Perceptions of Freedom

The past week has (yet again) been a blur. Having made notes of these thoughts for days, I’m attempting to finish this post (my fourth attempt!) while sitting in the back of a room observing two of my fellow trekkers give inspiring talks about the value of higher education to Mongolian students. (Side note - the seats are incredibly small. Being just shy of six feet tall has its advantages, yet a major disadvantage in this part of the world has shown itself in the airline and conference seating - I can’t sit straight! There's not enough leg room! :-))  More importantly, I continue to be personally challenged the further into this trek I get. The meetings we have had are continuing to be a juxtaposition of the rich and poor in the countries we visit. We’re getting to explore a slice of the economic growth, innovation, businesses and governments challenges / successes / future opportunities. Yet we’re also seeing non-profits that are actively addressing the failing of basic human rights for another (arguably larger) group of citizens of these countries. There’s so much to say and share of what’s happened these past seven days in Thailand and Korea (and now Mongolia), yet I’ll just focus on two stories for now.

While in Thailand, we had the opportunity to meet with individuals who are running schools and programs (such as the Tripartite Action to Promote the Rights of Migrant Workers) to help educate the migrants living in Thailand and help additionally provide assistance for them to obtain legal work visas. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrants living in Thailand, of which more than 1 million remain unregistered. The non-profit administrators gave a comprehensive overview of the work their organizations and schools provide, yet the most striking part of this discussion was hearing from three young women refugees (I estimate their ages to be somewhere between 15-18 years old at best) who are working in Thailand. As most migrants do, they work as home aids, helping take care of families and the elderly population. There is no rest for these young women - they work 14-16 hours days, six to seven days a week. On their time off, they attended and/or volunteer to work with the school, helping to educate other migrants like themselves. Similar to these three ladies, many of the young migrant women come to Thailand with their friends - they have an excitement for a adventure and a great desire to earn money to bring back to each family. The reality, however, is that this is incredibly difficult and demanding work for extremely little pay. Additionally, the young women spoke about how much they each miss their family. When asked what they are each working for, the answer was so simple yet so difficult for us trekkers to understand - to earn significantly enough money to take home and make a difference in the quality of life for each of their families. The value of "significantly enough money" towards which each are working? $250. Many don’t achieve this goal throughout their 2-3 years of migrant work in the country.

During our trip to Seoul, we took a sight-seeing trip to see one of the demarcation zones between North and South Korea. (The Demilitarization Zone, our original plan to visit, is temporary closed due to MERS.) Traveling to our lookout point, you could nearly feel the tension between the two countries, especially when learning more about the histories and current tensions from our tour guide. Additionally, seeing the barbed wire fence lined with dozens of visibly armed guards in shacks among the otherwise scenic route underscored the how present and real this conflict is. In one of our meetings, we had the opportunity to learn from the executives of both the North Korean Refugee Rescues and Teach North Korean Refugees, two organizations working towards providing assistance and improving lives for North Korean refugees. We also heard from a young defector (for privacy reasons, I’ll refer to him as HJL) from North Korea, though he despised the use of the word “defector”. His story was (like so many others on this trip) incredibly impactful.

HJL’s described his upbringing as seemingly normal when compared with other North Korean citizens. He went to school and had a family to go home to at night. While the food and living standards were modest, everyone had the same - and to HJL, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Yet during school one day, the principal had an impromptu assembly and called all students to the courtyard. The students witnessed a public execution during that assembly. Not long after this assembly, HJL found himself an orphan on the village streets of North Korea. He didn’t know where he parents went, why they left him, or if he’d ever seem them again. His new family was with other young orphaned boys, living together and finding a way to meagerly eat, sleep and live day to day. Unbeknownst to him, his father (then safely in South Korea) was hiring secret agents to find him. When HJL was around 17 years of age, the seventh secret agent was successful in finding him among the countless orphaned boys. He was safely led out of North Korea to China, staying there only a week - long enough for a fake passport (costing over $20,000 USD) to be made. (If found illegally in China, he would have been disciplined by the government and sent back to North Korea.) With his passport in hand, he was directed to a specific woman’s line in China airport. This woman was also a secret agent, and accepted the fake passport that wouldn’t have passed at any other line. HJL was finally reunited with his father. For him, this reunion was greater than anything else - family was of highest importance, and to HJL, freedom wasn’t necessarily a top priority. In fact, his perception of the newfound freedom was only understood when he went to purchase a pencil for school. He walked into a store and was, for the first time, presented with hundreds of pencil options. He didn’t know which to choose, so took nearly two hours to sample each one. When the shopkeeper came back to check on HJL, perplexed as to why he was still shopping for a pencil hours later, this particular experience helped HJL to understand what freedom meant to him. HJL concluded by specifically articulating that North Korean’s do not have any mental problems, but rather they have serious traumas to understand and overcome.

These two stories give insight into the discussions that have challenged me and caused me to question the impact we collectively can potentially make in helping out the humans in this world. Sure, I could have written a check for $250 to help the migrant women and their families, yet that would have only been a temporary solution for the systemic problem. And sure, there are ways to hire secret agents and obtain fake passports to help even more of the orphaned children (and their families) in North Korea, yet again, that’s only a temporary solution for the systemic problem.  Where is our collectively ability to help with some type of equality around this world? With all the money that large corporations and investors earn, how can we have a system of equality that helps those less fortunate? I’m not saying that those that earn money can’t enjoy their rewards. And I’m not saying that everything should be handed over to those in need without working for it. Yet for those in these types of dire and extreme situations, where is the greater impact that can be made? Like I’ve heard from so many of the NGO’s these past few weeks, the challenge is not to put a bandaid on the problem, but instead change the mindsets and abilities (through education!) to provide an equal opportunity for all. But this is also a double-edged question - what, really, does "equal opportunity" mean? Or equality? We all have our own definitions and opinions … the only agreement right now seems to be understanding the disparity between the rich and poor is increasing at an alarming rate.  

In addition, these two stories have helped me better understand and appreciate my life of freedoms. We can’t choose the family or location that brought us into this world, yet being a visitor and learning from so many people this past month here has made me incredibly grateful for the life I’ve lived, stemming from my family in Iowa. This trek has also provided the opportunity for me to begin to better understand the incredible human challenges this world is faced with. It puts into perspective the other, now seemingly insignificant, challenges that seem to (at times) consume me. I know I’ve take for granted the ability to live a life of what seems like total freedom, making my own choices of how to spend my time, energy, and money.  But in recognizing this difference, my challenges are put in a much different perspective from the learning I’ve shared with trekkers, refugees, NGO's, and migrant workers from this past week. I’d like to think this trip has given me long-lasting inspiration to help improve basic human rights in some way. In the very least, it’s something that has filled my mind continuously for the past week… yet at the moment, I don’t know where to begin.