Srinuan “Aor” Saokhaumnuan has been working hard to end the problem of statelessness that recognizes an absence of classification between person and state.
Saokhaumnuan is a senior University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point student whose mission was sparked by the Thailand Project, an organization founded by UWSP graduate Joseph Quinnell and his co-director Susan Perri in 2005.
A person who is stateless is not considered national under any operation of the state’s law. Saokhaumnuan explained how one might imagine these circumstances living in Stevens Point.
“If you were born in Stevens Point without citizenship, you would not be able to travel to Plover or Wausau. You would have to stay within your city,” Saokhaumnuan said.
Saokhaumnuan was born stateless in Thailand. Her journey toward gaining citizenship began in 2008.
“I got a full scholarship from the Thailand Project. I also warrant a membership with Z.O.N.T.A. They help women and donate money and scholarships to them,” Saokhaumnuan said.
Quinnell was on a self-appointed photojournalism assignment focusing on human trafficking along the Thai-Burma border when his inspiration for the Thailand Project hit him. Quinnell felt a responsibility toward his new awareness.
“Statelessness was a mostly unknown issue that was a root cause to human trafficking in Southeast Asia. I believe once you become aware of a problem, you have the responsibility to do something about it,” Quinnell said.
Quinnell met hundreds of children who were stateless in 2005. He was shocked to know that approximately 3.5 million people in Thailand are affected by statelessness. Currently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are 12-15 million stateless people worldwide.
Stateless children are often thrown into human trafficking. Without citizenship, they have no right to employment, health care, or the right to vote. Since they cannot be employed, they fall into desperation and as a result may suffer mistreatment, abuse, racism and cruelty.
“I met hundreds of children who were stateless, who were without citizenship from any country and they were aggressively targeted by human traffickers,” Quinnell said.
Quinnell met Saokhaumnuan in 2005 and Perri met her in 2008. From 2008 to 2011, Quinnell and Perri worked toward Saokhaumnuan’s citizenship.
“Susan and I had the good fortune and opportunities to be Aor’s mother and father, brother and sister, and cheerleaders as she fought to become a Thai citizen,” Quinnell said.
Saokhaumnuan received a scholarship from the Thailand Project called Higher Education as Humanitarian Aid. This scholarship covered two years of English as a Second Language for Saokhaumnuan and four years toward a Bachelor’s degree.
Saokhaumnuan went through many grueling battles to finally achieve her Thai citizenship. In July 2012, her case snowballed into helping 400 people gain Thai citizenship with another 300 on a waitlist.
“I got a one in a million experience. Everyone told me to forget about my dream when I was young, so I never had a dream when I was little. I am really lucky to have such great supporting people. I especially want to thank Joseph and Susan,” Saokhaumnuan said.
Saokhaumnuan will be graduating from UWSP this May. Aside from achieving her Bachelor’s degree in communication with an emphasis in public relations, she has become a voice for movement toward freedom in Thailand.
Saokhaumnuan was recently invited by the United Nations to attend a conference in the Netherlands to speak about statelessness and have offered Saokhaumnuan an all expense paid trip to get there. She will also be receiving a leadership award from the university before she graduates.
Saokhaumnuan desires to continue her advocacy post graduation. She wants to spread awareness about statelessness and human trafficking.
“I want to help children go to school, but first I want them to gain Thai citizenship. I want to help children fight for their right,” Saokhaumnuan said.