As Bangkok slums grow; Thai woman forsakes US to help poor

When Prateep Unsongtham heard what was happening to her slum people in Bangkok's dockland, she put aside her studies at Wichita State University and took a flight back to Thailand.

She will not return to Kansas and her child psychology class, she says, until she is certain that people to whom she has devoted her life can find places to live after being evicted from slum homes.

Prateep's quick reaction to the crisis was characteristic. Because of such unselfish gestures she is known as ''the angel of the slums.''

What has brought her home are threats to her work for Bangkok's poor. Her school, kindergarten, and other facilities for slum people are threatened by government plans to move this slum quarter away to make room for port development.

Prateep says she will stay until schools and slum people are securely established in another place.

Education and care for the young form the keystone of her work, which has won her two international awards - in 1978 a Magsaysay award for community services and last year a Rockefeller Youth Award for ''outstanding contributions to the welfare of mankind.''

''Education gives everybody confidence and the awareness they need to cope with life,'' she says.

She hopes the slums will be an issue in the elections but doubts it. Politicians are too busy protecting their own positions, she says.

The problem is big enough with 1.2 million of Bangkok's 5 million living in slums. Most of Prateep's people live in squatter's shacks often over stagnant water only a few yards from ships tied up at the docks.

Bangkok's slum population goes up by 200,000 a year. Rehousing, generally in government blocks of flats, cannot keep pace. Schools and medical services inevitably are inadequate.

Prateep was born in these same slums, the fifth of seven children. There was no money for her schooling, but undaunted, Prateep took any job to pay for classes. At 10 years of age, for instance, she was scraping rust off ships.

She was a good student, however, and by 15 had become so sorry for children who could not read or write that she began impromptu classes in the family's living room.

Those who could paid a few cents each day. Those who couldn't were still allowed to attend.

Today that class has grown to a school for 1,100 pupils with another 300 in kindergarten.

Nearly 400 of the children have sponsors in Thailand and around the world paying 50 to 90 dollars a year, according to the children's ages, for their education. Other pupils go free except for three cents a day for a hot lunch.

Her latest venture is a nursery for babies, up to three years old, of working mothers. If they can manage it, they pay 45 cents a day.

Babies at first are often malnourished but after three meals a day and attention from trained staff they are soon bouncing with health.

It is all done with a staff of 14 (except for teachers paid by the city government) and donations.

Money goes not only to Prateep's own school and kindergarten but also to others in the dockland slums, to sporting and cultural activities, to neighborhood improvements and to provide help with social and family problems.

No less than tens of thousands of people are leaning on Prateep, an enormous burden for one young woman.

She confesses that at times it has seemed all too much for her.

''You have to sacrifice a lot when you work for the mass,'' she explains.

''Sometimes I have asked myself if I would be selfish because of exhaustion or would I go on for the sake of the poor and the helpless young.

''When you are young it is easier to work for society without thinking too much about yourself. But when you reach the age to start your own family you have to decide whether you'll stay with the poor and helpless children or accumulate wealth for yourself and your own private family.

''I have decided to choose the first.''

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