Friday, April 24, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Nearly 3 million people died of hunger from the 1990s famine in North Korea. My father was one of them. Out of sheer desperation, many tried to escape to China to bring food for their loved ones to keep them alive. The price for wanting to live was expensive. Many were publicly executed and tortured. Women were particularly vulnerable to rape, sex trafficking and forced abortion.
But a desire to live is not a crime. In fact, the “right to life” is the most basic human right.
Escape from North Korea to China is extremely risky. Armed soldiers patrol the border round the clock, ready to fire at anyone attempting to cross the border. If by some miracle they make it to China, then the Chinese police hunt them down and repatriate them back to North Korea. This practice, called refoulement, is illegal. States that signed the 1951 Refugee Convention are obligated to protect refugees — and China should be no exception.
In February 2006, I arrived in a city called Yanji in China. I slept in the local mountains and went to villages begging for food to survive. One day, I was crossing a bridge in Yanji. It started to snow and everyone started walking fast. I vividly remember envying them, because walking fast meant they had a home to reach. I too, wanted to walk fast, but I couldn’t; I had no place to reach. It was the longest bridge I have ever crossed in my life.
Today, I am reminded that many refugees around the world have no place to call home. The United Nations estimates that there are 71.4 million refugees and displaced people, more than at any time in human history. For refugees, social distancing, self-quarantine, and hand washing are luxuries.
Last month, The New York Times published an article, “Wash Our Hands? Some People Can’t Wash Their Kids for a Week.” Reading stories about refugees in Syria and the rest of the Middle East, where handwashing may not even be possible, is heartbreaking.
Humanity has always found a way to overcome threats like COVID-19. We will eventually go back to a “new normal,” whether that be going to class to reunite with friends or going back to work and eating lunch together. For us, this will be a temporary fight. For many refugees, though, it may not end anytime soon. And in the case of North Korean refugees living in the shadows in China, their suffering may be no greater than others, but they don’t even have the opportunity to be seen or heard.
Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, wrote, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” I have no philosophical objection to that argument. But it fails to acknowledge that everyone has their own fights and limits coming from the reality of their life.
While we can’t do everything, we can each do something. That something for me is to not “Skip Ad” when there is a story about refugee camps in Europe and the Middle East when I watch a lecture or listen to an audiobook. One might ask, does it really make any difference? Maybe it doesn’t. But I would argue if you can’t spare 15 seconds of your time, the chances of doing something bigger may never happen.
Learning expert Jim Kwik said, “If an egg is broken by an outside force, life ends. If broken by an inside force, life begins.” Let this time of difficulties nurture us to grow and to be compassionate toward one another. Today, the refugee crisis seems impossible to resolve. Then again, few would have predicted that a 12-year old orphan could survive the famine. I fought hard to survive, but I couldn’t make it alone.
As a friend and colleague at the Bush Center says, “The most beautiful part of being human is humanity itself” — compassionate people. What makes us human is our desire to care for each other. Refugees around the world are fighting hard to protect a hope that tomorrow will be a better one. Hope alone, however, is not enough. Protecting refugees will require hard work. But we have the power to turn that hope into a reality. Fellow citizens, we have the opportunity to help our president write a better, more just history for our coming generations. Let us use that power today.
Joseph Kim is an assistant and Expert In Residence on the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.