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The women running the fight against human trafficking in Laos

There are few Lao Americans who will go back to tackle human rights issues in their home country, especially human trafficking, one of the most universally pervasive human rights violations.

Before leaving to live and work in Laos, Thouni Seneyakhone, a Lao Minnesotan, has been building awareness and momentum in a joint campaign with partners in Laos called the Run Laos Challenge. In collaboration with key organizations, The VillageRun Foundation (VRF) and Village Focus International (VFI), the challenge is a marathon relay that spans across three provinces in Laos in three days, with three women who are runners with roots in Laos. It starts on November 1st.

Thouni, the campaign’s Co-Director and Nang Nonntharath Dunn, founder of VRF, are driving the spotlight on human trafficking with the goal of raising funds for a transitional housing and education program for survivors, called The Shelter Project. The Shelter Project is part of the Protection & Empowerment of Women and Children (PEWC) program, one of VFI’s programs. “The Shelter is a safe haven, providing protection and empowerment for survivors of trafficking, through a residential center in southern Laos that reintegrates young women into Lao society through a program of personal care (counseling and health), education, skills training, and social support”.

I chatted with my friend Thouni (TS) and Nang (ND), who is also one of the runners, to catch up a bit on their journey, their latest project together, and what else they have up their sleeve in Laos.


Organizers of the Run Laos Challenge fundraiser in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tell us about yourself. Why leave your life in America? Why did you decide to move back to Laos?

TS: I waved goodbye to my grandmother in 1995. As promised to my grandmother, I was here to get education and go back to Laos. I don’t know what I’ll do when I decided to move back but I know I want to give back to people who are less fortunate than me in term of achieving higher education. After I visited my grandmother after being away from her for 10 years, I’ve decided to go back to Laos after college, which I did. I moved back to Laos right after college and work for VFI for 2 1/2 years. It was a dream come true. Even though, I don’t work directly with the projects but what I do in the office affects the success of the projects. I was too young back then when I moved back. I did not have a good direction of what I wanted to do or accomplish. Working for a non-profit was is what I’ve always dreaming of, but it wasn’t fulfilling, I wanted to do more. I decided to go back again and persue my dream career, providing education to the needy.

How did you get involved with fighting against human trafficking in Laos? How prevalent is the issue in the country?

TS: Fighting against human trafficking is part of the education realm within the goals that I want to achieve. I would like to educate the younger generation that human trafficking is unacceptable. I want to educate young girls so they are aware [of the issue] and could get help if they are in that situation. Also, educating the younger male population could help shape the future. I was involved in fundraising to fight the issues through various organizations in Cambodia but never done it in Laos. This is my first time stepping into this issue in Laos. We all know that human trafficking is a problem everywhere, even in our state is a big problem. MN is number 13 in term of human trafficking. The United States has law to protect its people, imagine other places that don’t have that kind of budget to enforce it or punish the broker. Even though, there may be limited resources to stop human trafficking, the shelter is there to [provide] a safe place where the potential or the victims could turn too.

Tell us a bit more about your Run Laos Challenge. What is it about and what are you hoping to accomplish? 

TS: Run Laos Challenge is the first-ever ultra marathon relay hosted in Laos where we have invited three women (1 Lao national, 1 Lao-American, and 1 Hmong-American) to take on the 130 mile (209 km) course covering the expanse of 3 provinces – in 3 DAYS – beginning November 1, 2013. The purpose of Run Laos Challenge is to promote a greater awareness of human trafficking in Laos and to financially support programs which shelter, educate, and sufficiently prepare survivors for a renewed life. This is an epic campaign administered by The VillageRun Foundation in collaboration with Village Focus International and other humanitarian groups supporting the function. One of the primary goals of Run Laos Challenge is to empower the survivors of trafficking through an advantageous program well-established in Laos called the Shelter Project. Funds raised through the Run Laos Challenge will endow the Shelter Project with a greater means to continue their successful curriculum in providing emotional and physical care to a multitude of survivors of human trafficking. Through the Shelter Project, young women are prepared to re-enter Lao society with enhanced skills and confidence, proffering a greater means of gainful employment in order to support themselves, their families, and to prevent being re-trafficked. Run Laos Challenge is striving to raise at least $50,000 in support of the VFI’s Shelter Project and other recovery programs giving direct aid to Lao women who are victims and survivors of human trafficking. The Shelter Project is the beneficiary of this campaign.

What are your thoughts about others moving back to Laos to help disadvantaged communities? 

