Rebuilding Thailand from overseas

Jan. 9, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

Before gushing monsoon rains drenched Fern Kundhikanjana’s home in Thailand, Chinese characters were hung above the doorway. Her aunt hoped they would ward off the floods. But Kundhikanjana knew these efforts were vain. To her, it was all “superstition.”

As a sixth-year graduate student in applied physics, Kundhikanjana M.S. ’09, Ph.D. ’12 has lived in the United States for the last 10 years but still holds close ties to her homeland — now more than ever.

Last year, Thailand’s flood season brought with it waters as high as 10 feet in some areas, the worst in 50 years. Plunging more than one-third of the country under water, the floods wreaked havoc on Thailand’s crops, factories and capital city of Bangkok. The floods left thousands of people without homes, food or clean water and killed 780 people.

Though Thailand has experienced floods before, few were as severe as the walls of water that swept through the home of Perth Charernwattanagul ’14, another native of Thailand.

“My parents’ factory and house in the suburbs were severely damaged to the point that relocation was the only solution,” he said. “My parents are struggling to restart production. Transportation now requires a lot of [the] budget, and many roads are virtually inaccessible.”

Before the flooding, his parents managed one of four factories that produced hemodialysis solution in Bangkok. The solution helps treat people with kidney disease, who often use it on a weekly basis. Now, with all but one factory flooded, including his parents’, Bangkok hospitals are in short supply.

Charernwattanagul is also worried about his friends and other family back home. He speaks to one of his friends frequently, whose house is located in an area at high risk for flooding. Though he communicates with him and his parents everyday, he is uneasy about being so far away.

“I feel really weird being here in this kind of situation and not doing anything,” Charernwattanagul said. “This is the first time that I felt this kind of conflict, sort of like ‘Do I really belong here?’ I feel really connected to [Thailand], and I feel like my life here doesn’t really matter that much.”

Soon after hearing about the floods, he quickly got involved in flood-relief efforts at Stanford. Charernwattanagul is one of about 80 members in the THAIS Club, a community of Stanford undergraduate and graduate students from Thailand. They quickly rallied around the cause, raising funds and awareness for flood victims through a campaign called “Dry Thailand.”

For several days in October and November, members of the THAIS Club stood in White Plaza and gave out boba tea to promote their “Thai F(l)ood Fest.”

Within two weeks, the THAIS club raised thousands of dollars through both their online and offline efforts, and they successfully donated their proceeds to Baan Arsa Jaidee, an organization that provides ongoing rehabilitation and relief for Thailand.

“We made about $4,500, which exceeded our expectations,” said Prae Numswangneth ’13, the THAIS Club’s undergraduate co-president.

“If you think about it, a dollar or $2 can basically buy a meal for people in Thailand,” said THAIS graduate co-president Werapong Goo M.S. ’15. “By donating $5, you could buy meals for a day for a family of three or four. It helps a lot, even though $5 isn’t much for us.”

Goo was most struck by the kindness of the passersby who stopped at their tables to chat and learn more about Thailand.

“I was just surprised by their generosity even though they might not have had any interactions with Thailand or Thai people before,” Goo said. “Some people just saw our poster that we put on our tables and came without asking for any free drink or free food. They asked, ‘Oh, can I just give you money?’ But we couldn’t take it without giving them food.”

Like many other members of the THAIS Club, Goo was humbled by the experience.

“We are a group of people who are lucky enough to be at this great university,” Goo said. “We always want to help other people. That’s something that I learned from Stanford. I feel like Stanford has taught us to reach out and pay back the community.”

Login or create an account