Written by Anastasia Traynin
Photograph courtesy of Shahed Kayes, Class Leader
During the first semester of 2017, this writer had the opportunity to take an elective class with American writer, scholar, and longtime social movement activist Professor George Katsiaficas. In the course, I studied Katsiaficas’s two-volume book Asia’s Unknown Uprisings at Chonnam National University’s May 18 Institute. My four classmates came from various countries that possess histories of democratic uprisings, such as Gwangju’s May 18 (1980), yet rarely receive the attention they deserve. Here I’ll introduce the individual stories of my classmates coming to our city as the August 2016 inaugural class of the university’s two-year Global NGO Master’s Program (GNMP), supported by the May 18 Memorial Foundation. The four students were chosen from across Asia and Africa for their basic human rights knowledge and on-the-ground activist experience in their respective countries.
Shahed Kayes, Bangladesh
Published poet, prose writer, and human rights / environmental activist Shahed Kayes can often be seen at various human rights-related gatherings around Gwangju.
Back in Bangladesh in 2003, he founded the Subornogram Foundation, an organization working to educate children in marginalized communities, as well as promoting human rights, and environmental and public health awareness.
Out of the four students, Kayes has lived in Gwangju the longest, starting as an international intern at the May 18 Memorial Foundation in August 2015. Over the course of five months, Kayes’ book The Laureates of Gwangju Prize for Human Rights Award: Who Really They Are? was published and his internship extended to twelve months, after which he was offered a job at the Foundation. For one month, he worked in the Archives of the Research Center before receiving the GNMP scholarship and moving on to be a full-time master’s student. Most recently, he completed a summer internship at the Gwangju International Center (GIC), where he currently continues as a multicultural researcher.
“As a human rights defender [in Bangladesh], I had experiences in my field,” Kayes said. “However, sociology, human rights in Asia, forced migration – different types of ideology, neoliberalism. I didn’t have the theoretical knowledge. It was a great opportunity for me to get information about how the world is running. This understanding will help me to improve my work in the field of human rights and democracy. Even though I was a creative writer, I got to know how to do academic, scientific, and thesis writing. It will help me in the future.”
Beyond theoretical learning, the human element has also been important for Kayes.
“When studying together with friends from other countries, I came to know them very closely. For more than two years, it has been a great opportunity to learn about Korean culture, history, and especially the democratic movement of May 1980. In the last candlelight vigil, I was involved. It gives better insight into my country, into my work.”
While living abroad as part of the Bangladeshi diaspora, Kayes keeps up with and spreads awareness of the unfolding situation in his home country, which has seen an escalation in human rights violations in recent years and has led him to travel and work abroad in several countries, before settling for his current stint in Korea.
“There are several warrants against me. If the situation changes, of course, I will go back. While I’m abroad, I work for the Subornogram Foundation: I keep writing on social media, through Skype. I’m trying to do my best.” (Keep up with the Subornogram Foundation through their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/subornogram.foundation/)
Tao Don Tajaroensuk, Thailand
Human rights activist and musician Tao Don Tajaroensuk has become a regular fixture in Gwangju, with weekly performances at venues such as the Dreamers Space at the Saturday Daein Art Market, Speakeasy’s Gwangju Live, and open mic events at Tequilaz downtown and Corona’s at Chonnam University’s back gate.
Many could imagine that Tajaroensuk has lived in the city for several years, yet he, known simply as “Don” by his friends and classmates, only arrived in Gwangju in August 2016 for the start of the first semester of the GNMP. After meeting May 18 Memorial Foundation Executive Director Kim Yang-rae while working in Thailand and receiving an email about the new program, the budding activist decided to apply, as his home country has no academic NGO programs.
“First, I wanted to improve myself. Second, while I was working in a human rights organization, there were many tasks to do and understand such as management, finance, and networking, for instance. Activists in our century should be better and have more knowledge than previous activist generations. Third, I had been in the USA for one year, and I also wanted to experience another country, such as Korea, related to international globalization.”
Echoing his classmate Shahed Kayes’ thoughts, Don also recognizes the importance of direct experience as a supplement to theory and book learning, an approach that has led him to the world of music and beyond.
“I realize and strongly believe that music is the one of the tools to connect with people. After starting to play music with local people in Gwangju, I have seen many opportunities to get involved with Gwangju and the South Korean community. I have many friends to help and support me to get free Korean classes, and I have close relationships with local Korean people, even though I cannot speak Korean so well.”
Meeting local people has invariably led to discussions about political and economic issues, and the opportunity to meet his fellow Thai countrymen as legal and illegal migrant workers in Korea. Interactions with other foreigners from Southeast Asia and the USA has also broadened Tajaroensuk’s scope of understanding.
“I can link all of the problems in terms of international conflict. Anyways, I really enjoy my life here in Gwangju. I wish to say this is my second hometown. Gwangju is a wonderful city where wonderful people are living. Love you all!”
After finishing the GNMP, Tajaroensuk plans to return to Thailand and work in the human rights field for five years before entering the political sphere, as he believes creating new policies is the best way to improve his country, beyond mere talking and advocating within activism.
