On the road againHan Bi-ya knew it was not the wisest thing to cross the Iranian border to Afghanistan, a touch-and-go civil war battlefield back in 1996. But that’s exactly what she did, armed only with a khaki vest and a scarf for avoiding wind-blown sand, not bullets. Traveling around the world by land, however, Ms. Han had to traverse the border to get to Russia, her next destination. Welcoming Ms. Han to this arid land was a pile of corpses whose arms and legs were missing.
Just when Ms. Han began to regret coming, about 20 local children surrounded her, seemingly amazed to see a woman of the Far East for the first time. Forgetting the showers of bullets and smoky eruptions from nearby cannons, Ms. Han started to play with the children, who in her eyes had the most innocent smiles on earth.
After praying that the children fulfilled their dreams of attending school, Ms. Han got back on her way. Then a girl, missing a right arm and left leg, stopped to give her bread as a token of appreciation. Moments later, while chewing on the bread and watching the joyful children, Ms. Han resolved to herself, “I’m going to be a relief worker. Especially for these children, I’m going to consume myself to the very end.”
Last Friday, Ms. Han, now 45, was roaming about the Yeouido office of World Vision, a nongovernmental organization committed to helping refugee children worldwide. Ms. Han has transformed herself from a travel guru into a professional relief worker. As Ms. Han puts it, “From the cocoon of a traveler to a butterfly of a relief worker.”
As leader of an emergency relief team, Ms. Han ― rather petite in stature yet vigorous, magnanimous and articulate ― seems to be the busiest person on earth. Her phone rings every five minutes. Documents are piled on her desk, along with a globe and a hand-drawn map of the Middle East. The morning after returning last April from relief work in Herat, Afghanistan she was flying to Mosul, in northern Iraq.
Though heading to a war-torn region, Ms. Han is joyful. Isn’t she afraid? “I’m only a human being after all, and of course I’m not free of fear,” she says. “What I hear about Iraq is only bad things, that the place is now in a state of anarchy. But everyone has the possibility of dying at any moment, let’s say from a traffic accident. Then I much prefer meeting my end doing relief work out on the field.”
Ms. Han’s big sister, Han In-ja, 53, wished her sibling had a more stable existence, though. “To be honest, I want her to stay with us, safe in Korea. A life out there on the battlefield and on some remote back regions is just so dangerous. But there is nobody who can stop Bi-ya and after all, I’m very proud of my little sister and I trust her.”
Ms. Han’s efforts in Iraq are backed by roughly 1.4 billion won ($11.1 million) in funding, from a mix of government and private sources. After gaining her sea legs in public relations with World Vision, the world’s largest privately funded Christian relief and development organization, Ms. Han was promoted to project manager. For the next 11 weeks in Mosul, Ms. Han will be responsible for setting up a potable water system.
Her backpack last Saturday morning included stuff like family photographs and diaries, which Ms. Han has taken everywhere. With Korea as her base camp, in the 1990s Ms. Han crisscrossed the continents overland. Jules Verne’s round-the-world trip took 80 hectic days, but Ms. Han took seven slow ―but steady ― years.
Though Ms. Han was always a go-getter, it took time to realize her dreams. After graduating from Soong-eui Girls’ High School, the young Ms. Han wandered about doing part-time stints as a deejay or a translator for a good five years. By 24, when her contemporaries were posing for college yearbooks, she enrolled at Hong-ik University as an English literature major. She next headed to the University of Utah, to study international communications. Back in Korea, Ms. Han grinded it out at public relations agency Burson-Marsteller, quitting three years later after saving for her lifetime project.
“Most people called me crazy, but I had to leave for the bigger world out there,” she says. Ms. Han left her footprints in 60 countries during seven years; it was her principle never to board a plane and to make friends with the locals.
She also centered her attention far from the Eiffel Towers or Statues of Liberty of the world, diving into the African bush or the bazaars of the Middle East. At the time, she could not help noticing refugees’ plight in the course of her travels.
A single woman sauntering around the world with a backpack could cause a stir, and it endowed Ms. Han with a nickname: “Daughter of wind.”
Her four-part book series based on her experience, “The Daughter of Wind, Walking Around the Earth Three and a Half Times,” sold more than 600,000 copies. Her book on her latest journey, “Han Bi-ya’s Jungguk Gyeonmunrok” (Han Bi-ya’s Travels in China), attracted even more readers.
Ms. Han’s books turned her into a mini-celebrity. One such admirer, Ha Yu-jin, says “I want to live like Ms. Han, who is determined to make her dreams come true.”
It’s not easy to make dreams come true, and Ms. Han also suffered while aiding refugees. At such times, she reminds herself not to regret her life’s course, for it was her choice.
Bedding down in a place that is ripe for explosions as well as scorpions does not an ideal life make, but Ms. Han refers to it as a little inconvenient but not an impossible situation.
“While engrossed in work, I have not a moment to be sick,” Ms. Han says. ‘Even if I am not well, I try to get some good sleep and drink a lot of water and then ― just like magic ― I’m ready to go back on the job. No wonder my friends call me an iron woman.” Looking at family photos and keeping journals gives her some extra reserves of gas. It’s only when she goes back home that she collapses.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 50 million people on earth are classified as refugees. During her months in Herat, Ms. Han saw children overcome imminent starvation by eating watery flour porridge, for which two weeks worth of these small portions cost no more than 10,000 won ($8).
She has seen children dying for the lack of a bottle of Ringer’s solution worth 800 won.
“I may be punished for saying this, but I found some sort of relief from the faces of those who were dying after long periods of sufferings,” Ms. Han says. Her voice trembles for the first time during the interview. Ms. Han believes hundreds of thousands of children’s lives could be saved through relief work. There are tens of thousands more in need.
Working with a refugee relief group also changed Ms. Han’s life, starting with her viewpoint for history. Ms. Han used to be sorrowful about Korea’s blood-stained war history, but relief work gave her perspective. “What I see from the tormented faces of refugees is actually those [faces] of my own nation in the time of the Korean War,” she says.
One of her most difficult tasks is distributing food and other aid to refugees without hurting their pride. Ms. Han’s strategy ― and one that has proven to work ― is sharing stories from the Korean War and its aftermath.
She would say, “My country, Korea, fell into pieces during a civil war in 1950. Like you today, we Koreans, five decades ago received aid from other countries, which turned out to be invaluable fertilizer for attaining our modern Korea. If you want to grow food, you first need seeds, the very thing we’re here to give you. Who knows, your country will be just as strong, if you make the most of the aid.”
Ms. Han has seen refugees raise their heads to concentrate on the words of her speech. “Refugees tend to consider Westerners’ goodwill to be condescending, for they tend to think they’ve [Westerners] never experienced a war,” Ms. Han says. “That is why sharing sad history together works.”
It’s not only history but her looks that helps, especially in Muslim regions where women are forbidden to talk to a male stranger. Ms. Han has run across many families who abandoned their daughter after she had been raped by soldiers, because a female doctor could not be found.
For at least 15 more years, Ms. Han is prepared to help refugee children . She says she’s doing this because she wants to do it. “I’m not an angel from heaven,” Ms. Han says. “I do only what I’d like to do and relief work just happened to coincide with my interest. It’s a blessing that I’m doing what I want to do and I’m so grateful and happy about it.”
by Chun Su-jin