I Didn’t Ride an Elephant, Go to the Beach, or Get a Thai Massage…

By: Kerry Callahan- Professional Fellowship program

I didn’t ride an elephant, go to the beach, or get a Thai massage, but I did get to build connections and relationships that will last much longer. A conversation that’s resonated with me in this last week came after meeting with one of the camp leaders at the Mae La refugee camp where when he asked at the end: "What will you do with the information you’ve learned from us today?" What I can do seems so small when the barriers seem bigger. How do you choose where to start? It’s overwhelming when you consider that an adult who escaped being shot at due to their religion and wasn’t considered a citizen in their own country of birth comes to another country and can never become a citizen there either. There’s no pathway. They are "stateless" and always will be. Or a migrant who doesn’t know Thai, so they can only go to a learning center overseen by an NGO to gain a certificate that’s not recognized by the government, because they are not attending a school with a standardized Thai curriculum or have a legal status to do so. How do you promote the importance of education when you live in a refugee camp and are considered illegal if you leave? How do you instill hope for others in these situations? To share about my work in refugee resettlement seemed pointless when NGO funding is decreasing, people have built up livelihoods in their communities, and getting refugee status is not always an option. Additional issues include drug and alcohol use, gender based violence, child abuse, TB, child labor, lack of activities for kids, homelessness (some people literally live in garbage dumps) and lack of mental health services.

I realized the people I met with had more ideas for change than I did. This stateless man is a leader in his community and aims to stay here to encourage birth registration for the next generation so they have opportunities in their future for education and legal employment. I visited several schools ("learning centers") for migrant children with student leaders pursuing GEDs and higher education, hoping to be teachers or other careers, and then to give back to their community. I met a family who houses several migrant children out of the goodness of their hearts to give them access to education that’s not available in their country of origin. I’ve met someone that came all the way from South Africa to teach for one year in an English immersion program in the Karen State, which is an incredible beautiful place, but also very isolated. I’ve met a young professional who has a heart for migrants and the camps and overseas learning centers for them. I’ve visited a health clinic started by one doctor who saw a need and decided to address it. This clinic has now continued to expand and provides services for free to migrants-those who could be arrested due to their status if they went to a hospital. An example I’ve received in all of this, is to see that 1 person can cause a ripple effect if they pursue something they are passionate about. The things I can do moving forward are to continue bringing awareness to others of refugees and migrants, and their situations around the world, to network with others doing similar work in the U.S. and overseas, and I can also promote YSEALI/Professional Fellowship programs as leadership opportunities for others.

I’ve been amazed by the hard work, generosity, and people’s determination to be an agent of change and growth in their communities and country. Special thanks to Thanyathip Chatsawat for sacrificing her time and energy to host and take care of me from sun up to sun down for 2+ weeks! It’s been an amazing adventure and time of learning, sharing, and building connections with others here in Thailand!


Gender in Laos- A Way Forward

I spent two incredible weeks visiting organizations in Vientiane, Laos, whose work directly or indirectly pursues gender equity and gender-violence response and prevention.

On my first stop, my path crossed with a group of students and their instructor from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Their instructor, Dr. Marcia Harr Bailey is an Assistant Professor in the School of Business and has extensive experience working in Asia and worked at Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand. As a Fulbright scholar (woah!), she founded a nonprofit organization called Poom Loom in which college students in Laos perform service-learning projects in rural areas. The class were touring Thailand and Laos as part of their coursework for their Social Business in Southeast Asiaclass. The class focused on fair-trade businesses that preserve locally used cultural identity and innovative business models to address social needs and preserve cultural heritage; issues which are connected to the empowerment of marginalized groups.

It is customary to present gifts to organizations we visit, and I was delighted this Wisconsin team brought cheese! What care and forethought went into controlling its temperature for the long journey! The Idaho calendar I brought paled in comparison. We will let Wisconsin have the W this time and step up our game in the future. Though I’m not sure it is ever wise to try to top Wisconsin cheese.

