In this guest column, Joshua Finn talks about his inspiring trip to Thailand with a Jewish social justice group
Thailand: a country that conjures up images of beautiful beaches, ancient temples, elephants, bustling markets and exotic food. I discovered all these and more on my recent trip there. Yet, beneath the surface in what is often called the Land of Smiles, lies a different reality.
I travelled to Thailand with Justiﬁ, an organization that organizes social justice trips for Jewish students and young professionals. The trip, from July 2 to 11, focused on issues of human trafﬁcking and child exploitation which are persistent problems in the Asia-Paciﬁc region, home to half of the estimated 21 million people in forced labour worldwide
To learn ﬁrst-hand about these difﬁcult issues, we ﬁrst met with Bonita Thompson, founder of Bangkok’s House of New Beginnings. Bonita has made it her life’s mission to rescue Thai girls – some as young as 11 – from the immense sex trade in Bangkok’s infamous red light districts.
Bonita explained that most of the victims come from the poorer regions of Northern Thailand. With cultural pressure to provide for the family, an all-too-common downward spiral begins with a move to Bangkok, frequently leading to prostitution often combined with drug and alcohol abuse.
In Northern Thailand, we were inspired by a number of strongly passionate people working hard to change this reality for their community’s children and to help ensure Thailand’s youth enjoy a more promising future.
We met people such as Boom Bean, who began the Big Brother project in which children living on the streets of Chiang Mai – Thailand’s second-largest city – participate in activities with members of the local police force. We were lucky enough to join them on a bowling excursion. These outings are designed to build trust and mutual understanding between the youth and the police.
In the rural area around Chiang Rai, near the border with Myanmar, we met Sakkawan Sommuang – a.k.a. Tom – a jovial and inspiring man who literally built the Tom Karen Centre from the ground up.
The centre is an after-school facility for children from the Karen Hill tribe to learn English. Proﬁciency in English is a key to ensuring a greater chance for youth in Thailand to achieve success later in life. Tom himself only recently began to learn English (with the help of the ﬁlm Good Will Hunting). He runs the centre with few resources and little money, but easily makes up for this with a fervent passion and desire to make a difference for his people. The Tom Karen Centre is growing and is seeing positive results from its programs.
In Chiang Rai, we also met Nathan Ritter, an American who moved to Thailand four years ago to work with the SOLD Project. This organization provides scholarships and resources to children at risk of entering prostitution and forced labour and was founded by Rachel Sparks, a documentary ﬁlmmaker who, while producing The SOLD Project: Thailand, a ﬁlm about child prostitution, found that common themes of poverty, lack of education and an overall lack of other viable options were responsible for leading many children into that life.
Before the trip, I was somewhat skeptical about the difference we could really make in such a short period of time. While we didn’t change the world in 10 days, we did witness the genuine appreciation of those we worked with, and the excitement of the kids who had the opportunity to build their conﬁdence by practicing their English. I believe we did make a difference.
Through games of soccer and volley- ball at local elementary and high schools, mixing concrete to build the outside of a frog pond, tying bamboo together to make fences at the Tom Karen Centre and teaching English through drama and dance dance, in our short time in Thailand, we bonded with the youth and gained a deeper appreciation about some of the tragic issues facing children in this part of the world, and more speciﬁcally, this part of Thailand.
Rabbi Jamie Cowland, who led the trip, founded the Justiﬁ organization to provide an experience for Jewish stu- dents and young professionals to “experience the struggle for basic human rights, idealism, leadership and the Jewish approach to tikkun olam (repairing the world).”
Thanks to Justiﬁ, we had the chance to meet people like Bonita, Boom, Tom and Nathan: individuals who saw a problem and had the courage and initiative to do something about it. These people dedicate their lives to providing opportunities and a brighter future for their community’s children. They are doing their part to repair a little piece of the world.
Not all of us can be Boom or Tom, but we can all do a small part to repair the world – here at home and around the world. My experiences in Thailand with Justiﬁ showed me how much each of us really can do, and how one person really can make a difference.
Visit www.justiﬁ.org for more information about Justiﬁ and its social action initiatives.