To most Koreans the title ‘secretary general’ remains stereotypical. Every time I pass out my name card I face a body screening from head to toe, as the person looks at me with awe. After staring at my calmly combed hair, a face with natural brown make-up, and my colorful one-piece, he or she looks back at my name card for an answer, takes a moment to think, and then opens his or her mouth. All this happens in a few seconds but I, accustomed to such encounters, can now easily read what people think, and understand their confusion in peace. After a moment of a confused look, they would throw jokes my way: “So do you go out to demonstrations in that dress?” “You’re scarier than you look.”
Such encounters have not changed much from five years ago when I first started working at Human Asia. During the five years I’ve been asked the following: “Why do you fight for the rights of migrant workers when they take away chances and opportunities of Korean workers?” “What would a page of signatures do for the peace of Myanmar when it would take at least fifty years for any kind of peace?” “Are there actually refugees in Korea?”
However, over the years I was an honorable witness of positive change. More and more people became accepting of Human Asia and its work. The younger generation, especially, has looked at the organization with more respect and optimism. Recently the eyes toward migrant workers changed after they were interviewed on a TV program and working for their rights suddenly became something to be proud of. Words cannot describe how personally thankful I was to the comedian who had hosted the show. Also, as the education system in Korea changed, schools included volunteer work as a part of its curriculum, and more students and parents have been knocking on our door to seek volunteer opportunities domestically and internationally. I witnessed all of this change in mere awe.
For me, “human rights” was a specialized area which I longed to speak out about but could not due to the social atmosphere and my own insecurity of how people would view me. This period was too long for me and it seemed ironic how people could be ignorant and indifferent of something that is so vital and basic to our lives.
Every year the National Human Rights Commission gives an organization the National Human Rights Award to celebrate International Human Rights Day (December 10th), and this year Human Asia had the honor of receiving the award. I remember brining my coffee pot, cups and plates from home five years ago when the office was first established, young students putting up international conference posters on a freezing cold day, water dripping from the office ceiling whenever it rained, not being able to ride a taxi on a hot summer day just to save a little bit more money, interns and program directors pulling all nighters at the office doing translation work etc. All of these memories from the past flashed back as I attended the ceremony.
Over 1,500 members have joined Human Asia through numerous human rights education programs and advocacy campaigns. Students who had participated in are now public interest lawyers. Many say they had been inspired by the work of Human Asia, and many of my friends who used to belittle my name card now pay their respect and envy that I’m able to do something so worthwhile.
Indeed, I am happy and grateful. We all dream as a child but only so few of us are truly able to accomplish that dream. The things I used to dream of since watching Martin Luther King’s speech at the Amnesty Office as a college student are now one by one being accomplished at Human Asia. This award by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, therefore, has more significance to me on a personal level. I send sincere and genuine thanks to our staff, board members, sponsors, volunteers, and students for helping make my dreams come true as a human rights advocate.