During my stay in Chiang Rai in November 2018, I was looking for local orphanages in the area. I wanted to find an organization which prevents kids from ending up in the streets of Thailand. This is how I found the hill tribe project El Shadai, run by Surasak and Narimon and how I met 7-year-old Suvimon, who dreams of a snowman for Christmas.
Inspired by a book
Since I was a teenager, I have wanted to visit an orphanage in Asia: I read Femme aux mille enfants (A woman for a thousand kids) by Yvette Pierpaoli, a french-italian humanitarian, who had founded an orphanage in Cambodia. I was impressed by her assertiveness, as well as sad about the simple fact that our world is in need of such organizations: A large number of children have either lost their parents or don’t have families to take care of them.
Looking for a local orphanage
Arriving in Thailand last November, my first research was dedicated to finding a local orphanage. I aimed to learn more about their background, I wanted to understand, why so many kids cannot live with their families and how we can support them. This is how I met Surasak and Narimon who take care of 16 kids at El Shadai Orphanage near Chiang Rai.
I hadn’t expected that at all, I was so happy that my first attempt had been successful!
Picked up by the owners
Surasak and Narimon, locals from the Chiang Rai area, own a house, or rather an area consisting of several houses, a garden and an outside common area in the countryside close to Chiang Rai. One day, they decided to share their home with orphans and turned it into a comfortable, child-friendly ground: Today, El Shadai is home to sixteen kids from the age of four to nineteen.
When Surasak got my e-mail asking if I could come by for a day to help, he immediately replied and even offered to pick me up from my hostel in Chiang Rai. I hadn’t expected that at all, I was so happy that my first attempt had been successful! The next morning I could not wait for the truck to honk in the driveway. What was going to wait for me?
An open conversation about offering help
When Surasak and Narimon pick me up, I feel immediately welcome and comfortable with the orphanage owners. From the start, they are very sensitive and transparent in their communication about the opportunities to support their cause: Their first question is how exactly I would like to support them.
That I am a backpacker on a budget who would rather sleep in a 10-bed-dormitory than a clean hotel room is something many locals don’t understand.
In case I wanted to support them financially, they would suggest to go by a supermarket to buy useful stuff for the children for an amount I could name. Wonderful, sounds like a good idea to me.
The reason why I point this out, is, that I have made other experiences before, where I was seen as a rich white lady who can give huge amounts of money to their cause. Of course, that is understandable, considering how cultural prejudice works both ways: That I am a backpacker on a budget who would rather sleep in a 10-bed-dormitory than a clean hotel room is something many locals don’t understand. The owners seem to understand the concept though, which makes it much easier for me to feel safe and join them visiting El Shadai.
We agree on the kind of help I can give in the very beginning: I will go shopping with Surasak and Narimon. We agree on an amount and from that money they can buy whatever the children need most at the moment: shampoo, snacks, toiletries. After our shopping tour, we go to the orphanage together.
I don’t feel very comfortable, sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, having the kids perform for me.
Arriving at El Shadai
We drive out of the city into the surrounding area of Chiang Rai. I see a flat landscape, hills can be seen in the distance. When we arrive at the orphanage, it’s quite calm: It’s hot and the children are in the common room, probably nervous since – as I find out a few minutes later – they prepared a little show as a welcome present for me, their guest.
I don’t feel very comfortable, sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, having the kids perform for me. They learn that this is their way of giving something back to the visitors who support their upbringing. At this moment, I set my intentions to really connect to the kids, not sitting across the room from them but to share a common activity. Luckily I had insisted on buying some crayons.
Coloring – an unusual activity
When I ask Surasak for some paper, he doesn’t quite understand at first, what I would use that for. He trusts me though – a nice experience of mutual trust in spite of very little English that we share as a common language – and comes back with a pack from the copying machine.
Since we do not share a language so I could explain, I just start drawing myself.
I sit down on the ground with some crayons and start handing out the paper to the kids, one by one. Some stare at me, unsure, what the strange white lady wants from them, some older boys start whispering and giggling, probably saying “she is a strange one”.
What does “home” mean to an orphan?
Since we do not share a language so I could explain, I just put the box full of crayons in the middle of the room and start drawing myself. I begin by sketching my best palm tree, hoping the kids would recognize it as such. Then I look at them, smiling to encourage them to draw too.
Now we are sharing a moment.
One by one, the kids start picking up some crayons from the box and their attention is with the piece of paper now. Some start by coloring, others are more skilled already. After a few minutes I ask Surasak to translate: I would love to see their homes. Soon I see hills, houses, fish and birds. They all seem to be at peace now and I can sit back and relax. This is more comfortable. Now we are sharing a moment.
What does “home” mean to an orphan though, I wonder? While I watch them draw, I cannot wait to talk about the pictures and again, Surasak is so nice to support me with his translations. This is a great chance for me to get to know the kids of El Shadai.
Getting to know the kids
The kids who live here are from the age of four up to nineteen. This means that the older ones can take care of the younger ones, and everything seems to work like a big family.