My schedule also overlapped Kristi Ponozzo, also a YSEALI exchange fellow from Helena, Montana, and the Director of Public Policy at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, whose mission is “to protect, sustain, and improve a clean and healthful environment to benefit present and future generations.” It was wonderful to navigate the fellowship with a thought- and travel-partner, and someone who was also experiencing everything for the first time.

Now that you’ve met Kristi and the Wisconsin team, let’s talk about the amazing work that’s happening in Laos!

As a foodie I spend quite a bit of time literally savoring the fruits of Lao labor. Perfectly ripe mangoes, lychee, mangosteen, rambutan, and so much more. As this delicious food nourished me, I couldn’t help but wonder what if fruit could tell the story of its journey to my plate, the beautiful hands that cared for it, harvested it, and transported it. Lao women are major contributors to agricultural production. Their contributions, often unpaid, are crucial for household food security and the rural economy (fao.org). Land use, agriculture, and business issues are all women’s issues in Laos (and everywhere, I would argue). Yet, the discrepancies in literacy rates, access to credit, and access to safe drinking water between Lao men and women are astounding. The great news is the government in Laos is taking encouraging steps to address these gender-based discrepancies, and good progress has been made. Also encouraging are the existence of the Lao Women’s Union, the Lao National Commission for the Advancement of Women, and the Gender Equality Act recently passed by the Lao National Assembly.

Shifting away from government, I would like to talk about the amazing work being done to address these discrepancies in access to opportunity and general in wellbeing for women, and more specifically work around gender violence prevention, intervention, and women’s empowerment as shared with me during in-person meetings, workshops, Lao-coffee dates, and over delicious meals!

GIZ Land Program: A program for safeguarding rural populations’ rights to use and reap benefits from land, manage land investments sustainably, and protect from foreign investor exploitation, with a focus on ensuring women benefit from land use planning, dispute resolution and investment.

Gender Development Association’s (GDA): This association focus on women’s empowerment by facilitating women’s leadership at the rural/village level. It established a “Gender Network” of a “Gender Focal Point” person from each village who is responsible for gender-based violence (GBV) intervention and prevention, as well and increasing gender equality with a focus on ethnic minorities where they see the most gender inequity. Additional notable programs created by GDA are a gender-based violence taskforce and programs to support girls’ access to education and reduction of teen pregnancy.

NamChai Community Center: The NamChai Community Center is the first community center in Laos, and home to “Reach Out Laos,” the first crisis helpline in Laos. The Center focuses on activities fostering mutual support, practical exchange, community spirit, self-development, and sense of, belonging and togetherness. Activities mainly focus on families and women but are open to all. The Center is home to the “Women Cross Borders” network, which was created by the center’s founder, Sandra Bode, to encourage women to exchange their knowledge and support with each other and to connect deeply. Some activities offered at the Center are first aid classes for caregivers, story time for children, language classes, parenting support, nutrition seminars, creativity sessions, pregnancy yoga and Yoga Birth method, breastfeeding support, Birth Stories group, self-development seminars, women´s “Lean In” circle, and more.

Ock Pop Tock: This is a fair-trade textile processing and retail center, which focuses on the bulk of their profit going to the party adding the most value to the product, the women-artisans creating it.

Rural Development Agency (RDA): The Agency implements youth-focused and youth-driven gender violence prevention initiatives, along with sexual, reproductive health, and gender norms initiatives, and advocacy projects.

(Babseacle) The Clinical Legal Education Program at the National University of Laos, Faculty of Law and Political Science: This group is actively conducting a baseline study in rural Laos on gender-based violence. The Project is titled Bringing Justice Closer to Woman Suffering from Gender Based Violence.

