By David Perry
Noy Thrupkaew arrived in Lowell with more questions than answers.
It is what she does. As a journalist, she asks questions and bores away at the truth. What she finds, she shares. Her reports are spread worldwide across the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, The American Prospect and other publications, challenging the notion of justice.
Mostly, she has written of human trafficking and labor exploitation. Modern slavery, less obvious without the chains, is just as insidious in its implications for a society, she says.
Thrupkaew is the university’s 2017 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies, the latest among a group of distinguished advocates for peace and social justice to spend time on campus and in the community. She arrived from her home in Los Angeles on April 1, just in time for winter’s last sputter. She will be on campus throughout the month.
Thrupkaew says she was “flabbergasted” when she learned she was selected as this year’s peace scholar, following the likes of John Prendergast, Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.
“I was so surprised that I was asked,” Thrupkaew recalls. “I’ve seen the stature of the people who were here before. I write about people like them.”
As this year’s Greeley Scholar, she is sharing the stories of her subjects, bringing to life the narratives of those who survive trafficking exploitation. Human trafficking isn’t just sex work, she says — that’s only 22 percent of the reported cases. Most trafficking happens to people stuck in low-wage service industry jobs, such as working in hotels, laboring on farms or taking care of other people’s children.
Thrupkaew is fascinated with Lowell, its industrial history and its legacy as a haven for immigrants.
“I’m excited to learn more about the city. There are a lot of stories I’m working on, and one of them involves Lowell.”
The story she refers to is about approximately 200 women who lived in Cambodian refugee camps who have developed psychosomatic vision problems. Some of them now live in the Lowell area.
“They can’t see, but there is nothing physically wrong with their eyes,” she says. “It’s fascinating.”
She plans to speak with a Lowell-based psychiatrist, Devon Hinton, who has reported the cases.
Born in Illinois (“thus the name Noy,” she points out), Thrupkaew is a 1992 graduate of Phillips Academy. Following her magna cum laude graduation from Brown University in 1996 (in comparative literature and religious studies), Thrupkaew moved to Somerville, where she worked at Sojourner: the Women’s Forum, a feminist newspaper.
“There were some formative years in New England,” she said. “So being back in the area is nostalgic and new at the same time.”
Thrupkaew has always been interested in social justice, writing extensively about it during her time as a fellow at The American Prospect, as a Pew International Journalism Fellow and as a Fulbright Fellow. She began investigating human trafficking when she learned a childhood nanny was a trafficking survivor. She describes the experience in a TED Talk.
In all of her reporting, she strives to show the humanity of her subjects — to give voice to their stories.
“The notion that if you’re not in chains, you’re free is misleading,” she says. “Just because it isn’t chattel slavery now doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. We need to talk about the problem and talk about the people involved. I talk about people really at the forefront of the movement. Survivors shouldn’t be trotted out just to show their wounds. They are people, not just bodies.”