Yanisa, the big sister
Yanisa, for example, is eighteen years old when I visit them. She often takes the role of the big sister, especially for young Sutipon, who is four.
Yanisa encourages Sutipon to try creating her own masterpiece and in the end they both proudly present their results:
Sutipon, the little one
When we take a little tour through the orphanage, Sutipon curiously follows Surasek and me around to show me her home. She proudly presents her very own bed: Here we are in the girls’ bedroom.
Pasit, the curious one
While I interview the “parents” to learn more about their story and their organization, Pasit wants to just be there with us, too. He is a lively boy and always wants to play, get some attention, which is why he starts playing with my video equipment while the grown-ups talk.
“Orphans” sometimes still have parents
Pasit’s parents are still alive but they split up. It is bad luck to bring a child to a new family in Thailand, which is why the dad remarried, could not take Pasit with him though. His mum cannot afford a living for herself and her child, so he ended up at an orphanage. This is unfortunately not uncommon in South East Asia, which is one of the reasons why there are so many orphanages around.
I can tell you, it is possible to ask and google while you are in the area, there is no need to spend money on placement agencies.
Help is also possible without expensive agency fees
Another pointsof criticism concerns the concept of volunteering tourism: organizations in Europe and North America often take a lot of money from young people who want to volunteer, connecting them with social projects in Asia where they can help out. This is another reason why I wanted to find my own way to an orphanage and I can tell you: it is possible to ask and google while you are in the area, there is no need to spend money on placement agencies.
These critical voices – which have their valid points in my eyes – do not change the fact though, that these kids would end up in the streets without any social or financial support, if it wasn’t for people like Narimon and Surasak. A couple from the local community that devotes their lives to bringing up those children, giving them at least the chance to have a hopeful future.
While he was craving for attention and running around full of energy before, Pasit has been calm since he started coloring. He stays as close to me as possible and is not quite sure what to do, so he starts mimicking all my actions: When I draw an ocean, he draws an ocean. When I draw a palm tree, he watches very closely, how it’s done, and then he starts drawing his own palm tree. I am fascinated by how calmly and accurately he takes in his environment now, while he was just romping around the room a few minutes ago. The magic of crayons 🙂
Siba, the quiet one
Twelve-year-old Siba is one of the quiet ones. He rather watches from the back, avoiding too much action and now he is coloring in silence. When I ask him what we can see in the picture, it is his “hill tribe village”. Most kids around here are from a hill tribe from the surrounding area.
Suvimon, the dreamer
Suvimon is one of the happy, bubbly kind who seems to dream of a white Christmas: She draws a fir tree with a star on top and a snow man, both of which definitely not exist in Thailand. Thanks to YouTube though, the seven year old girl knows that somewhere in the world this is actually reality. And maybe she can go there one day…
Taking a trip together & loving technology
What the kids are really looking forward to though is a trip that we are taking together on that day. We all get to ride on their bus – I am almost more excited than the little ones 😉 On our way, I start talking to Yanisa, one of the “big sisters”, her English is already quite good and we bridge our language gaps through Google Translate.
Now they all get very curious and start asking me a lot of questions: “Where are you from?” – oooh Germany, Austria, Berlin, Vienna. They look it up on Google Maps. “Ahaaaa!” This is crazy, I am thinking. These kids have the chance to educate themselves with the help of a smartphone and the internet. Sometimes I just love technology.
A day well spent & a lovely experience for all
Kids, I had an amazing day! I wish you all the best for your future, keep being so strong, keep playing and keep being curious, we believe in you that you will find your way! Surasak and Narimon, if you read this, thank you so much for your hospitality, for treating me with so much respect and being open to transparent conversations. And, of course, thank you for inviting me to your home, to El Shadai, for the day.
Most of all, THANK YOU for taking up all this energy and love to make this world a better place. We need people like you – and the children will never ever forget what you did for them. I hope we meet again one day and until then: only the best to you!
El Shadai lives from donations
Narimon and Surasak built up the orphanage El Shadai all by themselves with the support of donations from the local community and from tourists who happen to come by, like me. It is a very small share that I could give within this one day, but it felt like a valuable contribution.
El Shadai can use every donation, no matter if big or small and I can only tell you that I have seen with my very own eyes that the money gets spent cautiously. Contributions make a difference to these kids and support their chances of living in a safe, loving home and getting a good education, so they can support themselves and their own families one day. In addition, every gesture also supports the “parents”, Narimon and Surasak, who keep going with energy and motivation every day. If you want to support them, find the details here.
Recipient: El Shadai for hill tribe project Bank: SIAM COMMERCIAL BANK PCL. Account Nr.: 507-274861-8 BIC/SWIFT CODE: SICOTHBK
If you happen to be in the area, you can also contact Surasak and ask if you can drop by, if there is anything you can help them with. Don’t forget to tell them hi from me 🙂
Photos & Text: Kerstin Schachinger