And finally, the highlight of my time in Laos:

Strong Girls and Wise Guys: This was a 3-day event held by YSEALI fellow Bouapha Intavong at NamChai Community Center. Events began with a poetry reading night, followed by a well-attended 2-day workshop on gender violence interruption, response, and prevention, including a deep analysis of gender roles as a root case of gender violence, and closed out with a live art event. Over 30 youth aged 16 to 26 attended this wait-listed workshop. They actively and enthusiastically participated and engaged in a rich, deep conversation on gender issues in their community with a level of wisdom and insight beyond their years. Bouapha is a highly skilled and capable facilitator, and it was such a pleasure to see all her strategies and subject-matter expertise come to life in the space, some of which she gleaned when reviewing our curricula and best practices during her fellowship here in the United States.

The workshop was a great springboard for deeper conversation on gender justice issues and catalyst for larger, transformational change in the community around gender equity and violence prevention. The progress that was made in our short time together was astounding. Participants were eager to dive into these tough issues and were leaning into these uncomfortable conversations that were so skillfully co-facilitated with care for cultural sensitivity by Bouapha Intavong, Sandra Bode of NamChai Community Center, and Pahvina Thephithuck of Babseacle. There was overwhelming interest in convening in the future for a deeper dive into analysis and action around response and prevention.

Though navigating cultural norms around gender violence and gender roles can be difficult at times, and challenges related to the process of registering and operating non-profits in Laos can also prove to be difficult, there was abundant interest in furthering the work on gender violence prevention/response. It would be wonderful to continue the progress by building the capacity of a group of attendees and develop their skills to create a network of change-agents in Laos who can begin to independently move the needle on gender issue. Their enthusiasm and cultural-competency combined with support with subject-matter expertise would be a force to be reckoned with.

I couldn’t have ever imagined the impact this visit would have on me personally and professionally and am so grateful for the opportunity to experience Laos in all its beauty and wonder. I am especially thankful for the Lao people I had the pleasure of meeting, and the expats who are working with Lao leadership to help nurture and grow this community. The promise of this small, collectivist society is so encouraging, and I hope one day to be able to begin to return all it has given to me in mind and soul nourishment.

Khop Chai Deu, Laos!

Unity & Culture in Thailand

By: Kerry Callahan-Professional Fellows Exchange-Thailand

I came to Bangkok, Thailand and literally hit the ground running in doing a 10k with my host Yim, for UNHCR in honor of the 2 billion kilometers refugees cover to get to safety each year. As I ran in the dark (since it started super early to cut down on the heat), I reflected on the many people who have had to flee their hometowns and countries because of persecution, and the privilege I have to just go for a run in the peace and coolness of the day because I want to, and for no other reason. After the race, I was approached by a couple Muslim women who wanted their picture taken with me. I learned after talking with them a little bit, that they lived in southern Thailand and had come a long distance just to do this race. Yim later informed me about the conflict happening in their region. These pictures represent 3 different religions, backgrounds, and places we are from, yet there is a common ground. Living in one country, you think about the differences in another. Visiting another country, you realize the similarities, the humanity of each individual that makes up a culture, and the common desire for safety, stability, peaceful relations, and belonging.

-UNHCR run pics here- (2 pictures)

Throughout the rest of this first week, I’ve met and networked with numerous individuals and NGOs to learn about the work they are doing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, and to share about the work I do in the U.S. in refugee resettlement. It’s been eye opening to hear a common thread of agencies needing to be grassroots focused to have later influence on systems and governments. One organization stated in regards to their work: "It has to be self supporting; otherwise it’s just charity." Another shared about the complexities of politics here and the need for having a humble approach and building relationships first before challenging the mindsets of those in policy making positions. There is strategic planning when it comes to eliciting change and this takes time. People need to be ready to hear new ways of thinking before influence can happen. There are also numerous barriers in the refugee realm which makes navigating difficult. A big one is that a refugee does not have a legal status to be in Thailand, and there is not a way for them to get one. This puts them in fear of being arrested, detained, and deported. Many times each year, raids happen in apartment complexes, leaving refugees homeless. Landlords are now being required to report a foreigner living in their unit including the name, address, and passport number. A new labor law in 2017 stated that an undocumented worker can not be employed, leading employers to take advantage of workers through exploitation and trafficking. Migrant’s access to the justice system, education and healthcare are all affected as well. However, the unifying part between how change is pursued here and in the U.S. is a shared passion for human rights.

