Thailand's Movie Star Professes:
"Working with Refugees Changed My Life"
Actress Diana Chungjintanakarn,the first Goodwill Ambassador of the U.S.Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) in Thailand, discusses her (real-life) role as a spokesperson for thousands of refugees warehoused for decades along the Thailand-Burma border. Diana opens up about the Thai people’s—and up until recently, her own—lack of knowledge about the existence of refugee camps on their country’s soil and her mission to raise refugee awareness one person at a time.
USCRI: Were you at all surprised when USCRI Thailand asked you last June to be the agency’s goodwill ambassador?
Diana Chungjintanakarn: Yes. Very much. [USCRI] came to me and asked, ‘Did you know we have refugees in Thailand? Did you know that these people live in camps?’ I had no idea we had refugees in Thailand. How could I be so ignorant? But three minutes into my meeting with USCRI representatives, having learned about their work and cause, I said ‘Yes, I would do anything I could to help.’
USCRI: Has your opinion of refugees changed since you started working with USCRI?
DC: Definitely. The refugee situation in Thailand is something unknown to most Thais. As the time goes by, I learn something new every day. At first, refugees were a concept for me. Now they are human beings to me. I met refugees when I went to the Bangkok Refugee Center. I sat in their classes. Some of them wrote me letters. I sit at home and read the letters. They say, ‘Miss Diana, please help us.’ Some of these refugees exist on a bowl of rice and water a day for a whole family. Every time I’m in a bad mood I read the letters. They inspire me and make me thankful for what I have.
USCRI: What was the most surprising thing you learned about refugees?
DC: That there are refugees in Thailand.
USCRI: What was your fans’ reaction to your new role as a refugee ambassador? Did most people react in a positive way?
DC: I received some positive feedback from my fans. But some people in Thailand who aren’t aware of our refugee situation were more skeptical and critical. They would stop me on the street and ask me, ‘Why are you helping people who are not Thai.’ Many Thais feel that we have problems in Thailand and we should help our own people first. And I completely understand where they’re coming from. That’s why I stop and explain to them what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. When I take the time to let them know who refugees are, they become more understanding. Most people who say disapproving comments to me on the street are also very surprised that I would take the time to stop and talk to them in the first place. They assume that I would just ignore them and walk away. But the fact that I make a point to talk to them and explain my work with refugees makes them realize how important this work is and how much it means to me.
USCRI: Have you noticed a change in the Thai community’s attitude toward refugees recently?
DC: Almost 99 percent of people in Thailand are surprised to hear about the existence of refugees here. The refugees are kept far away along the border. I have helped spread awareness of refugee camps in our country. People are becoming more familiar with the concept of refugees. People ask me more about the topic. They write letters and send emails asking me more about refugees and their situation. As a spokesperson, I go on national radio shows and television to talk about refugees in Thailand.
USCRI: Has your outlook on life changed at all since you started working with refugees?
DC: I see life in a more meaningful way. I used to live life, taking a lot of things for granted. Now I feel like there is so much more to life. I feel happier about the way I am and what I have. Prior to having this role I used to spend my time shopping, going to spas, and spending money. I was working hard and thought I had to spend the money I earned because what’s the point. Then I realized that all these things are what I want and not what I need. I stay at home more these days. I don’t take things for granted. I appreciate things that I have. I spend a lot more time searching the internet for information about refugees. I want to learn more about refugees.
USCRI: Why is working with refugees important to you? What is the most rewarding aspect of your role as refugee ambassador?
DC: It gives meaning to my life. I always ask myself why live when you’re going to die. But if I make a difference in someone’s life—I don’t have to change their entire life or solve all their problems—but make a difference or put a smile on their face, then that’s worth living for.
USCRI: What would be the one thing you would like to accomplish as refugee ambassador?
DC: To see that the refugees in Thailand have basic human needs and education. But the first thing I want is for the community to be aware that there are refugees right here in our country.
USCRI: Tell us about the latest significant event on the goodwill ambassador’s agenda.
DC: Recently, we have hosted a business plan development competition for university students. The students created business plans aimed at fostering working relationships between the refugees and the Thai population at the Thai-Burma border. Right now the border community and the refugees are very separated. We need to have something that would benefit both and bring them together.
USCRI: What would you ask your fans to do on behalf of refugees?
DC: I won’t ask for them to donate money or help. The first thing we need to do is open up our hearts and be aware of refugees. That’s the first step. Everything else will follow.
You too can help. Make a tax deductible donation to USCRI today. Your financial contribution will support our mission to ensure that each and every refugee can earn a living, provide for her family, and have a home.
Read about the plight of refugees living in camps along the Thai-Burmese border >>
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