The Thailand Project: A Lesson in Humanity

Hello Friends, before I delve into the world of The Thailand Project I want to prepare you for two things.  1.  This is big.  There are some deep thoughts and new concepts, at least for me, but I promise it will be worth your time.  2.  This particular blog will be longer than my usual blogs in order to make up for the lack of a podcast for this interview.  The information was too worthwhile not to share.

My introduction to The Thailand Project, came several months ago after I launched my radio show, What’s Your Story? in 2009.  My father-in-law, Michael, shared the name with me and said he thought I should research the organization further, as their story was “right up my alley.”  When I first reached out on Facebook to Joseph Quinnell, cofounder of The Thailand Project, he was on the ground in Thailand.  After reading about his mission there….I was hooked.

The Thailand Project is one of the only organizations in the world solely focused on combating statelessness.  But this story begins before there was an organization with such a focused mission.  This story began with the journey of one young man, Joseph Quinnell.  Quinnell came to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a photography student.  His mission was very clear…to create pictures that not only captured a moment, but moved people to action.  Because of his own experience with being a survivor of violence, he felt an immediate connection to those suffering abuse.  In his second year of school (2005), he decided to travel to Thailand to explore and capture the many faces of human trafficking, the use of humans as commerce, whether for sex slavery or other forms of modern day slavery…a decision that would change his life and the lives of people around the world.

I know, right?  How can one man change the life of people around the world?  Joseph would be the first to tell you he does not do it alone.  Susan Perri, co-founder of the Thailand Project, is also a tireless partner and advocate in their mission.  The discovery of this mission began in Thailand as Joseph discovered the truth behind human trafficking.  While there can be a variety of factors behind human trafficking, the single biggest risk factor is statelessness.  Statelessness does not exist here in the USA; it is a term used to describe a group of people without citizenship anywhere, no homeland, no rights, no documentation.  In essence, they are not considered human.  Many of these people are born in small villages in Burma, and in an effort to escape the country’s violent dictatorship, flee to Thailand.  In Burma, they are considered non-people, whose only purpose is to serve as rape dolls or military slaves.  Thailand does accept these refugees, but does not grant asylum or citizenship; so, they are allowed to live in Thailand, but without any rights, education or documentation.  With the lack of documentation, it is easy for them to “disappear” into the world of human trafficking, because technically, they do not exist.  This heart-breaking reality so moved Quinnell, that he did not just capture this travesty on film…he acted.

Joseph’s first experience with statelessness was at Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities, a non-profit school working to educate the stateless.  When Quinnell talked to the young children there, he was deeply disturbed by the students’ belief that they had no futures and no right to dream of what they could be.  In the US, when a child is asked what they want to be when they grow up, they might say that want to be a rock star, firefighter or teacher.  When Joseph asked these young stateless students, they had no answer; in their minds, they did not have the right to even dream.  Joseph’s fighting spirit, sense of justice and compassion set in.  He remembers thinking, “Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something.”

With a new found sense of determination and purpose, Quinnell went back to the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point and immediately started a program where students from the Fine Arts Department could travel to DEPDC and teach these unique students about a variety of the arts.  One of the students Quinnell actively recruited was graphic design student, Susan Perri.  Although she did not go on the initial trips to Thailand, she became instrumental in planning and implementing a The Thailand Project: Higher Education as Humanitarian Aid.

The Thailand Project launched with a Photojournalism Display, meticulously planned by Susan and Joseph.  Pictures from Joseph’s trip were strategically placed around campus to start the conversations, draw out strong reactions, and hopefully, inspire action.  The cofounders executed a perfectly timed interview on Wisconsin Public Radio shortly after the display, and made a plea on air for Wisconsin to open its doors to those denied education due to statelessness.

Knowing they were attempting the impossible, Susan and Joseph, with the blessing of UWSP, set out to try and get two students from DEPDC to come here for two years of ESL and then a four year college degree.  Ultimately, this is not designed to be a scholarship program, but a demonstration and statement of the lunacy of needing to send someone half way around the world for an education because they are denied rights in their own country.  The first hurdle was to raise the finances to support the two students for six years.  With the help of Frame Presbyterian Church, who sponsored one student for a year and a Red Campaign on campus, asking each student to donate $5 within 5 days, Joseph and Susan leaped over the first hurdle with strength!  Of course, their academics, friendships and health were sacrificed in the process, but it was worth it to these two passionate heroes.

The second hurdle was to get the Thai government and US government to agree to allow two students with no citizenship, birth certificates or any other identifying documents leave a country where they are normally not allowed to travel to the next town.  Incredibly, there was no secret networking magic; Quinnell just got on the phone and started working his way through the red tape.   In the summer of 2008, two days before classes were due to start, the news came.  Two young women, Fongtip and Aor, were allowed to travel to UWSP and gain an education.  Fongtip was granted Thai Citizenship…a milestone sure to change the destiny of her family, and Aw was given the only Student Visa of its kind, to a stateless person.  Aor is currently one signature away from receiving a birth certificate, which will all but assure her of her Thai citizenship.   Now these two women, who have just very successfully completed their first semester of college, are an inspiration to a country, to a community, to two college students with a dream and to small children at the DEPDC who are starting to catch a glimpse of what it is to have hope for a future.

In 2014, this pilot program will be complete and The Thailand Project will go on to its next stage where it will use the lives of these two young women to inspire those who have previously been denied education, show that old ways of thinking can be broken and to emphasize that these hopeful youth, in the limbo of statelessness, would be more valuable to Thailand as citizens.

I am so inspired by this story.  I feel hopeful and empowered and moved beyond the borders of Stevens Point, Wisconsin.  I am proud of these two individuals, Joseph Quinnell and Susan Perri, who rallied a community to do the right thing for people half way across the world.  In the end, human trafficking and the issues of statelessness do not define Thailand, but with over 15 million people stateless around the world, Thailand could be defined as the country that brings this human rights violation to an end.

If you have been moved by this story, as I have…act.  Go to and donate toward the $60,000 that is still needed to fund Fongtip and Aor through the end of the pilot program.  Friend The Thailand Project on Facebook and send notes of encouragement to the founders and their two fledgling students.  If you are in the Stevens Point area, contact the project through their website and volunteer to provide a meal or tutoring for Fongtip and Aor.   Most importantly, tell others about statelessness, so that it can no longer be a secret.  There should be no throw away people.


  1. Hi mates, its impressive piece of writing regarding educationand fully explained, keep it up all the

    • Thanks for your interest and words of encouragement. We are constantly inspired by the way people are touched by hurt and tragedy and respond with such action and character. The Thailand Project is definitely a favorite organization!

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