-pic. of NGO meetings-(4 pictures)

There’s a lot to take in when you come from a city of 250,000 and go to one with over 9 million. Bangkok is busy with lots of traffic, lots of people, and the need to take multiple modes of transportation to get to any one place. There are food stands literally everywhere which goes the same for motorbikes. Malls follow closely behind. Lots of wires. People are polite and are kind in many unspoken ways- opening doors, pouring others glasses of water, carrying heavy items for you, being quick to step in and help, all without saying a word. There’s huge honor towards the royal family-large framed posters all around the city with flowers and decorations around them; people wearing yellow to give respect to the royalty, and doing things for "merit." Buddhism and the royal family and showing honor for both are interconnected here and represents Thai culture as a whole. The spoon is the main utensil and the fork is used to scoop your food into the spoon. The streets and sidewalks are surprisingly clean. Shoes are taken off before entering homes and businesses. Eating out for the majority of meals is the norm and street food is just as great as what you will find in a restaurant, but much cheaper. The architecture is amazing. What a great impact this trip has made on me in a short amount of time!

-pics of king, street food, buildings, traffic, wires- (5 pictures)

Reflections of Disability Services in Hanoi, Viet Nam

By Bronwyn Troutman

My colleague, Dr. Anna-Margaret Goldman and I recently visited and presented workshops at several disability organizations in Hanoi, Viet Nam, through the University of Montana, Mansfield Center YSEALI program. Most notably, we had the opportunity to spend time with our hosts and exchange partners, Ms. Nguyen Thi Van and Ms. Ngo Thi Huyen Minh, to observe the amazing work they are doing as directors of the Will to Live Center and Imagtor Company.

The non-profit Living Well Center provides vocational training for students with disabilities, who not only learn computer skills, but also learn essential independent living skills through real life experience. The center accepts 60 students at a time from across Vietnam with a wide range of physical disabilities, 17-35 years of age. For most of the students, this was the first time leaving their families, and at the center they live together in dormitory style apartments, for 6 months, while studying employment skills, and learning to manage their own lives, through hands on experience. While living together and pooling their financial resources, students must learn how to support each other and work together to manage all of their own activities of daily living such as: shopping for groceries, cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. The success of this program is high, with 80% of the students finding integrated and competitive employment upon completion.

Most of the graduates from the center are hired at the partner, for-profit Imagtor Company, which is a photo editing company, serving international real estate companies. Imagtor Company employs 75 individuals, the majority with disabilities. Forty percent of the proceeds from the self-sustaining company go back into the center, and both the center and company are led and staffed by people with disabilities. While leading workshops, we observed the quick progression of skills, from new students who were a bit shy and quiet, to more experienced students who were about to graduate from the center, to the employees of the company. As students and staff progressed we saw tangible results in gained confidence and success. Additionally, we saw happiness, as individuals gained employment, found friendship, love, marriage and new families and found belonging through fully participating in their community.

I had the opportunity to share my professional experience as a Community Living Specialist at Summit Independent Living Center, by leading Community Living Skills: an Introduction to Living Well and Working Well with a Disability workshops to staff and students. My workshops included information and discussions on Independent Living philosophy, Self-Advocacy and Self-Determination. Dr. Goldman jointly presented with me on Assistive Technology for People with Disabilities, sharing her expertise as director of MonTECH, at University of Montana. Assistive technology was of special interest to people with disabilities in Viet Nam, as the economy there is quickly developing and just beginning to open up to allow access to many basic assistive technologies, essential equipment, and integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The highlight of the trip for me was being able to participate and observe the phenomenal efforts of the staff and students led by Van and Minh, who demonstrated deep friendships and respect among their staff, a family-like atmosphere, and incredible hard work and outcomes with comparably limited financial resources and government support. Although access and civils rights were often quite limited in Viet Nam, the individuals we worked with consistently demonstrated strong leadership skills and natural peer supports, a fierce work ethic and will to live proudly independent and truly integrated lives. We were received with grace and friendliness everywhere we visited and I left with a sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to visit Vietnam, and a deep curiosity and respect of how people with disabilities live and work in Vietnam.

