In the Chaing Rai Province, 17-year-old Sombat is one of thousands of youth in our programs in Thailand that lacked legal citizenship. Knowing the challenges and limited opportunities these children and their families have because of lack of legal identity, Compassion Thailand set out to do something about it. From the country office, to the field staff, to the implementing church partners, everyone got on board to help provide a brighter future for these children.
“Sombat comes from a very difficult background. His mom had to raise him and his siblings alone. Are they in poverty? Yes, they’re in poverty,” says Worawut, the director of the Child Development Center that Sombat attends.
In 2011, Thailand was home to more than 500,000 illegal immigrants and refugees. These “stateless persons” include many legal citizens missing the proper documents.
Compassion Thailand Director, Sanya, states, “Children living on the border lack many opportunities. Without citizenship no one knows if they are Thai or Burmese.”
When asked what life was like, Sombat shares, “Not having an identity is a very discouraging thing. Stateless people pay a lot to go to the hospital and they receive no protection from police.”
As a single mother of four, Sombat’s mother Aya struggles to make ends meet by working in the rice fields to provide for her family. Their lack of citizenship was one of her many burdens. “Without citizenship I can’t travel anywhere. I can’t do anything. My heart was heavy. What if he couldn’t do things other children could. Or find work like others. I was very worried.”
Along the borders of Thailand, a birth certificate is paramount in the quest for citizenship. Families living in poverty often forget or cannot afford these documents when a child is born.
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But Sombat is part of our child sponsorship development program at his local church and has people walking alongside him and his family – helping him grow and develop into the young man he is today.
“Sombat is a very diligent child. He has had to make do without a father. He’s very hard working. He will even help his mother in the fields,” says Natchenan, Sombat’s Pastor.
Sombat recounts, “This morning I taught the kids to sing songs and I led them in picking up the trash. This is what we do every Saturday and Sunday at the church.”
Worawut shares further, “When Sombat was younger he was very quiet. He didn’t talk much and he liked being by himself. But he has grown a lot since then. Since coming to the project he has created a group of friends to play with. Sombat got into sports and many other activities that we encouraged at the church. As he grew up in the church, he went from attending to helping others. He now helps the church in many ways. I believe he can go very far.”
Without a birth certificate, Sombat was seen as a stateless resident of Thailand.
“I didn’t think I would ever get the identity card. I didn’t have any of the documents that I needed. In those moments I felt very hopeless,” says Sombat.
But because Compassion Thailand received funding for a Complementary Intervention program from 2012 to 2015 to help the stateless children like Sombat, they now had the resources available to educate caregivers about their rights and the importance of gaining a legal identity, as well as the capacity to help them through the process of acquiring legal status.
“Compassion helped by advocating for Sombat and taking him where he needed to go,” Worawut says.
Panuwut, a Compassion Partnership Facilitator, states, “We want to develop children and release them from poverty. We facilitate the process between mothers and officials so they understand each other.”
“The day we went I was very happy. We drove a long way to get there and I stood in line a long time.” Sombat smiles as he pulls out his new identity card and shows it off. “This is my identity card. It proves that I am Thai.” His eyes filling with tears, he says, “To everyone who helped me, thank you.”
Sharing her gratefulness, Aya says, “He will have many new opportunities now. More opportunities to better his life.”
This new identity means more open doors for Sombat. Doors to higher education and medical care. Doors for government protection and safety from child trafficking. Doors for opportunity to become the man God created him to be.
“For Christian children in the program we help them to understand where their true identity lies. It lies in Christ. If we help them understand this then they can live their life with purpose,” Director Sanya states.
Worawut, who has been closest to Sombat in this process can’t help but share his joy for him, “Am I proud of him? I am very proud of him.”
Sombat’s citizenship will extend to all of his future family members and affect generations of children to come.