How many decades could you bear to wait, before seeing your brother again?

I’ve been following this story: the rare family reunions that some Koreans have waited over six decades for! Since the Korean War over sixty years ago, the border between North Korea and South Korea  became more than just a line drawn in the earth. It became an impenetrable boundary, dividing families, casting a shadow on generations. Some 72,000 South Koreans remain on the waiting list, hoping for a reunion with a brother, sister, cousin or child living in North Korea. About half are over the age of 80.

In a society where we are bombarded with the double-edged power/curse of instant connectivity, it is both refreshing and heartbreaking to see the force of a human bond that transcends any technology invented for communication. The human bond to another, can endure 64 birthdays worth of separation with zero communication. No exchange of sight, touch, sound, or even written message.

In fact, it can endure much longer. But I can hardly bear the thought of putting that to the test!

South Korean Lee Young-sil (right), 87, cries after meeting her North Korean sister Lee Jung-sil, 84, during their family reunion at the resort in North Korea. [From the Daily Mail]
The reunions are a rare occasion.  The actual reunion between families lasts only hours! Only about a hundred relatives have been able to take part at a time. There is a lottery system  in South Korea to determine who is invited, while in the North, people say that politics are involved. The most recent round of reunions concluded just yesterday, and they do not happen often enough. In the past, reunions were cancelled or heavily threatened months prior, when North Korea would disapprove of something going in the South. People must also undergo medical check-ups before being cleared to see their relatives.

Brothers, sisters and families –  separated as young children – now come to meet each other with cane in hand, sitting in a wheelchair, or transported via ambulance.

Here’s a quote from a man meeting his brother after 64 birthdays. He was twelve when he last saw his older brother:

“It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like when you’ve been separated so long, but it’s a true miracle; I’m so elated. All that was missing in my life was my brother, and now that I can see him again, I’d have no regrets whatsoever if I were to die tomorrow.” -Lee Du-young, South Korean

A 100-year old woman, for a reunion a few years ago, prepared to see her daughter after over half a century of separation! Her daughter was sixteen when she last saw her, and she had thought of her every day since.

After the war (1950-1953), Korean family members were separated by the division of the peninsula. There was no peace treaty, just a ceasefire. Who knew that the separation would be a constant in their lives? They wait not just years, but full lifetimes. They continue to wait today. 

This file photo taken on 31 October 2010 shows an elderly South Korean man wiping his tears as a North Korean relative (in the bus) waves to say good-bye after a luncheon during a separated family reunion meeting
South Korean Namgung Bong-ja (right) and her North Korean father Namgung Ryul, 87,
cry as they say goodbye to each other. [From the Daily Mail.]
Tearful: South Koreans hold hands with their North Korean family members (pictured inside bus)
before they are separated again. [From the Daily Mail]

 

What joy to be back together with a loved one, for even a moment. But how deep, too, the grief over the lifetime spent without, and the continued separation of the years to follow. Reunited families separate knowing they may never see each other again. 

How often we take for granted and abuse the capacity to reach a loved one at the touch of a device. With technology today, it takes a split second for a message, call or video feed to reach someone you care about on the other side of the planet. We hardly realize this continuous exchange of communication and what a privilege it actually is. 

But do not rely on only that, not only on the connectivity infrastructure that society has built. Break it down a bit. Though we may never be subject to such harsh and extreme separation against our will, we have every reason to treasure each touch, word and moment with relative and friend.

Elderly South Koreans travelled through falling snow with their families to North Korea’s Diamond Mountain to reunite with relatives they had not seen since the Korean War. Pictured is South Korean Park Yang-gon, left, and his North Korean brother Park Yang Soo. [From the Daily Mail.]
A South Korean man selected to attend joint North and South family reunions sits in the lobby of a hotel as he prepares to depart for the North Korean border, in the eastern port city of Sokcho. [From the Daily Mail]
Read about this story on the news: here, here or here. 

Based on reports and photographs as published by BBC News and the Daily Mail.

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In every card, a story of hope: The Paper Project Inc.

We run a social business called The Paper Project Inc

We employ women survivors of abuse, victims of oppression or women escaping flesh trades like prostitution or trafficking. These women are our precious card makers. We make handmade greeting cards.

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Our cards have more soul and story than that musical e-card you sent out for the holidays. They are likely more special than the last card you saw your neighborhood bookstore. Our cards make it to thousands of stores across the United States through our partners at Good Paper. Recently our work has also made it to Australia and Germany too. But that isn’t the special part.

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People have often commented that my job must be sad or depressing – because of the history of abuse or oppression in my worker’s lives. If you think my job is gloomy too, you are focusing on the wrong side of the story. In fact, my job is the exact opposite of sad and depressing. 

At The Paper Project Inc., we focus on the hope of a life renewed. And we start with a simple craft. This craft provides a stable livelihood and a community in which to grow. 

A full life can still be led by those who have been broken.

I love to share the story of our card maker Esther*:

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Esther used to wander the streets of Metro Manila. She had been abused in the past, had no contact with her parents, and for a long time didn’t even have a copy of her birth certificate. With scarce opportunities for livelihood, having barely started high school, Esther now turned to vices for survival. One of our partner organizations referred Esther to us after seeing her waste her days away, hanging out at street known for gamblers, pick-pockets, pimps and prostitute pick-ups.

We welcomed Esther into our workshop where she learned how to cut and assemble cards out of handmade abaca paper. The training process is actually not as easy as it sounds. The individual parts of the card design can be very small or intricate. A card maker must learn the precise art of cutting all sorts of shapes that were sometimes easily the size of your tiniest toenail. Edges have to be smooth. Assembly has to be accurate. We pride ourselves in high quality craftsmanship. You’ll see it across all the products we create.

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You never know how each new trainee will take to the work. Not long after her start with us, Esther was overheard on the street by her social worker, speaking confidently and excitedly about her new job. She boasted to friends, but in the most earnest way possible, about her work in a nearby city’s business district. She was hopeful and full of excitement.

She was talking to her friends on the same street where other women continue to trade their bodies for their next meal.

In her new community at The Paper Project, Esther bloomed. In less than eight weeks, she was given the privilege to train other women in cardmaking. She was even earned the responsibility to manage the quality control of our completed cards. Today she continues to thrive in our card making workshop.

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Just having a basic uniform transformed the way Esther carried herself. Having a place she needed to be at, where attendance was taken and where she had assignments to complete – this transformed her sense of daily purpose. A pay check at the end of two weeks and women to fellowship with – these transformed her lifestyle and self-worth.

In every card, a story of hope. And hope grows.

Maybe one day you will also hold in your hand a card lovingly made by one of our beautiful women. 

Like The Paper Project on Facebook or follow us on Instagram

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*Pseudonym.