Reading the daily press on North Korea is not contributing to our joy – therefore I will write of other things: Once again I was able to visit North Korea and experienced wonderful encounters and relaxed collaborators. We are intentionally building relationships to North Koreans. If we are not able to invite them to Switzerland, we go and visit them. On the scale of global politics, we seem to be of little importance – but who knows? This time Pyongyang was clearly more colorful, some new high-rise buildings have implemented higher energy requirements: green roofs, insulated walls, multiple glazing; some of the warm water is being heated by solar energy and geothermal energy is being used. I am glad to see that our efforts in this area are being put into practice. At least in this area our and therefore your commitment is becoming visible!
It is with thankfulness that we look back on another year of partnering with the people of North Korea some of which we met personally when they came to Switzerland. From others we have heard through the reports of our partners telling us what they have been able to achieve with the finances they received from us. Networking, communicating, building bridges, going the extra mile – it was a year of challenges stretching me to my limits but at the same time a source of much joy.
In 2017 we will remain committed to Koreans and Swiss meeting each other. We will continue to work towards combined heat and power generation. And are looking forward to hearing how and where deaf people can work creatively and how we can support them.
All of this is only possible through our partnership with many other people and organizations.
There has been no dull moment in the last couple of weeks: We were busy organizing various trips more or less simultaneously. There was our own and the trip of our North Korean guests. My husband arranged an itinerary for an agrarian delegation within days that unfortunately took place when he himself was absent – giving me the opportunity to join the delegation at times, which was a good thing, as it was an exclusively male group. Sometimes I am still shocked, sometimes just a bit amused: North Korean cultural is still very Confucian and when accompanying my husband I am barely seen as a “decoration.” But when I am in a group on my own I am perceived very differently.
All I can say is that these men with high positions of responsibility were interested, attentive, and cordial. Everyone that met them on their trip enjoyed being with them. I am pleased to say that there were many wonderful moments!
When Robert, who is deaf, was 15 years old he heard something he couldn’t believe: Apparently, there were “practically no” deaf in North Korea. He didn’t notice until later that this was a misunderstanding … This statement bothered him and since he wanted to find out if this was true, he traveled to North Korea as a tourist for the first time. He did not meet any deaf. So he traveled there a second time. And a third time. In the meantime, he has found them – and has been living in Pyongyang for three years. As a professional travel agent he organized group tours for the deaf and is the Pyongyang representative of the World Federation of the Deaf in North Korea. “During my travels I realized that there were not ‘no deaf in North Korea’. There was just no contact to them. I remember my fist meeting with a deaf family very well: I came to the Association of Disabled accompanied by an interpreter. The family sat there. They were very quiet. Not until I spoke to them did they start signing. Even so, we could not really communicate. I did not know international sign language well and neither did the North Koreans. So I tried miming some signs and found out their names and ages. The man and I were both 20 years old. So we started talking and I explained why I had come to North Korea.
And then he asks me: ‘Are there deaf in other parts of the world?’ That just about blew me away. This is also the reason why I am still here today.”
MANY SMALL STEPS
“In 2008 there were eight schools for the deaf. In my position as special envoi of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) I was able to visit these schools and speak to the North Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled. They wanted to build a modern inclusive educational center for the joint education of the deaf, blind and non-disabled. The necessary law was already in place and they wanted to ensure the best possible education for the children. I was asked to assist them, but honestly, I had no idea how to go about doing that and I also wanted to work in a team. To ensure the funding we had to establish an organization. The German ambassador encouraged me to accept the project and to take small steps. So the organization ‘TOGETHER’ was created. The 20 members come from Germany and Japan. The goal of our organization is to support the developing projects for the deaf and blind people in North Korea. From the beginning the idea of ‘Nothing About Us Without Us!’ was very important to us. We had many ideas for projects but the deaf were not well educated. So the first natural step was to start a school for the deaf. But who would do that with us? It is hardly possible to start a school with some poorly educated deaf. We ran the risk of the hearing doing everything. We had to go back a couple of steps. We founded an Association of the Deaf in order to learn how to develop projects with deaf adults. Usually, these were small projects, but even then we noticed that we faced barriers. The Association of the Deaf had problems because there were no sign language interpreters at the meetings with the institutions and government officials of North Korea. Good communication is key – we desperately needed good interpreters. So we founded an Association for Sign Language Interpreters. With the help of an interpreter, the deaf of North Korea could now engage in communication with the government and other institutional officials on eye level. Once communication was possible, we could start thinking of improving the educational situation. Good communication is key. First, we began with a kindergarten. We helped renovate a building and furnish it appropriately. The Center for the Deaf would also move there, which motivated a lot of the deaf to join in the work. The Center was finished by April 1, 2016.