News and Events
Live From Thailand: Jay Milbrandt's Blog Draws Attention to International Human Rights Program
On September 25, Jay Milbrandt (JD '08) boarded a plane back to Thailand, the country in which he completed a human rights internship a year ago, and hasn't stopped thinking about since. "It just flipped my life upside down," he says.
Milbrandt's first trip to Thailand was sponsored by the International Human Rights program (IHRP) at the Pepperdine School of Law, a faith-based initiative created three years ago as part of the Herbert and Elinor Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion & Ethics. Since its inception, the program has placed over 50 students in overseas internships, ranging from humanitarian work with the baroness in Armenia, to judicial clerking in Uganda’s high court.
"For many, if not all of these students, their overseas experiences are truly life-changing," says Melanie Howard, director of the International Human Rights program and associate director of the Nootbaar Institute. "Students return to Pepperdine immensely grateful for having had the opportunity to serve others using their legal training and inspired to incorporate this service element into their careers.”
Milbrandt is a perfect example.
He first learned of international human rights when he attended a conference of the International Justice Mission as a first-year student in the dual JD-MBA program. "It was one of those weird experiences where you know that what you’re hearing is going to change your life when you're hearing it," he says.
The IHRP funded Milbrandt’s trip to Thailand and found an internship for him with Garden of Hope, an organization that provides outreach and resources to women and children in, at risk of, or exiting prostitution and trafficking in Thailand. He expected to do business and legal development, not outreach in the red light district. "My friend said, 'Well, maybe God has bigger plans for you here,' which was a little bit of foreshadowing," he says.
On his first night, Milbrandt was tasked with reaching out to street children who sell flowers at night in the red-light district. These "stateless" children are typically the breadwinners for their parents who migrate illegally to Thailand from hill tribes or Myanmar, and cannot find legitimate work. "These kids are working all night, they aren't going to school, and they don't get to play like they should," he says. "They do this until they're too old to be this cute little girl selling flowers and they get solicited for unspeakable acts."
The children Milbrandt met would steal a piece of his heart forever. "I just kept visiting them every week at their homes, trying to learn more about the situation and determine how it could be solved." He was struck by their sweet and playful nature in the face of such adversity, and felt heartbroken by their horrible fate. "It was very hard to leave," he recalls.
Upon his return to Pepperdine, Milbrandt kept in touch with the children and started work on what he saw as a solution: a nonprofit organization designed to provide no-cost legal aid for stateless children to help them obtain IDs and birth certificates. Without these documents, the children can't go to school, get healthcare, or find a legitimate job; they're at risk of getting deported at any time.
Milbrandt named the organization "Rokami"—Rok is the Thai word for love and Ami is the first girl for whom the organization obtained documentation and funded school tuition. "We started with this one girl because we could only handle one at a time, but now we have more parents saying, 'We'd like to get our children birth certificates,' so we're going to start taking them case by case and keep it going," he says.
After graduating from the School of Law in May 2008, Milbrandt signed on as coordinator for the International Human Rights Program to help other law students at Pepperdine have a life-changing experience like he had.
His return trip to Thailand, which took place September 26 to October 5, was an opportunity for him to cultivate additional internships and interest in the program. He documented his travels in a daily blog called "Live from Thailand" at http://www.wavesofjustice.com. Of course, he also reunited with his "under-4-foot" fan club.
During the 10-day trip Milbrandt visited Ami and met her teachers. He also met with different organizations as a representative of Pepperdine to discover new areas of human rights work and internship opportunities.
Milbrandt's hope for the blog "Live from Thailand" was to open up other students' eyes to the opportunities that exist. "The law degree is so powerful, to be able to go and make these systemic changes," he says. "These are the kinds of experiences that drastically alter the course of people’s lives."
Jay Milbrandt invites comments and questions on his blog, or you can e-mail him directly.
by Audra Quinn