Meet Mickey Choothesa, COSA’s Founder and President. As a Documentary Photographer, Mickey spent 26 years recording major conflicts the world over. But nothing touched him like the atrocities he witnessed against innocent children in Northern Thailand. In 2005, Mickey and his wife Anna founded COSA and he dedicated his life to the battle against human trafficking.
From Bangkok to Connecticut.
Mickey Choothesa was born in Bangkok, Thailand in 1950-something (hard to believe, we know!). At 14, along with his family, he moved to the USA. Mickey’s father strongly believed in the education and opportunities that the States could provide his children.
Encouraged to pursue his passions, Mickey had a successful business in industrial photography. In the early 80’s a misguided assumption of Mickey’s ability to speak Spanish saw him sent to Panama on a photography assignment for the US military. This chance posting was one that changed the course of his life forever.
Mickey went on to become a photographic journalist covering all the major conflicts and human rights abuses the world over. He travelled across more than 70 countries during the height of their troubles, including Iraq, Bosnia, Rawanda, Somalia and many more.
He saw horror, he saw death, and he saw humanity at its lowest ebb. He saw people who had lost their hope; he saw the cruelty of the people who had taken it away. He himself was seriously wounded, bringing the plight of these people to the world stage.
Life comes full circle.
In 1998 Mickey was sent on assignment to his homeland – a place he hadn’t returned to since leaving for the USA at 14. His brief was to uncover the realities of the heroin and child soldier trades that were exploding along the borders of Thailand and Myanmar (Burma).
What he wasn’t prepared for was seeing first-hand the smuggling and human trafficking of little girls. He saw yet more examples of cruelty and exploitation but this time it was different. This time he couldn’t just photograph it and leave.
Going beyond the lens.
During this assignment Mickey sought to understand not just who was doing it and how, but why? Why were these hill tribe communities losing their little girls to traffickers? He spent time with the local heads of villages, he trekked the routes through the mountains the traffickers used, he connected with the communities and he learned. He learned about the cultural and social challenges these marginalized communities faced. The reasons resulting in this horrific trade of human beings.
This was his homeland, these were his people, and they needed help.
By this point Mickey was an established human rights photographer, exhibiting extensively in the US and Europe. He was also in a time of reflection and transition personally, so he committed to financially supporting causes focused on social justice in Thailand.
Giving more than money.
After 9/11 Mickey was sent on assignments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was back to observing and documenting the wrong-doings of the world but his home and those little girls plagued him. He had to do more than give money: he had to get involved.
And so in 2005, Mickey and his wife Anna moved to Thailand and COSA was born. They initially focused their efforts on mental health and developing programs to equip existing NGOs with the skills to support and deal with victims of exploitation. Their work spanned across Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Mickey was also actively intercepting girls that were being trafficked across the border from Myanmar. He would literally carry them on his back, in the dead of night, across the river dividing Thailand and Myanmar. This process was not only dangerous but also exposed the lack of access to support and shelter for these rescued girls. On this basis, Anna and Mickey made the border town of Mae Sai home and set about raising funds for housing and education.
A more focused approach.
With triumphs, disappointments and on the ground experience under their belts Mickey and Anna realized that they needed to focus their efforts to effect long term change. It was clear that trafficking in the hill tribes of Northern Thailand was not a priority and that their vision of Prevention Through Education was only going to be achieved one way: by doing it themselves.
The Choothesas decided it was time to build a home for these girls, offer choices and education to these at-risk communities and begin the journey towards the prevention of human trafficking one hill tribe village at a time. After a lot of time, money and sweat (literally) Baan Yuu Suk was built. In 2009, Mickey, Anna with their two young sons, 5 little hill tribe girls and a handful of volunteers all moved in.
They’re only just getting started.
Through listening, respecting, adapting, and no small amount of determination and courage, COSA is now home to 23 girls and has helped hundreds of Hill Tribe people. Mickey continues to build relationships and trust with the people we are helping. He does it with humility, respect and honesty–values that underpin Mickey as a person.
While most people would be satisfied with this, which is no small achievement, Mickey and Anna along with the growing team of passionate supporters and volunteers will continue to dedicate their lives to helping the most vulnerable people in this region.
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