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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Haiyan/Yolanda 002: The offering of Thread&Vine

After a long and busy day, there will be no real sleep tonight. In just a few hours I will be on the first flight to Roxas City, Capiz. Capiz was among the areas hit by the super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in November. Though Capiz was not hit with the same devastation as others and was spared of grievous bloodshed, the island survives but completely altered. According to this report, 95% of the province has suffered damage to agriculture, infrastructure and livelihood.

In October, my mom and I launched a pilot livelihood program for mothers in need. With the Christmas season then fast approaching, and knowing a few mothers seriously in need of a source of income, we launched Thread & Vine.

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During my childhood in the 90’s, my mom ran a great business for the handmade hair accessories. Not only did this provide for our family’s day to day needs, but the business gave work to many mothers from the slums near our home. The business thrived for many years, producing beautiful headbands, scrunchies and clips designed by my mom, and made by the women workers right in our home. These products sold well in large department stores in Metro Manila, until we could no longer compete with the rise of factory-made, mass-produced plastic merchandise.

Fast forward to 2013 and Thread & Vine.

Taking cues from our family’s love for social businesses, we launched a pilot season with a simple objective: Give fair employment to moms-in-need. Make beautiful, handmade Christmas decor. Sell to friends. Share Christmas joy! 10% of the proceeds would go to the Buhay Makulay Children’s Project Inc.

With a small seed capital, we bought materials from Divisoria and Quiapo, and my mom reopened her beloved workshop (our large kitchen counter) to begin the design process. My mom and I love this stuff! Give us ribbons, beads and string, and we’d be happy all day.

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A few weeks later, while Thread &Vine’s humble production and sales were underway, the Philippines was hit by one of the most brutal storms it has ever experienced. We soon decided that all proceeds from our pilot season would be given to victims of the super typhoon. With our family’s close ties to dear friends in Capiz, and the news that despite the post-storm ruin, aid was slow to arrive –  we determined Capiz as the best recipient for our small gift.

And that is what the upcoming two-day trip is all about! We’ll be contributing to the rebuilding of homes and even running the quickest Buhay Makulay Children’s Fair that we have ever planned. (It may also be the biggest. Our initial number of 100 kids rose to 115. Then earlier today, jumped to 122!)

More in a few hours.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas snuck up on me again!

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Our Aritao tree on Christmas eve!

Today is one of my favorite days of the year. Christmas day may be one of the few that I leave unplanned,  no to-do list, no agenda, and no expectations. After a late night of hanging out with the family, eating ham, sipping wine and opening presents, a sweetly lit Christmas eve is followed by a day at home, taking a real day off.

Very late this morning, I woke up my favorite way: slowly. Through my bedroom window I was greeted by a lovely view – a crisp clear blue behind this brilliant white. I thought I may have woken up to snow covered mountains, and not the low, fluffy white clouds that eased me out of bed. With sleep still in my eyes I snapped a photo that doesn’t do it justice:

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Around Christmastime, the world has been inclined to suffer some of its heaviest hits, this year and in years past – be it from natural disaster like a supertyphoon, from discord between nations or families, or violence both intentional or accidental. These experiences cut even more pain when held in the light of celebration and the desire for peace.

Despite the darkness and ruin that overcomes so many, hope endures. Victims of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda spend this season very differently from the last, a long way down from their expectations of Christmas cheer. Despite promises of local organizations, not all families have had their electricity  reconnected since the storm, spending the holidays steeped in darkness. Many still clutch the gaping hole of loss -their first Christmas without a father, or without a home of their own. A night is haunted by nightmares of the savage flooding, and the daytime is not large enough to get lost in. Too many still survive in conditions that defy even the most basic of human needs. During this season of plenty, we cannot forget those that have little.

These people are not alone in their grief. All over the world are people sinking in their sorrow. All over the world, we must hail their resilience. There is no other way.

On Christmas Sunday, I had the privilege of leading the Prayers of the People. Portions of it, I share with you today. And if you would so wish, pray this prayer with me today: 

Dear Father, 

We come to You today with thanksgiving in our hearts, with worship for You on our lips, and hope rising among us.

You are our light through all season, through all generations. We are in awe of You.

We fall short of Your glory and acknowledge our wrongdoings, our hardened hearts and our eyes that have turned away from You. We are sorry.

Thank You for the coming of Jesus, for the joy of the advent season, waiting patiently and expectantly for You. 

