This year Terry, a senior at KIS, had an idea about how to work with refugees living in Seoul. Over summer break he interned at pNan, an NGO serving refugees from many different countries, and while Terry was only with the organization for three weeks, he learned about the challenges refugees face in South Korea. He also connected with a few refugees who also love to rock climb. Once school started again, Terry asked John Miller, rock climbing club sponsor, to help him organize a trip for refugees. The day trip would accomplish a couple of things. First, rock climbing in Gwanaksan gave refugees staying at pNan a chance to see a different part of Seoul, in the middle of nature, empowered by their own strength as they climbed. Second, Terry wants to show his fellow South Koreans who refugees are: people like any of us.
I believe that the best way to connect to a country is by being physically connected to its nature.
The political issues and personal assumptions about refugees challenge us to really take opportunities to make connections with people who are from somewhere else, who may have arrived here because it is not safe or feasible to stay in their home country. Terry grew up understanding that people must leave their own country for a variety reasons. His grandfather was exiled to Canada in the 1980s, as a political dissident, taking his family along, including Terry’s mom who was then in elementary school. Now Terry wants South Koreans to practice empathy toward the refugees here. “Now refugees are not considered as guests, but as burdens on our society,” Terry says, “If we can make them feel welcome, that’s a good thing.”
From Terry’s blog post about the day:
“Thank you so much for organizing this trip and giving us the opportunity to climb the wall. We have so much stress and all we see everyday in Korea is roads and buildings. I did not know that there was such a fun and beautiful place in Korea.”
This is what Edwin, one of the refugees, said to me on the way down from the hike. Yesterday, I went on a rock climbing trip with the refugees and students from my rock climbing club at school. We went on a hike to a natural rock in Gwanaksan and climbed there with the refugees for almost four hours. At first, the refugees were a little worried about their safety and one of them jokingly said to me, “Don’t let me die, please” before I belayed him for a climb. However, after a few tries the refugees started loving the climb and enjoyed the struggle of going up the rock. I personally enjoyed climbing too because it was my first time ever to go outdoor rock climbing after only rock climbing artificial rocks for two years.
I feel like it was a great opportunity not only for the refugees, but for the students of KIS as well. In times when xenophobia towards refugees is growing stronger than ever in Korea, to be physically connected to the refugees through a single rope and a carabiner, one dangling above and one supported from under, creates this invisible bond that told us that the refugees are not some people do get rid of, but our friends who can help us and happily live with us in Korea.
And for John Miller’s perspective on the day:
There is a climbing book that starts with the sentence “The mountain had been there a long time.” If I were to parody a story starter for the tale of Terry Lee, rock climbing club president, it could begin with: Terry had been there a long time.
In a way, Terry is like that mountain, a presence in the climbing community. A naturally talented athlete, he is predisposed to the reachy, powerful contrivances of climbing, the mental puzzles and contortions. After he quickly mastered the challenges of our KIS climbing wall, it was natural for Terry to want to stretch his imagination and skills and take his climbing to the next level, this time including his climbing club friends and refugees he met through pNan.
I put Terry in touch with Eddie Park, a rock climbing guide. Terry scouted the rock climbing site, preparing to lead the excursion for his peers. Eddie and I also scouted the climbing location beforehand to assess risk, ensure safety and guarantee an appropriate experience for beginner climbers.
Terry and I trained the younger members of climbing club to belay and give instruction to others. Because I know that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it yourself, I was confident that this experience would be a true service and learning opportunity for our students. As the day neared, our excitement grew.
The alarm blares. Early. Much earlier than your average high school student is used to waking up on a Saturday. I hope they show up, I thought to myself. I drove out to our appointed meeting spot and there they all were, five KIS high school students, all ready to go. I sent them up the hill to the rocks to get started with Eddie, and waited for the refugees to arrive on the subway a bit later. When they arrived, we shared introductions and walked up the hill.
“You got this! C’mon, push it!” Encouragement wafted past the falling leaves as a light breeze shifted around the slanting daylight of the canyon. Our KIS students happily led and belayed new climbers, checking harnesses, providing safety and encouragement in the manner in which they had been trained. I was impressed to see the maturity and skill with which they handled their newfound leadership roles. They puzzled over the moves and worked out the sequences of complicated climbing puzzles.
At the end of the day, everyone had a hard time saying goodbye to one another, and I got the sense that the memory was likely to linger for some time to come. The students and refugees experienced the camaraderie of the rock and the feeling first expressed by Everest pioneer George Leigh Mallory, that “What we get from climbing is just sheer joy.”