Published on January 12, 2008
When Chomphunuch Madmoh arrived in Germany in 1979, it was supposed to be a six-month hideout from the marriage her father had arranged for her back home in Udon Thani. The one-time teacher ended up with a new surname - Hess - and staying for three decades.
She's been busy helping other Thai immigrants.
Toting around a pair of hefty leather cases crammed with cases in progress, Chompunuch wades through the German bureaucracy - speaking fluent German - getting Thais through court appearances and securing them social assistance. And she usually does it for free.
"I've never asked for money," she says, "but if they offer I take it, because I can use the money to help others."
Usually, it's her money that's being spent. She's not rich; her friends think she's crazy. Chompunuch isn't deterred.
"I think of it as doing good deeds," she says. "I know what it's like being poor. Imagine coming to a new country where you don't speak the language, but you desperately need help. Wouldn't you feel good if someone could help, even in some small way?
"And when you help these people, you're also helping their families back home, who are waiting for the money they'll send from their new jobs."
Chomphunuch became a community angel after having to go through a divorce with no one to support her. Her husband of seven years was a violent drunk, she says, so she left with their two children.
"I sold all my belongings and worked three jobs a day to raise my kids. When you don't have money, no one helps you. In fact, they don't even look at you."
She was granted both the divorce and custody of the kids, and soon after found herself in a position to help a friend in a similar situation. She served as her court translator, as is required by law for those who speak no German. Hiring a professional can cost 60 euros an hour - Bt3,000. Chomphunuch was quite willing to do it for free.
Her friend won the case and recommended her to others, and word of mouth took over from there.
For nearly 10 years she did the work without being paid, and then a judge suggested she apply for a job as a translator at a local firm. "I pointed out that Thais wouldn't be able to afford me, but he told me the German authorities had funds to assist those in need. They would pay my company. So I started earning money, which allowed me to help even more people."
Chomphunuch has worked with three translation companies and is often called upon by police when Thais are the suspects or victims in a criminal case.
She's also a volunteer at Caritas, a Catholic welfare association that, among other things, assists HIV-infected people. Every Wednesday she's at the hospital bringing comfort to 30 patients, eight of whom are Thai.
And she's a member of Thara, a Thai women's community-service association.
It's a lot of work, and it's not always appreciated. "Some people think this is my job so they blame me when things don't work out."
Meanwhile there are the slurs and lies that are spread around about Chomphunuch because, working for free, she's depriving other professionals of their income.
"I try to remember what the Buddha taught about ubekkha," she says, referring to the need to maintain neutral feelings. "I do nothing wrong. I'm genuine about helping people. So I won't let false accusations stop me from doing good things."
Firmly on her side is the Thai diplomatic corps in Berlin and Frankfurt. Chomphunuch is the only person carrying official embassy documentation confirming her as a volunteer who helps Thai women. It assures her recognition by judges and civic authorities.
The language barrier is the single biggest problem facing Thais in Germany, she says. When a problem occurs, they're lost.
"When the women get married they don't know what papers they signed. If their husbands leave them they don't know where to go for help or what rights they're entitled to.
"A lot of women let their partners physically abuse them for fear that they'll have to leave the country if the police get involved, when in fact, if you're the legal spouse, you can ask the police to throw the guy in jail for the night."
Now 51, Chomphunuch says she's lost count of how many people she's helped, but it's a number she expects to keep growing for a long time yet.
"I'm lucky to have the knowledge and skills to help, and there are so many people who need help. How could I stop? Besides, it's really great seeing the people I've helped become successful."
Special to The Nation