TS: I believe is knowledge is power. My goal in moving back to Laos is to help disadvantaged communities. I would like to provide education and knowledge to these communities in Laos.

What do you hope to do in the next few years? Where do you see Laos going in addressing human trafficking?

TS: In the next few years, I hope that we will continuing the running event and keep bringing awareness to people. Also, with awareness raised, we hope it would spark some change and interest in younger communities around the world to help fighting this issue.

Laos is taking some big steps to help fighting against this issue. According to the US Embassy, Laos prohibits all forms of human trafficking through its 2006 revision of Penal Code Article 134, which prescribes penalties ranging from five years’ to life imprisonment, which are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2010 the government convicted 33 trafficking offenders, compared to zero. The government of Laos is fighting this issue as well, and I hope that they will continue to prosecute trafficking offenders.


Runner and founder of The VillageRun Foundation, Nang Nonntharath Dunn

Tell us how you got involved with the Run Laos Challenge. Why is this cause important to you?

ND: Running in Laos has been a dream for many years. I’d added it to my bucket list. Last year I decided to pencil it in my calendar. I planned the date, the location in Laos I wanted to run, and listed how many other runners were willing to join me in the experience. The original team was going to be two female and two male runners. Everyone was excited! As we approached the middle of the year I followed up with my fellow runners. The two male runners had to drop out due to conflicts in scheduling with work and family. This left me and the other female runner (who is a resident of Laos). I felt this was not an ideal arrangement and had to erase the date on my calendar.

In November of 2012, our family was preparing to move to Oregon from California. It was about that time that I reached out to a friend I’d met in Laos to inquire if she might know anyone that could help me organize a race there. I needed to find someone who could offer ground support on that side. My friend introduced me to Thouni via email and Facebook. Our friendship was an instant connection. We shared the same passion for humanitarian work, in our work ethic, had compatible personalities and most importantly, we shared in the desire to make a difference in others’ lives. Being a woman and a mother, I found this was a great cause and challenge to be apart of.

You’re one of three women in the challenge. Tell us a bit about your story and the connection with Laos. Is this your first trip back?

ND: I was born in the re-education camp in the southern-most province of Laos, Attapue. My family immigrated to the U.S. in 1988. Oakland, California, became our new home. I come from a large family I have 8 brothers and 2 younger sisters. During high school I had an opportunity to travel to Thailand and Vietnam with a summer program to build schools for underprivileged school children. In 2011 I founded The VillageRun Foundation. This charity was organized to raise funds by hosting annual 5K running events so that we can build schools in the rural Laos.

A couple years ago, when VillageRun was just getting organized, I was able to visit Laos and meet with the founder and director of another organization that had been building school in Laos for several years. We discovered that we shared the same principles and guidelines in our humanitarian work for the youth of Laos. Last year VillageRun was able to collaborate with the Lao Project Group (LPG) to build a new school in Bahn Nongsai in Luang Prabang Province. We are looking forward to building yet another school in Laos in the near future.

Participating in the Run Laos Challenge event this year will mark my fifth return to Laos.

How will you prepare for your run in Laos? What challenges and similarities do you see between running in Laos versus the states?

ND: My favorite saying and mantra is: “If it’s not challenging – I don’t want to do it!”

Preparing for this challenge is beyond my mental and physical capabilities. It has pushed and stretched me in every way beyond anything I have ever prepared for. I started training for this event in the beginning of the year. I’d also been planning and organizing this event with Thouni. As my organizational involvement with the Run Laos Challenge intensified, an extreme lack of motivation for training began to develop which nearly brought me to a complete STOP. There were days where I did not want to get out and run because I had emails and calls to respond to that were time sensitive and crucial to the success of the event. One day, I called Thouni and let her know that we may need to cancel the entire project. I was overwhelmed as I realized that I was spreading myself too thin. It was clear that I could not train, be the event organizer and the fund-raising coordinator at the same time while being a wife and full-time mother to our three kids. Everything was thrown off balance. I asked my husband, Kirk, to step in and help Thouni as a co-director to the event while I focused on training and local fund-raising.

The greatest challenges as a runner is finding time, commitment, and discipline to train. I’m not a professional athlete where I have the luxury to have a trainer or a coach to keep me on track. This is purely self motivated. The challenge in Laos will be the weather and the rugged course. The heat and humidity will take its toll on our body as we run for hours each day and have to get up the next day, do it all over again for 3 days. The course will also challenge us having various altitudes. If we train smart, eat good fuel, hydrate well everything after that is purely mental.



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