Actress and model Praya "Pu" Lundberg become UNHCR's first Southeast Asian Goodwill Ambassador
THE MESSAGES posted on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ website are stark and disturbing. The world, it notes, is now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record with an unprecedented 65.3 million people forced from their home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Thailand is not exempt from the problem and the camps along its Western border have sheltered those fleeing Myanmar for more than 30 years, making this one of the world’s most protracted refugee crises.
So it is fitting that the UNHCR is today announcing the appointment of Thai-Swedish actress and model Praya “Pu” Lundberg, 27, as its Goodwill Ambassador, the first in the country and in fact in Southeast Asia as a whole.
Praya will be joining the ranks of UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and Goodwill Ambassadors Cate Blanchett, Ger Duany, Jung Woo-Sung and Yao Chen in raising awareness and funds and advocating for the rights of refugees worldwide.
“It’s a huge honour to be appointed as Goodwill Ambassador. It gives me more access and the ability to become more involved in something I care deeply about, greater opportunities to learn more and also the drive to push harder in advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. Of course, with the honour comes huge responsibility. It’s the beginning of many more important things to come,” Praya says.
Praya’s journey with UNHCR started three years ago when she saw disturbing photographs of refugees in the international media.
“It was like a wake-up call for me. I e-mailed UNHCR expressing my concern and offering my support. Back then I was no different from the average person. To me, the refugee issue was far from home. It was not something I could understand. The photographs changed all that – the photos of the Syrian conflict, of the Rohingya, of children, women, of the elderly. These are human beings, they are daughters, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and, through no fault of their own, they no longer have a home.
“A lot of people don’t understand why refugees have to flee from their countries and that’s fair enough. Three years ago, I didn’t understand as I do now. The more I understand, the more I see the refugees as strong, capable, intelligent and resilient people just like us. Most of them have goals, ambitions and families, just like us. No one wants to leave home. I would never want to leave my home, my family, and go to the unknown.”
During her three years with UNHCR, Praya has visited four refugee camps in Thailand and promoted UNHCR’s “Namjai for Refugees” campaign to assist refugees in the country. Last year she joined more than 60 leading celebrities around the world in the #WithRefugees campaign that delivered more than 1.2 million signatures in support of refugees to the UN General Assembly’s special session on refugees and migrants.
“I had never met a refugee until I made contact with UNHCR and asked if I could help. I worked with a lot of charities but I had never actually met a refugee. But when I did, I immediately realised they were no different from me but stronger in many ways. If I had gone through the same experience, I don’t think I could look at the world with such a soft perspective. Every refugee I have met has been kind, humble and grateful to be in a safe environment. At the end of the day, everyone wants to go home and be with their families. That’s the fact of the matter and that’s what I need people to understand,” Praya says.
“Xenophobia and misunderstanding are just two of the problems these refugees face. The problems are endless but solutions can be found to some of them if we work together. And therein lies another problem. How do we work together, not just as one person or one country but globally to better the lives of those who have been through traumatic events?”
Recalling her visit to refugee camps in Thailand, the actress smiles.
“The beautiful thing about dealing with human nature is people tend to surprise you. They tend to touch you. One of my most memorable moments was meeting Thanda (not her real name). She’s 13 and takes care of her sick grandmother who is paralysed. This youngster cooks, cleans, carries her grandmother to the bathroom, washes her grandmother and goes to school. She does everything.
“I also started working at the age of 13 and thought of it as a real burden. So when I met Thanda…,” Praya pauses, unable to hold back her tears.
“She has so much grace and strength. I would be so proud if she were my daughter. Thanda takes care of her grandmother with so much love and kindness, with no complaint. Never does she say she’s unlucky or unhappy. And she’s only 13. This should what all young girls should inspire to be. She is in a situation that she didn’t choose. There is no other solution for her and all she can hope is that our donors, UNHCR, the Royal Thai Government and the Thai public help her.
“There are so many cases like Thanda, which is why I am pleading for help on their behalf. These young people deserve a chance to have a good life. They are so grateful for the little that they already have. Meeting them and hearing their stories changed my perspective on life.
“Sometimes in giving back, we learn a lot about ourselves. We realise that in spite of the language barrier, religion, skin colour, gender and identity, essentially we are all exactly the same. We all want the same things,” Praya says.
“Right now the situation is staring us in the face. Global conflicts are still going on. There are more than 65 million people displaced globally – people who are very vulnerable at the moment and half of them are children. There is no way we can turn our backs on these people. You should never turn your back on one single person.
“I spoke to someone from UNHCR and he said that refugees would like to go home, to return to the familiar smells, sounds, food and people. They miss them. The saddest thing is a lot of people don’t get to go home. They don’t get to be with their families, they don’t get to get back to their schools.”
“I have so much respect and love for these people that I could spend my entire life advocating for them because they need to be heard. They have a lot to share with the world, more than just the fact that they need help.”