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  • STORY 01 Even a child from the slums had doors open on a global stage

Even a child from the slums had doors open on a global stage

Ms.Orathai Phubunlap Gunaseelan
Thailand / First Secretary, Thai Embassy

SVA has been providing children in Asia with educational support and emergency relief for over 35 years since we started assistance activities at Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand in 1981. One woman who used the library that SVA operates in a Thai slum was able to make her dream a reality.

Living in a Slum Is Not Easy

For me, the library was the only place I could have peace of mind. As I read many books and travelogues, I dreamt of getting out of this slum to see the world someday, and actually I was able to make that dream come true. I am currently working as a secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand. As an expert in Russian, I sometimes serve as an interpreter at the appointment of the Prime Minister. I’m now doing a job I wanted, but when I was young, I lived in an environment that did not allow me to get a decent education.

The Suanphlu Slum, in the poorest district in the heart of Bangkok where I grew up, had wooden shacks squeezed tightly in rows along narrow alleys and had no facilities or systems such as water and electricity supply, school, medical care, etc. Looking back now, life in a slum has never been easy.

My parents are from the Northeast Thailand. My father completed the course of elementary school only up to the fourth grade. My mother also lived a life in which she had never read books or used letters. My parents worked hard to earn money for a living, rent, and sending three daughters to school; father worked at the port as a daily laborer and mother sold daily food until late at night. Still, we were struggling financially. In a slum where drugs, gambling, prostitution, illness, etc. are pervasive, my father eventually became addicted to drinking, behaved violently on a daily basis, and began to have repeated fierce fights with my mother.

Library, a Sanctuary Where I Could Be Freed from Daily Life in Poverty

I was about four years old when I came across picture books in the library. By sheer happenstance, there was a library built right beside my house in the slum. I was busy with school during the day and with helping my mother at a shop and doing housework at night, so I could only sleep for five hours or even less. The library I visited in my free moments gave me emotional support. When my parents started to fight heatedly, I sometimes ran to the library.

Since my house was small, I always studied upstairs in the library. The library, which allowed me to escape from a hard life even for a moment, was an oasis where I could get out of the day-to-day life of poverty in my harsh childhood, and it was also a place where I could gain a wide range of knowledge.

Left: Orathai, in first-year at university Right: Orathai and her parents

Every day, the one thing I would look forward to more than anything was going to the library, and I read every single one of the 10,000 volumes in the library, including picture books, novels, reference books, etc. I was particularly drawn in by travelogues. They made me dream that I would one day get out of this slum to explore the world.

After that, I received a scholarship from SVA in secondary school and studied in the United States in my second year of upper secondary school. When I was in my third year of upper secondary school, I was able to win a French speech contest.

After graduating from secondary school, I got accepted to the Faculty of Letters at Chulalongkorn University, a prestigious Thai university. I passed almost first on the list. Then, in my first year at university, I passed the Thai government’s diplomatic training exam, which only about one person in 100 can pass. I was jubilant, thinking, “Now I don’t have to pay tuition!” I was really happy that I could reduce the financial burden on my parents and make use of the language skills I enjoy.

Thinking That Even a Child from a Slum Can Find the Way to the Future

There are few Russian experts in Thailand, and I came up with the idea that I would be able to open the way to becoming a Russia expert even though I am from the slum. After graduating from the university on a scholarship, I also studied abroad at the diplomatic academy in Moscow as a government-sponsored international student. Following the completion of this study abroad, I began my career as a diplomat in Russia.

As an expert in Russia at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, I have acted as interpreter for state guests or the equivalent, such as the Queen of Thailand, Former Prime Minister Thaksin, and Prime Minister Prayut. I was also tasked with interpreting for Princess Chulabhorn of Thailand and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tasked with interpreting for Thai Prime Minister and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting

I am currently the first secretary working for the Thai Embassy in Moscow. I hope that I can make use of my good English, French, and Russian skills to work as a diplomat in the United States, Australia, or Japan in the future. I would also like to compare Russia, which I am expert on, with each of these countries.

A Big Dream Nurtured by a Small Library

I am glad to say that more and more children in Suanphlu Slum are heading for universities. The sight of children reading books in the library gives hope to their families and the other slum residents. I have always wanted to help the children living in the slums.

if I hadn’t come across that small library, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. The library gives anyone the opportunity to learn if they want to.

The library, into which I escaped from my parents’ fights, somehow became an irreplaceable place for me to foster an indomitable spirit that would not be defeated by adversity.