Somnuek, an ethnic Karen, inspects chamomile flowers at the organic farm of the Emmaus Centre. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)
This article was first published on Feb. 13, 2019
Arsun spent 16 years behind bars in northern Thailand for selling drugs, so readjusting to life on the outside seemed like a challenge for the ethnic Chinese man from Myanmar. But then he hit on a newfound passion: growing black pepper.
After his release from prison last year, the 50-year-old man, who had no family in Thailand, did not have anywhere to go. Yet he found a new home at the Emmaus Centre, a rehabilitation facility for ex-inmates in a rural part of Chiang Mai province.
Set up by the Bangkok-based Jesuit Foundation-Prison Ministry on 1 hectare of land it received as a donation from a local Catholic woman in 2015, the center has modern guesthouse-style accommodation and a sprawling organic farm with a variety of fruits, herbs and vegetables.
“Ex-prisoners who don’t have a place to go can come here,” explains Somnuek Sriphornphun, an ethnic Karen from the northern province of Mae Hong Son who oversees the Emmaus Centre’s agricultural project where plots of chamomile and coffee lie next to small groves of papaya and passion fruit, interspersed by clumps of banana trees and coconut palms.
Flamboyantly feathered cockerels strut around cackling hens in an enclosure at the back. There’s also a carpentry workshop, a composter and a solar panel.
“Arsun liked it here. It’s a peaceful place,” says Somnuek, who is a Catholic. “It was his idea to grow black pepper.”
The Karen man indicates a well-tended plantation of black pepper. “See that? Arsun did it all by himself,” Somnuek says. “He really got into it.”
Arsun, who stayed at the rehabilitation facility for six months last year, has since left to live with his teenage daughter.
Yet the center is now ready to welcome other ex-inmates like him who have nowhere to go once they are released from prison. The newly built house on the premises, which has a communal kitchen and several furnished rooms, can be a temporary home for up to seven residents.
“We want to help them readjust to life outside prison,” Somnuek, 41, says. “Here they can learn new skills to make a living so that they can become self-sufficient and won’t have to fall back into crime.”
Love, forgiveness and redemption
The Jesuit Foundation-Prison Ministry has made it its mission to help prisoners who languish in Thai prisons and receive no visitors of their own. They are mostly foreigners from neighboring countries like Myanmar and Cambodia or belong to Thailand’s economically disadvantaged hilltribes who often inhabit remote hillside villages in a mountainous hinterland in the country’s north.
The vast majority of the more than 1,000 prisoners to whom the foundation caters are behind bars for drug-related offenses, mostly small-scale trafficking. Many are serving life sentences. Few are Catholic or even Christian.
“We visit needy prisoners but they don’t have to be Catholic,” says Vilaiwan Phokthavi, the initiative’s director. “We don’t force ourselves on them. We only visit them if they ask us.”
Small and wiry, Vilaiwan is an amiable woman who speaks fluent English. She is based in Bangkok but regularly travels to Chiang Mai where much of her charity’s outreach work takes place in local prisons.
“If you’re a prisoner in a foreign country, it can be really tough,” she says. “We aim to provide company for them so that they don’t feel like they’re being abandoned. They are happy to have someone visit them regularly.”
In Thailand’s squalid and overcrowded prisons, amenities are few. Inmates can make life a bit easier for themselves with money and food sent by relatives from the outside. Those that lack such benefits may be facing an uphill struggle, especially if they are serving long sentences.
“Most of the prisoners we visit are very poor,” Vilaiwan explains. “They don’t really have anybody.”
Driven by dreams of striking it rich (relatively speaking), most ended up in prison after they had decided to sell methamphetamine pills or act as mules for traffickers. At times they did the latter unknowingly without being aware of the contents of packages they were asked to take from one place to another for a fee.
Thai law prescribes harsh penalties for drug-related offenses, including the death sentence. Even small amounts of drugs can land dealers in prison for decades.
“They were naive, thinking they could make some money,” Vilaiwan explains. “They thought it would be easy money. They were not familiar with the law.”
Her charity provides food and necessities like toiletries to inmates. It also organizes counseling sessions and discussions during visiting hours.
“The Christian message of love, forgiveness and redemption resonates with them. They find it comforting,” Vilaiwan says. “But we don’t proselytize.”
Unlike some other Christian groups whose stated mission is to convert long-suffering prisoners to Christianity, the Jesuit ministry shuns overt evangelizing.
“If some prisoners want to become Christians, we help them, but that’s not our objective,” Vilaiwan says. “We are happy for them to stay Buddhists and animists. We respect their beliefs.”
Arsun himself can testify to such broad-mindedness. He entered Emmaus Centre as a practicing Buddhist and six months later he left it as a practicing Buddhist.
But he did leave with at least one important change in his life: now he knows how to grow black pepper.