Laos is a beautiful country rich in culture, ancient history and complex…

Laos is a beautiful country rich in culture, ancient history and complex political climate, not completely unlike our own. My counterpart fellow for this exchange and I were able to spend some time together while in Vientiane, the Laos Capital. Our fellowship explored the complexities of government and non-profit relationships. In a developing country and one-party system government, like Laos, these relationships are particularly fascinating.

I worked with the Rural Development Agency, which only recently gained non-profit status after many years of seeking that status. RDA works on several initiatives, most predominately public health in rural areas (public sanitation, hand washing, etc.)

There is a new government decree, or initiative, designed to better manage non-government organizations in Laos. Some non-profit organizations are concerned it will make it more difficult to attain non-profit status and work closely with the government in a mutually beneficial way.

Embassy: We met with the embassy public affairs folks and talked about our time in Laos. They shared an overview of their work in Laos that is broad ranging from social and cultural programs to economic and political issues.

Working with the University of Wisconsin folks: I spent a fair amount of time with the University of Wisconsin Study Abroad program. Professor Bailey was teaching a social entrepreneurship class focused on social enterprises in the developing countries of Thailand and Laos. They focused on all levels of the supply chain, from the village artisans supplying fair trade to the larger shops in Bangkok and beyond. What an amazing class for these six students who had a study abroad experience unlike many others in their business school. Professor Bailey has a wealth of knowledge having formerly lived and spent many years in Thailand and Laos as a teacher and a Fulbright Fellow. Her perspective and commitment to providing hands on experiential learning on socially responsible markets is inspiring – I learned so much from her and her engaged and intelligent students.

Vientiane Laos and Rural Learning Center

We met with Embae who is a YSEALI alumni who has a start-up incubator for fair trade called Dakdae meaning, worm/cocoon. She and two other partners help local artisans package and market their local products. They have amazing products from tea and coffee to textiles and skin care. The photo is of myself, Embae and the University Wisconsin group studying social business in Southeast Asia, outside the Dakdae shop.

For two days we traveled to the Rural Development Agency’s rural learning campus outside of Vientiane. The campus is beautiful. They were hosting the Laos Public Health students who presented their research on rural village sanitation and the challenges they face educating rural communities on issues such as hand washing and proper pit toilets. The public health school is somewhat new in Laos – it was started in 2007.

Presentation from the public health school, Laos


The Rural Development Association is a non government organization with an aspect of their work being education at their rural learning center. We learned how to make mud hut bricks for a new structure on campus.

Southeast Asia by Kristi Ponozzo

Weblog: Laos 2019

We met with Embae who is a YSEALI alumni who has a start-up incubator for fair trade called Dakdae meaning, worm/cocoon. She and two other partners help local artisans package and market their local products. They have amazing products from tea and coffee to textiles and skin care. The photo is of myself, Embae and the University Wisconsin group studying social business in Southeast Asia, outside the Dakdae shop.


For two days we traveled to the Rural Development Association’s rural learning campus outside of Vientiane. The campus is beautiful. They were hosting the Laos Public Health students who presented their research on rural village sanitation and the challenges they face educating rural communities on issues such as hand washing and proper pit toilets. The public health school is somewhat new in Laos – it was started in 2007.


Presentation from the public health school, Laos.



The Rural Development Association is a non government organization with an aspect of their work being education at their rural learning center.


Bamboo starts