prostitution in Thailand. (at left: UWSP student Kathryn Stankivitz teaches dance)

“It’s one thing to read about it or to see documentaries,” Quinnell said, speaking of his experiences, “But when there is a smiling little kid being offered to you it’s a whole different thing.” (at right: DEPDC children at the end-of-day line up)

Quinnell eventually found himself in the seaside resort town of Pattaya where young prostitutes line the street. He ‘bought’ one and took her back to his hotel to interview; according to Quinnell she was surprised and uncomfortable that all he wanted to do was talk. He befriended another prostitute, who Quinnell said arrived in the industry due to family pressures and expectant social norms, and later convinced her to pack her bags and leave. Carrying her life’s possessions, which Quinnell said took less space than his 30-day travel kit, she arrived at DEPDC where she is now on staff.

With the passion of personal experience and the heart of an activist, Quinnell’s presentations in Wisconsin spawned an arts department program; in its second year the students teach interactive arts-based courses for one week on the DEPDC campus. Their next step is to find the funding for four DEPDC graduates to attend UWSP in an effort to grant them higher education and upon their return to help build a sustainable anti-trafficking program in the Mekong region. Through persuasive argument with various consulates and State Department officials, all other hurdles have been cleared for these four students to attend an American university, for free, without papers or citizenship. They just need the funding. (at left: a DEPDC child)

For the University of Wisconsin students, many of whom have never traveled abroad, the experience seems to have been a successful eye opener. If their enthusiasm doesn’t wane upon their return home, their stories may be just what helps raise the necessary money.

During a morning broadcast of DEPDC‘s radio show, UWSP student Jermey Larson shared his sentiments. (at left: Jeremy and Chelsea with host Carole on the air)

“I think that is one thing I feel most proud about here is that I hope I’ve shown these kids how to be more expressive and not be self conscious about who they are or about the silliness that’s in them,” UWSP senior Jeremy Larson said during the DEPDC morning radio show. “Life is too short not to have fun and with what these kids have gone through I completely respect how much fun these kids have. I don’t think I could do that if I were in their case [sic] and the fact that these kids do it really, really touches my heart.”

“We are not different,” Larson continued. “That’s something I would like to share with people back home. They are just like us in so many ways and that should be more reason to connect with them. Not to look at them like ‘oh, let’s help people with a different color skin,’ like we should care about them. No, no, no, care about them because they are so connected to your soul and your heart.”

Chelsea Harris, a sophomore in visual arts at UWSP, added her thoughts to the broadcast. (at left: early morning outside the DEPDC main building)

“I’ve gone throug
h some similar things that some of the kids have and for me coming, this has been an emotional roller coaster. I was very much prepared for what I was going to see but honestly…there are a lot of people like myself who have possibly had something traumatic happen in their lives and when I am with these kids I have never felt more comfortable with who I am and where I have come from. Even last night, I was holding one of the little girls and laughing and even though we don’t talk to each other there was this bond. It was almost like I was holding myself at that age.” (at right: half-day school children going home)

Don’t Miss This Additional Media:
**VIEW**a 4 min. clip from Friends of Thai Daughters
**PODCAST** 25 min. Friends of Thai Daughters movie (coming soon)
**PODCAST** 30min. Sample of DEPDC Child Voice Radio featuring University of Wisconsin Students (medium quality…we had technical issues)

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Posted in travel 1 Comment »

One Response to “Human Trafficking: DEPDC”

  1. This is a remarkable story. Thanks!

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