“I want to motivate young people to realize and stand up to do something for their country. In Thailand, we have many commentators, but we don’t have many people who sacrifice themselves for society. I have seen many NGOs working to help people by providing stuff, and sometimes NGOs just work on advocacy, but after that, they do nothing, and I don’t agree with that. I strongly believe that changing a country’s policies is the best way to help people widely. I have focused to help the poor people in my country, at least to support them with basic needs such as healthcare, education, housing, and food. I don’t know what might happen in the future, but this is my aim, and I know I can do my best on that.”
Tajaroensuk was recently a summer intern at the Universal Cultural Center, working especially with Thai migrant workers.
Dinesh KC, Nepal
Dinesh KC comes from a country with over a decade of political unrest and instability. He has worked on the ground in the human rights sector since 2005 and came to Gwangju in August 2016 for the start of the GNMP.
“I want to say that I am lucky because our batch is the first batch,” Dinesh said. “The GNMP has originally been made to promote human rights throughout the world, with the youth especially. As a human rights activist from an undeveloped, very poor country, it’s very tough for me.”
As a youth activist, Dinesh has faced many challenges and struggles, yet plans to continue working in the field.
“It’s my prime responsibility to support my society. At the same time, I have seen many youth, they are demotivated because of the political environment, the lack of [employment] and lots of [negative] rituals that are going on, like untouchability, caste, culture, religion, still going on. People are polarized in society.”
As Dinesh’s classmate, Don, has interacted with Thai migrant workers in Korea, so Dinesh has been learning of the difficulties of Nepalese workers, most recently through his summer internship at the Gwangju Nepali Center. Outside of his studies in the GNMP, he considers supporting the workers as one of his main objectives while staying in Korea.
“As you know, Nepal’s economy is totally dependent on remittance, and migrant workers are the key players to sustain their own country’s economy. What they are getting as salary, they are sending back to their country to feed their family and friends. At the same time, they are directly or indirectly supporting their country’s development as well. My major concern is to find the reality of migrants working here. I have found many migrant workers here are facing a lot of problems. I don’t know much in Korea, but I have heard in other countries, they are living on minimum wage, no health insurance. I’m still working. I need to take more time to figure it out.”
Stéphie Mélina Kabre, Burkina Faso
Many people outside of the region do not seem to know Burkina Faso as the name of a prominent West African nation, with its own strong history of democratic uprising. Stephie Melina Kabre was completing an internship at the United Nations branch in her home country and was looking for a human rights program to expand her knowledge. She was encouraged to join the GNMP through one of her university professors, who was in touch with Gwangju University: Professor Thona from the Republic of the Congo and known as the first recognized refugee in Korea. So in August 2016, she joined the other three GNMP students in Gwangju.
“In Africa, I’ve traveled to many countries, but outside of Africa, it’s the first time,” Kabre said. “In Africa, we have this welcoming culture. You can go to people and get in people’s houses, but Koreans are really closed, keeping their privacy. They don’t share intimate things. I was really a bit shocked. I’ve met negative people, but I’ve also met positive people, like people coming to you on the street and asking you questions about Africa, trying to know you, just randomly. I really feel that Gwangju people, some of them, have this welcoming culture, they feel this kind of solidarity. That’s what I love in Gwangju.”
While she has experienced racism from older people on the bus and some fellow students at the university, Kabre has learned over time to ignore everyday incidents and live her life as normal. At the same time, she is volunteering with a language exchange at the Gwangju Youth International Center in an effort to bring awareness to Korean students, as well as working on an upcoming partnership with the Universal Culture Center (UCC).
“It’s less about language and more about culture, so that the Korean youth will be used to African people. Also, we have the UNESCO UCC Program starting in September with Mukul Basu. It’s UCC, but he’s doing the program under the UNESCO banner, going to high schools and middle schools to share about our cultures.”
Going back to Burkina Faso after finishing the program, Kabre originally had plans to open a women’s shelter, but decided that a lack of finances meant that she could have more impact as an educator of young people on issues related to women and domestic violence.
“The education rate in my country is too low, so I really want to give [students] some motivation to study, to keep learning – maybe by showing them my pictures in South Korea, to show them ‘you see, through school you can visit the world and do everything.’ I’m trying to collect a few things from here that I can use, like microphones – some donations. I don’t want money; I just want the materials. I just want to ask for physical things.”
Kabre’s interest in women’s issues has led to her summer internship at the Regional Future Institute focusing on women’s development.
The second batch of GNMP students recently arrived in Gwangju, with three students from Malaysia and Indonesia. Stay tuned for their profiles in a later issue of the Gwangju News. Check this page for more information on the GNMP course: http://cnu518.jnu.ac.kr/bbs/content.php?co_id=en_gnmp
Anastasia Traynin (Ana) is the co-managing editor of Gwangju News. She has been a contributor to the magazine since fall 2013 and has been living in Gwangju since spring of that year. After teaching for three years at Hanbitt High School, she became a GIC coordinator in May 2016. She has passions for Korean social movements, alternative education, live music, languages, and writing.