We lift up to You the families represented in our church. Whether the holidays are spent in loud cheer or silently in our hearts, whether our table sits three generations or just You Jesus, and us – bring joy to all our homes, big and small, in plenty and in little, here and abroad. We invite You in. We celebrate You. 

We remember those all over the world, and right in our city, struck by tragedy, loss, sickness, natural disaster, injustice, depression, hatred, hunger or pain.

May the light of Your presence this Christmas push out every darkness, soothe every aching heart, every tearful child, or every family that has lost their hope. 

Bring your provision and joy to their place of need. Satisfy their hungry hearts. Satisfy our hungry hearts. Lastly, may Your Light, the Light that Jesus brings, shine the brightest of all the Christmas.

Amen. 

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Nothing lights up this season and every season, like the King born in a manger. Family and friends, thank you for being messengers of this light too – for your generosity of company, word, gift or smile – blessings on you! Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, Merry Christmas!

Buhay Makulay 003: Season Ender

And just like that, it’s over.

For many days over the past few weeks, I would fall asleep or wake up with the Buhay Makulay song playing in my head. I would think of our children and the joy in their faces as they sang. I would look ahead toward the big surprise we had for them – our special culminating activity! But the day before yesterday, I woke up with children and the song in my mind, this time harmonized with sadness. The Buhay Makulay’s first Likha season had come to an end.

On Saturday, December 7th, Buhay Makulay had it’s first Likha Showcase! The showcase was a celebration of children and the arts! The showcase consisted of an art exhibit and a short program, all featuring the work of the 31 children we had been blessed to work with throughout this season. It was a private event, really more for the children than for anyone else. Each child invited one guest from their family, while we invited a few of Buhay Makulay’s and Precious Jewels Ministry’s closest friends and supporters. We gathered to honor the children and praise God!

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The invite I designed, featuring the beautiful and colorful paper collage made by the children who focused on visual art for majority of our program.

This was the most ambitious program I’ve launched for Buhay Makulay so far. In my mind and heart it has been years in the making. The vision for the showcase I have held so long, I cannot believe it has already come true, almost exactly how I had pictured it! This was the first art exhibit I’ve ever really curated and installed, and I certainly hope it is only the first of many. It was small in scale, but gigantic in story.

The activity was not just an event, but part of a larger narrative. Though us volunteers and partner staff could see the growth in the children during our time together, we were not sure that the children could yet grasp the weight of their discoveries and accomplishments. The activity was meant to help see how far they had come!

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This was a special day for them. These children live in cramped quarters, some under a bridge and some in relocated communities, all from the poor corners of the city. They do not have room in their homes to dance, or large spaces on their walls on which their artwork can be displayed and appreciated.

This was a special day for them. All the fun and learning they had with us could finally be shared with the people that raise and care for them on a daily basis. Most brought their mothers, others their fathers, and a few their older sisters or brothers. We were sharing with family. We were making known to them their own incredible value that so often gets lost behind poverty line.

This was a special day for them. The kids walked around the exhibit, pointing out to their mothers which drawings or crafts they had made. Mothers watched on bright-eyed, as their kids danced onstage. Little kids came up to our volunteers, with a wealth of smiles that many weeks ago were so hard to wedge out of them. And I watched, in disbelief and wonder, at the sweet celebration taking place around me. As we knew from the beginning, all our hard work is worth it.

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The banner of Team Hope (ages 8-10) -a collage made entirely out of recycled paper, fabric and dyed eggshells. Our children learned that beauty can be made of the scraps. God makes beautiful things out of us, out of dust.This was made on our third workshop day, before our children chose to focus on visual or movement arts.

I’m not huge on television series’, but thanks to online streaming I have become dedicated to a few.  I can get through a whole season of a show with much excitement, watching episode right after episode. But I have a tendency to hold off watching the season enders. Nearing a season’s conclusion, I slow down. Sometimes I put it off for longer, until the following season already starts so I won’t have to wait in agony between stories. (At this moment, I have yet to watch three season enders of three different shows whose seasons ended months ago!)

I’d rather wait in willing suspense, than just have things be plain over.

Perhaps this is the feeling that I woke up with the other day – wishing we were still looking ahead to the big surprise for the kids, rather than knowing that the celebrations had been celebrated.

In the weeks to follow, I hope to continue to process the experience and share incredible stories of learning and blessing. Thankfully, there is much to share!